Monday, September 10, 2012

Container and Tanker Shipping Safer but Misery Continues in the Pirate Attack Zones

Tales of Rescue and Despair from the Coasts of Africa
Shipping News Feature

SOMALIA – INDIAN OCEAN – AFRICA – According to the House of Lords EU Committee for External Affairs which reported at the end of August, Operation Atalanta ‘has turned the tide on Somali pirates’ a statement that will do little to console the 200 plus hostages being held in often appalling conditions in Somalia which the report admits are still imprisoned by the hijackers. The situation it must be admitted has improved considerably since Naval and land based military efforts have been redoubled and private security appearing more frequently aboard tankers and container shipping but major concerns remain including the exporting of pirate techniques to other poor countries, the cold blooded callousness of the kidnappers and the seeming disregard of the threat to smaller vessels.

In the past few days we have witnessed a tanker, the MT Abu Dhabi Star, taken off the coast of Lagos, fortunately the ship is equipped with a citadel which once again proved the undoing of the attackers who fled when the Nigerian Navy responded to the alarms from the 23 strong Indian crew who were safely ensconced in the safe room and had followed the Best Management Practice guidelines formulated for just such an occasion.

At the end of last month the oil tanker Energy Centurion was released together with her crew after being captured whilst at anchor in Lome off the Togo coastline. The 24 crew were also set free unharmed but not before around 3,000 tonnes of fuel had been transferred to another vessel. That attack was the second similar incident within a week in the Gulf of Guinea where attack levels are up 30% against last year with 21 so far this year. Fortunately the regions pirates do not have the sophisticated strategies which their Somali counterparts employ and the political and geographic parameters make it unlikely that vessels will be ‘squirreled away’ at points on the coast in quite the same manner but the hijackers were happy to exchange gunfire with the Togolese patrol boat guarding the anchorage before fleeing with the ship.

Attacks launched against energy interests in the Niger Delta meanwhile are seen by many in, and beyond the region, as politically correct following the financial and environmental decimation of the area with corruption seemingly a way of life to many in senior positions. The Somali gangs would insist that they too have suffered injustice with claims that the country’s fishing industry has been decimated by foreign fleets and the illegal dumping of toxic waste but much of the evidence points to organised criminal gangs, not disenfranchised fishermen, and some of the harrowing videos shown in our previous reports are clearly nothing more than the worst form of blackmail and ransom by professional criminals.

Response to the Indian Ocean attacks has also become an industry in itself, and not only as many private security agencies have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, particularly since tacit approval for properly trained armed guards aboard merchant shipping was forthcoming. This month maritime security intelligence company Risk Intelligence say it has now developed a model for finding the optimal balance between cost of fuel and a secure speed with its Director of Consultancy, Dirk Steffen, claiming:

“Speed is the single most effective measure to escape interception or to defend against a boarding attempt. Even at slow speeds, one or two knots can make it significantly more difficult for attackers. So getting it right is a very delicate calculation. Slow steaming may be a responsible option, but it may not necessarily be at the most economical speed. The model also shows that it is not feasible for all ship types without seriously compromising security.”

The model is based on a study that Risk Intelligence carried out for a major European tanker operator and the study included validation in a simulator and control trials at sea, which have been expanded to include container ships and was explained at the company’s stand during the recent SMM convention.

The EU Naval force has however done far more than simply reduced the pirate threat. The need to cooperate and coordinate between the principal Western players in the maritime drama, the EU and US forces has been extended under the auspices of NATO to include some unlikely bedfellows. Indian, Russian, Chinese and even Iranian forces have been called on to collaborate to some extent. UK Foreign Minister Henry Bellingham took the opportunity of a Paralympics Games meeting to thank Seychelles Minister Meriton for his country’s cooperation in prosecuting suspected pirates when nobody else seemed willing to do so. This week Singapore sent a 145 strong team aboard the RSS Intrepid to reinforce anti pirate activity in the region, the fourth time the Republic has done so and ironically just one day before the Singaporean registered Abu Dhabi Star was seized.

With sailors knowing better than anyone that life at sea can be cheap even at the best of times sometimes the military missions turn into simple acts of humanity. On Saturday EU Navfor was called upon to rescue 68 people found adrift in a small boat in the middle of the Gulf of Aden after a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft spotted her drifting powerless. The Spanish warship ESPS Relampago then supplied medical treatment and food and water before taking twenty four hours to tow the vessel the 100 or so miles to the safety of the northern Somali port of Boosasso. Our photograph says more than words ever can and one shudders to think what so many people, including small children, were doing travelling so far out at sea under such conditions.

And so the tragedies have slowed, just eighteen ships attacked in the recognised danger areas of the Indian Ocean, mostly targeted against smaller dhows and other fishing and trading vessels and therefore unimportant to the Western media. Attack levels still back to 2007 levels with around 210 hostages retained have seemingly led to the hardening of the attitudes of some of the callous criminals involved in this evil trade. In the run up to Christmas 2010 we reported the hijacking of the Orna, a Panamanian registered carrier with Arabian owners. Sadly this week the pirate gang holding the ship’s crew reported they had murdered one of the Syrian hostages and deliberately injured another as their ransom demands were not being taken seriously by the vessel’s owners. 

You can access both the précis of the Lords report plus links to the EU’s own study and the report in full HERE and whilst the Lords in their wisdom are correct and the tide may indeed be turning it seems there will be a lot more misery washing up on African shores before we witness an end to this unholy business.

Photo: When we received the first photograph of the small boat rescued by Navfor it did not appear credible that 68 people could possibly be fitted in such a craft. Their response was to draw our attention to this shot taken by the helicopter crew from the Spanish warship when they ventured out to investigate.