Join Date: May 2007
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Piracy problem takes us into uncharted waters
Monday 1 December 2008
IT IS always dangerous to join a conversation half way through.
Weve had enough of these Somalis and decided to go for the nuclear option, the senior shipping person was saying.
Great idea, I thought, although privately I wondered what the vast army of liberal-minded folk would make of this frightful coast vanishing in a series of mushroom clouds. But it turned out that his great decision was to send all his slower units around the Cape, adding a mere two-and-a-half weeks to their voyage to and from the east.
At the same party I was told that a report from the Gulf of Aden said that, while the Somalians were something of a concern, there was almost as much worry about people rushing through with their AIS switched off and navigation lights out, zig-zagging like they did in the Malta convoys.
The whole piracy situation is now resembling a scenario dreamed up by Frederick Forsyth. I seem to recall that a book he wrote 20 years ago had a very large crude carrier captured by terrorists, which is only a slight difference in scale and personnel. Maybe Somalian pirates are Fredericks fans.
But then a year ago we could not have dreamed that half the banks would have slid into public ownership and capesizes would be offered $5,000 per day. Only the capture of the Dubai-bound QE2 would round off the most ridiculous year in my three score and ten.
The departure of the old Cunarder for her new life as a holiday hotel, with millionaires living in the funnel, reminded me of a trip down to Southampton in the 1970s to see its amazing satellite navigation system. QE2 was the first commercial ship in the world (or so they claimed) to have such a device installed. It cost either $60,000 or $600,000, noughts never having been of much significance to me, and was about the size of two large Ikea wardrobes. But well within the lifetime of that ship, we have seen the amazing miniaturisation and democratisation of navigation.
As the old liner raced past the pirate dhows and various motherships this past week, you could guarantee the precision of the navigation aboard the pirate craft, with their brutal and unwashed crews using their satnavs, was every bit as accurate as that on Cunards fine old ship.
After all, you can buy these things at every yacht chandler for a song, or if you are a Somalian pirate, you merely liberate it from a seized ship. You can probably have its software customised to have a slightly Japanese sounding voice issuing instructions to alter course in the dialect of your local clan.
When the Automatic Identification System came along, just a few years ago, I can well remember various sceptical mariners suggesting that admirable though this device might be for collision avoidance and facilitating the work of Vessel Traffic Services, it would be a tremendous boon for terrorists and pirates. And they were absolutely correct in their estimations.
For a modest expenditure today, a pirate chief is able to optimise his cruises, selecting the most pirate-friendly targets, and saving fuel, time and wages. Prior to this device being available, a pirate would have been forced to cruise on spec, in the hopes that the shadowy shape he was closing to attack as dawn broke would turn out to be a slow bulk carrier and not the USS Theodore Roosevelt idling along to save the wear on her reactors.
Say what you like about these pirates, whatever else they are, they are not idiots. One hesitates to use the over-exposed word professional, but after many years running guns, drugs and illegal migrants around these waters (with the occasional fishing trip when times were bad) they have probably picked up something about navigation.
Indeed, they have probably sussed out the fact that the electronic navigation systems on modern merchant ships have taken away much of the discretion enjoyed by the old navigators, that is, those of my generation. Once a master, or a navigator would invariably employ his own personal preferences as regards a route to take between ports, either for reasons of safety, keeping clear of the land, seeking out the best weather or ocean currents, or perhaps taking a route the master knew from his experience would save time.
Today, everyone programmes in the departure port, the destination, and the computer spits out the courses and waypoints to produce what it believes to be the shortest distance. Everyone uses the same software, so every ship trundles along a thin and unvarying prescribed line on the chart, rather than along dozens of very different courses often many miles apart. If you dont believe me, ask people who keep track of shipping and they will tell you that this is the case, and that this compression of route options is one reason for many more collisions, running down incidents and near misses.
So if you are a switched-on Somali maritime warlord, you get out your old-fashioned paper chart and inscribe the shortest possible route between the Straits of Hormuz and the Mozambique Channel, and the various waypoints from Bab el Mandab around to the entrance of the Gulf. Then at least you know your most promising cruising grounds will be along these various lines, where the hapless victims will be guided by their electronic navigation systems. And if you were the master of a bulk carrier that could manage just 15 knots on a fine day, you would, I would suggest, be well advised to seek out a warship on passage, or alternatively, to avoid these tracks like the plague.
I notice that advice from BIMCO suggests that searoom can be used to hide in, and that seems like good advice, even though hiding is a lot harder than it was when Second World War commerce raiders prowled the sealanes.
But the whole subject of the Somalian pirates is something that begets the most intense frustration from all involved. Several generations of children brought up on tales from the Spanish Main, culminating in the antics of Johnny Depp and pirate parties for eight-year-olds, and we have almost a conspiracy where we are asked to show sympathy and understanding for pirates, sentiments never shown to their modern victims.
I heard some smooth-talking person on the wireless the other day suggesting that it was all an environmental problem, with the poor coastal communities forced to turn to piracy because of drought and the fact that the wicked industrial countries had pinched all the fish. I nearly threw the radio into the garden. Subsequently, I had to restrain myself from trampling on a battery-driven plastic ship crewed by three pirate pigs, given by some well-meaning person to my two-year-old grandson.
Every strategy that is proposed seems to be subject to the voices of the naysayers. The inability to try captured pirates without the lavish attentions of human rights lawyers has a nightmare quality about it. No wonder the Danes just put their captives ashore. But the navies are not much better able to devise protection, along sea routes ploughed by hundreds of ships daily, with their limited resources, and until recently, constrained by legal restrictions in their rules of engagement.
There are all sorts of high hopes about private security and its obvious possibilities for protecting ships. But just wait for the human rights of some pirate to be violated by a bullet from a private security guard, and there will be dozens of nations queuing up to arrest and try the poor chap in their courts, where they would have nothing to do with applying justice to alleged pirates.
We know that all the answers are to be had on that war-torn coast rather than action in the sealanes, but there is absolutely no glimmer of light here. Failed states are multiplying in Africa and even aid ships are dependent upon close warship support.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, already racking his brains about how to stop the so-called Democratic Republic of the Congo becoming another Rwanda, just has no resources left for the basket-case that is Somalia, with all the pent-up hatreds of its clans and maddened Islamists, every man armed to the teeth.
All the same, the seizure of the Saudi very large crude carrier Sirius Star has rather forced the issue and lent a lot of emphasis to the International Maritimes Organizations briefing to the UN Security Council. You cant force piracy down an inside page, and forget about it, when ships like this can be hijacked. Mr Mitropoulos noted that some 12% of the worlds oil is funnelled through the Gulf of Aden, even if that not required in a hurry, takes the longer route to market (where it is apparently no safer).
When you consider just what is at stake, he did not ask for the earth. More warships. Greater commitment. More clarity with UN resolutions, with clear rules of engagement to take on pirates. An effective legal jurisdiction to bring alleged pirates to justice, which needs a nation willing to undertake the task, and co-operation to share the costs.
There is surely a case for more co-operation, with the various forces under separate commands or acting independently. Governments need to approach the task collectively and agree at least some overall strategies to protect the sealanes. After all, it could get a whole lot worse, even though the pirates until now seem to have recognised that threats of bloodshed have been sufficient.
There is nothing in this that is easy, in an age where we cannot undertake punitive expeditions, take failed states under a UN mandate, or like those old brutes of Soviets did in the Baltic, make sure that there is nothing left along the whole length of the coastline which floats. But that really would be the nuclear option.