Seafarers Must Adapt to the Rapid Evolution of Piracy
In two recent articles, Sea Piracy in 2025: Piracy 2.0? and Countering Gulf of Guinea Piracy Towards 2025 I tried to map out the possible evolution of piracy within Gulf of Guinea until 2025. Then I analyzed the different possible actions to reduce this threat. This analysis cannot be complete without integrating the main actor, the seafarer. This third article therefore concerns the how seafarers must adapt to the rapid evolution of pirate activities.
It’s noticeable that this domain for seafarers is based on regulatory documentation that is low in volume and weak in practical guidance. The Ship Security Plan (SSP) is the basis for maritime security regulations. This document, established after the USS Cole, Limburg and September 11 attacks, was mainly focused on maritime terrorism. The content has been lightly modified since, integrating some requirements arising from the evolution of piracy.
The ISPS regulation does not go deeper on practical measures concerning vessel, crew members, equipment and procedures when looking at piracy. To cover the seafarers practical needs a group of associations published a document called Best Management Practices in early 2000. This document, dedicated to deter piracy and enhance maritime security in the Red sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and Arabian sea has been reviewed several times since (Last review BMP 5 –June 2018). To respond to the specific Gulf of Guinea environment, one document, Guideline for Owners, Operators and Masters for Protection against Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea Region has been established by the same structure.
Finally, as the piracy epicenter as moved from East Africa to West Africa, one new document BMP West Africa has been issued beginning 2020 to provide threat mitigation guidance on counter-piracy/armed robbery at sea and to help companies and mariners to risk assess voyages while operating along the West African coast.
Despite the evolution of communications at sea, the captain is an isolated leader. His or her job requires quick decisions concerning a wide variety of situations. If the situation allows, he can try to establish a telephone connection but, the handset hung up, he becomes again, isolated. A piracy attack is a dynamic event testing a captain's competency and reactivity. This situation can be illustrated by the Captain Phillips movie scene where Tom Hanks calls the MSCHOA. As with everything else, a captain must be informed, trained, prepared.
This readiness must not only apply to seafarers, it should be also concern the vessel. “If you ignore both your enemy and yourself, you will only count your fights by your defeats.” This citation should be a guide for a captain or ship security officer (SSO) operating within the Gulf of Guinea. The pirates' boarding rate within Gulf of Guinea is very high. As said in my previous article, there are several reasons for this. Some are linked to the combination of operational capacities of pirates and the lack of military responses (PMSC / escort vessel) but it is obvious that somet of the reasons are linked to another conjunction: ignorance of West Africa pirates, to their profiles and their modes of action.
As such, it would be interesting to test the captains/SSOs to make them draw Gulf of Guinea pirates. To help their sketches, we can try to characterize them by some elements:
Use of fiber speed boat, eight to 10 meters long, usually sporting colored flags (mainly red or white), usually motorized by two outboard engines, 150/200 Hp, more than six men onboard (usually eight to 10), men armed with AK 47, speed boat fitted with an aluminum ladder eight to 10 meters long. Pirates can operate on one sole speed boat, sometimes in pairs.
It’s noteworthy that numerous specialized articles speaking about Gulf of Guinea piracy are illustrated by a very well-known picture showing a speed boat having a mounted Cal 50 machine gun and transporting……MEND militants. If the picture is beautiful, it’s not related to real Gulf of Guinea pirates. Sometimes this picture is replaced by the view of one skiff transporting Somalian sea pirates. This pictorial materialization may disturb the initial perception of what a Gulf of Guinea pirate is.
The fiber vessels don't offer a strong Radar Cross Section, navigational radars have limited capacities. The pirates' speed boat emerges on the radar screen at about three nautical miles when the sea state is under three and the speed is high. It’s highly recommended that one radar be set on short pulse/ short range, the AC SEA/AC RAIN setting in accordance. It’s possible that watchkeepers will detect the approach by the noise before sight or radar screen. The approach axes can be various but the CPA (Closest Point of Approach) is …0.
The time of the attack varies too and is evolving regularly. In 2018, almost two thirds of the piracy attacks was conducted by daylight. Currently, piracy attacks within Gulf of Guinea are mainly conducted at night time and mainly at the beginning or end of the night.
The location is, of course, one of the important facts to analyze. My previous article, Sea Piracy in 2025 analyzed the current trend of attack attempts very deep offshore …..or within non protected anchorage areas along the West African coast from Luanda till Abidjan.
This first enemy analysis realized, and to remind on the Sun Tzu citation, it may be even more important to know yourself. Turning back to the Gulf of Guinea piracy data, one element is alarming: it’s the number of vessels boarded without alarm/alert: No VHF.M distress call, no SSAS (Ship Security Alert System) alert, no vessel internal alert. The personnel on bridge duty discover the pirates when one is directly pointing a gun at them on the other side of the bridge glass.
For at least two cases in the last few months, the pirates have used….the pilot ladder left along the hull by night. These observation led to at least two main reflections: the seafarers had misjudged the threat and, because of this error, had not applied the adapted basic security measures.
Reviewing the current trends, appreciating more precisely the Gulf of Guinea pirates' modus operandi, it’s obvious that the area located between San Pedro and Luanda and taking a range of 200 nautical from the shore must be considered as High Risk Area for piracy. (Conakry Anchorage is a specific bubble which should be considered too.) This area is globally characterized on the specific chart established by the MDAT-GOG. Within this area, as said before, the pirates are currently acting on two modes:
Piracy attack deep/very deep offshore: Action is characterized by a direct attack against a vessel en route day or night. The detection of the threat is facilitated by the sparse maritime traffic, but the vessel is usually alone, not protected.
Maritime criminality within anchorage area: The pirates operate in discretion, by night against vessels anchored or on stand by. The detection of the threat is complicated by the numerous speed boats/canoes fishing in the area, but the vessel can benefit from security support from navy assets protecting the area.
The objective of these two pirates process is the same: kidnapping of crew members.
This being posed, and as the threat is focused on abduction, it is interesting to revisit the maritime operators possible internal self responses in 10 main actions:
• Secure the vessel as much as possible by a security escort vessel or an embarked military security team: The pirates are focusing on soft targets!
• Optimize your detection means for locating pirates as early as possible: One speed boat sailing 30 knots is along board six minutes after detection at three nautical miles!
• Be able to classify the threat as soon as possible, using the piracy criteria declined above: Personnel on duty on the bridge should be informed, trained and regularly refreshed about local pirates.
Raise the alarm about the attack by all means available (VHF.M 16 / SSAS/ GMDSS/ PHONE / HORN-SIREN/LIGHT)
• Optimize internal alert systems to ensure all crew members will be aware of the alert sent.
Conduct regular anti-piracy drills: piracy attack / alert / immediate communication / mustering / lock down control / anti-boarding measures / move to safe haven.
• As soon as you operate within a high risk area, lock your vessel. All external doors locked, all portholes secured. Try to slow down the pirates progression onboard the vessel after boarding by the use of specific items (wire rack or other) on external stairs.
• Use the navigation lights only, no deck light, all portholes blinded. By night level 4 or 5, when navigation lights are off, after change of course /speed, the vessel targeted disappears for pirates sailing onboard speed boat without radar, AIS or night vision goggles.
• Optimize the vessel's readiness by using simple and efficient systems. As the maritime industry is strongly impacted by the general economic situation, focus on low cost equipment rather than hoping for the use of means that are certainly effective but financially unaffordable. As an example, one general public autonomous sensor sending sound, light and possibly video, set up on the obliged path from deck to bridge, can efficiently alert the watchkeeping team in case of initial surveillance/detection failure.
• Consider the first internal door from navigation bridge to accommodations and lower decks as one essential element of your safe haven. Reinforce this door, reinforce the frame, complete the hardening with a mobile forestay. This first internal door will create an emergency initial secured bubble allowing a short time to alert and gather the crew in emergency in case of a late alert, pirates being already onboard. The four or five minutes it will take pirates to destroy this door will allow you to secure the full crew within the real final citadel.
Of course, this list is not exhaustive. It’s established on the analysis of hundred of maritime piracy acts within the Gulf of Guinea and is mainly dedicated to avoiding crewmembers being kidnapped. It can be completed and/or adapted depending of vessel configuration and the good sense.
François Morizur is a maritime security expert and former French Navy officer.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.