Thursday, October 13, 2011

How Pirated Supramax Bulk Freighter Was Rescued Without Casualties

Technology Both Old and New Aids Crew - But Others Not So Lucky
Shipping News Feature

SOMALIA – WEST AFRICA - THAILAND -Following our earlier piece the full story of the rescue of the eleven man crew of the hijacked freighter Montecristo emerged today after a statement to the BBC by Captain Gerry Northwood regarding the role of the British Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Fort Victoria. Apparently it was a combined effort by British and American forces deployed in the area by NATO which resolved the situation after the bulk carrier was seized around 600 miles from the Somali coast on Monday.

The crew of the recently built Italian Supramax vessel had retreated to the safe area or ‘citadel’ and realised that help was nearby as the naval vessels stood off fearing the sailors might be murdered by the pirates. The safe area included the engine room giving the Montecristo’s crew both power and steerage control although their communications links had been cut by the attackers shortly after the hijack.

The crew therefore had access to the funnel and it was from here they managed the storybook tactic of throwing a message in a bottle into the sea, surely the oldest form of marine communication, except this particular bottle also contained a stroboscopic lighting unit. This was immediately spotted by the forces surrounding the ship and scooped from the water when it was learnt the crew were all safe and the pirate force was eleven strong.

A pass by the USS De Wert was ignored as was the armed spotter plane circling overhead and then the British ships helicopter, show of force tactics which often have resulted in the surrender of the miscreants in similar situations. Only when British marines attacked the captured vessel did the pirates relent and they then surrendered with no casualties to either side.

The two warships are part of NATO’s ongoing Ocean Shield mission to counter piracy in the region, a subtle change in roles since the initial target of simply protecting food convoys heading toward Africa as part of the World Food Programme. Ocean Shield was begun in 2008 and has now been extended until December 2012.

In other piracy related news attacks in September numbered twenty nine and two ships with twenty four crew were seized as a result. Meanwhile five captured vessels and one hundred and one crew were released after ransoms were paid. The rate of attacks is liable to increase as monsoons dissipate but we have seen the worrying development of recent land based raids into Kenya.

In West African waters attacks are also likely to increase despite naval activity off the Nigerian coastline having some effect whilst the rise in violent maritime crime in the Mekong Delta is a major cause for concern. Following several attacks on Chinese vessels earlier in the year there were thirteen crew from two ships murdered off the coast of Northern Thailand last week in what is believed to be a drug related incident. The deceased were apparently found bound and shot by Thai militia when they recovered the pirated vessels.

Photo: RFA Fort Victoria at anchor