Most Pirate Attacks Don't Have Hollywood Endings

Image from Captain Phillips
Image from Captain Phillips

Published May 14, 2018 6:17 PM by Mike Salthouse

I watched Captain Phillips again the other night with my 14-year-old daughter. It is a good film combining Hollywood action with sufficient grounding in fact to justify the “based on real events” tag. 

But as those of us involved in the shipping industry know, it is untypical. The presence of American nationals among the crew of the Maersk Alabama triggered an overwhelming military response involving a number of U.S. warships and snipers from the covert U.S. Navy SEALs. In the finest traditions of the film industry it contains plenty of heroics and a happy ending; but it is untypical and because of that it does not serve seafarers well. For the vast majority of the ships’ crews who are the victims of piracy there is no Hollywood ending.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) published its most recent annual piracy report a couple of months ago. The good news is that the number of reported attacks last year was only(!) 180 and continues the general trend over the last five years of a steady reduction in the number of attacks. Moreover there is nothing to suggest an imminent return to the industrial scale hijackings in the Gulf of Aden of eight years ago. But 180 attacks is still 180 too many. On average once every two days a merchant ship is attacked by criminal gangs using guns and knives to threaten and harm the crew for commercial gain. 

Three seafarers lost their lives as a result of such attacks in 2017. 91 were held hostage. This remains an unacceptable state of affairs ignored by the world’s media. When did you last see a piracy incident reported on the main stream news channels? And the so-called saviors of real news - The Twitterati – are all it seems too busy discussing the latest reality shows to stop and think; where was my phone made? How was it transported to the shop in which I bought it? What risks do I expect seafarers to run so that I can comment on social media on Ms Kardashian’s latest outfit?

There is no such antipathy from shipowners. I have always been impressed by the commitment of shipowners to the welfare of their crew involved in such incidents. Without exception, everything we as a P&I Club recommend in terms of bonus payments, medical support and counseling is invariably taken up by the owners whose ships and crews have been involved in such attacks. Maybe it is because all shipping companies employ seafarers that such incidents are taken seriously. For shipowners, it’s personal.

And working for a Club I have had the privilege – and it is a privilege, albeit a harrowing one – to read statements taken from crew members who have survived such attacks. I cannot really imagine what it must feel like to see armed Somalis forcing their way through razor wire onto my ship – my home. What sort of thoughts goes through your mind when Nigerian gangsters take control of your ship with no regard for your welfare intent only on stealing cargo?  How do you cope with being held hostage on the bridge of a ship for 18 months? Yet those are the risks consumers expect of the seafarers who ply the world’ s seas bringing us the latest television or phone or fashions.

So while the figure of 180 reported attacks is the lowest annual number since 1995, shipping has a right to expect the world to take note that this problem has not gone away. Indeed there are signs that such incidents are again on the increase. The incidence of first quarter pirate attacks is markedly up in 2018 when compared with the preceding four years. 

Just because attacks in the Gulf of Aden have reduced does not mean that there is not potential for the problem to flare up elsewhere. Today West Africa is causing concern. For the first three months of 2018, 66 merchant ships were reported to have been the victims of an actual or attempted attack, with a third of such incidents taking place off Nigeria – more than double the highest number of incidents in the preceding four years. The number of attacks off Benin stood at five when none had been reported over the first quarter of the previous four years.

The situation off West Africa has prompted the IMB to issue a warning for the region, and while the first three months of the year have historically always been the most active in the region there is no guarantee that a seasonal reduction in such activity should now occur. It is only when national governments take the problem seriously and commit resources to addressing it that piracy can be tackled. The reduction in the activities of Somali pirates shows this. 

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden reduced through a combination of military effort and political commitment. Taken together military assets in the region, armed guards on ships, political developments in Somalia and a purpose built court and prison all combined to reduce Somali piracy to more manageable levels. 

In West Africa much is going to depend on the ability of the Nigerian Navy to regain the initiative following this years increase in activity, and that in part is dependent on the Nigerian government addressing the lack of technical expertise available to it. So the announcement that Nigeria will spend $186 million to combat piracy in a bid to safeguard its waters is welcome - one country at least that is committing real resources to deal with the obscenity that is modern piracy. 

And yet for the majority of those not involved in shipping, piracy remains an invisible crime involving invisible seafarers. If I can make one plea it is that we all need to do more to publicize the risks run by seafarers and increase awareness of the human cost involved.

Mike Salthouse is Deputy Global Director (Claims) for the North of England P&I Association Ltd.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.