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Piracy experience

by Capt. Supriyo Mukerjee,   CMS


How safe are the international waters today

 to carry on trade across the globe?

In the wake of the increasing piracy attacks on the ships across the globe, especially South East Asia, Africa, South American Coast; maintenance of the Security level in the ships has become a pivotal issue in the Marine Industry. We can gather hordes of Company Security Officers & Ship Security Officers prepared with tailored speeches on this topic! But, the more important issue lies in not talking about it; but taking some measures to curb it.

It occurred to me few years back when I was the Master of a Bulk Carrier. We were passing the Malacca Strait from Indian Ocean bound for Singapore. At around 1510 hrs the Second Officer requested me to rush to the bridge. I doubted a collision danger, as the ship’s speed was at 12 knots. I rushed there within 20 seconds. To my surprise, there were no vessels except two Dhows (Asian wooden Fishing Boats).  I checked the position on the chart and reassured we were not off course. On enquiring from the Second Officer; he informed me about the two boats sailing parallel to our vessel from past 20 minutes. Both the boats maintained a distance of 1.5 nm from the Port side beam. I smelt something fishy, took hold of my binoculars & keenly observed the boats’ movements. I found nothing peculiar as they appeared to be few Indonesian or Philippino nationals on their routine fishing schedule in that continental shelf zone. I ordered the helmsman to alter course to 20 degrees starboard to maintain a distance of 3 nm from the boats. Since I did not notice any significant movement in the boats; I thought it safe to bring the ship to its earlier course due to the shallow water zone in the channel.

Suddenly I observed a swift object in the Radar rushing towards us from the Starboard bow. My Second Officer immediately went to observe the movement through his binoculars. With a frightful face, he ran away from the bridge without reporting me anything. Shocking as his behavior was; so was I curious to know what happened! To my utter shock, I see a Pirate Inflatable Boat with outboard motor carrying 6 persons holding Automatic weapons. Immediately I sounded the Emergency Alarm and alerted the vessel through P.A about the incoming attack.

The Company Security Manual Vessel states to keep the ‘Fire Hose’ on deck to use at any time. I ordered the Chief Officer to open the deck fire hose immediately towards those attackers. Within no time, the Attack boat had already reached 6 cable of Starboard beam. As the Chief Officer and Boson were desperately trying to start the Fire Hose, a pirate stood up on the Boat, mounted a Rocket Propelled Grenade and aimed towards the Bridge. I ordered helmsman to swiftly alter to port. A 5 inch gap just missed the RPG off our heads. The other pirates started firing AK47s continually into the air. The Deck crew immediately escaped from the deck. I lost no control in the panic-stricken ship; pressed Security Alert Button in the Bridge and rushed to the radio room to switch on the Inmarsat and DSC Distress Button. I saw the pirates on the deck climbing up with two Grapnel hooks. They shot one of them towards the bridge windscreen. I acted to the presence of my mind, quickly removed the badges from my uniform. As expected the pirates rushed to the bridge and enquired about the ‘Captain’ of the ship! I assured them that I was the Second Officer & could take them to the Captain’s cabin, if they liked.

3 armed pirates followed me at AK 47 gunpoint. I had locked the cabin and hid the key inside the chart table drawer. I pretended to knock the doors thrice and informed them that the captain may not be present. He might have escaped or hidden elsewhere. They pressed on to open it with the duplicate key, but I stated to not have any. Consequently, one of them fired four shots from a 9mm Beretta pistol towards the door. But the door did not open due to its firmness. I returned to the bridge with them at gunpoint.

To my utter amazement, I found both the dhows were alongside our vessel and had robbed us of all our paints and deck stores. This operation lasted for another half hour. As the rest of the pirates left the bridge; they threatened me of dire consequences if I attempted to warn any port authorities. I saw all the pirates jumped to the boats and fled away within 2 minutes. Losing no time, I, immediately picked up the VHF Radiotelephone and called the nearest VTS channel. No one replied back.  I reported the entire matter to the Company Security Officer. To my dismay, all he was worried was whether the 40,000 USD$ were intact in my cabin’s closet or not. He merely advised me “keep a good Anti- Piracy watch”. I instructed all the Officers and Crew to assemble at the bridge. After 20 minutes everybody gathered at the bridge. As each of them spoke, I heard that some crew hid in the Engine Room, while some hid inside the Anchor Chain Locker. I never received any calls from any authority, just mere suggestions for ‘sharper look out’, ‘extra watch keepers in critical spots’.

Presently when I visit any vessel for Security Audit I find every Security Equipment as per ISPS Code available in the vessel. Except few minor recommendations, any vessel passes the Security Audit and receives the ISSC certificate. As a Master Mariner and also a Surveyor, I find the ISPS code very helpful for every vessel. Not only is it vital for any port of the world, but it also reduces cargo theft, stowaway, store theft and many other unwanted hazards.

Is the ISPS code practically implemented at open sea? Are all ship security alerts always recorded by the Flag states? Does the company worry about the security of every seaman on board? Is the Company Security Manual, ICS, IRF publications adorning the Master’s shelf sufficed?  Are the shore staff & the floating staff of the company thoroughly prepared for attacks through ‘ideal drills’?

I can assert that the answer to each of these questions would not be a clear “YES/NO”. The International Maritime Board has conjured up age-old notions and measures about the security tactics and training in merchant vessels. But, we need to remind ourselves from time and again that as centuries advance, we need to upgrade security standards to fight the pirate infested waters of the world. We can always agree to request the ‘US Navy/ Indian Navy/ Royal Navy/ French Navy/ Canadian Navy/ Malaysian Navy and many other countries’ naval vessels to escort the respective merchant vessels. But, what if a war breaks out and all of these are unavailable? Who do we depend on?

The simplest method to curb the consistent piracy attacks is to carry armed guards sailing with the merchant vessels; and trying to sail only within the lanes and limits now guarded by the warships. It would further be more advisable to inculcate self-preventive measures in the ships to prevent pirates from boarding the ships. Some of the techniques could involve complicated rudder movements, constant speed fluctuations which would make it hard for pirate boats to pull alongside. Simple negligence like leaving unattended ropes on the deck or dangling ladders outside the ships while sailing can be corrected accordingly to prevent piracy attacks. The International Maritime Organization has also been taking new measures and introducing new regulations to discourage piracy attacks in the troubled waters.

Gone are the days when pirates could just conjure up a nice folk-tale for kids or an adventure-filled life for the teenagers. Today, the pirates have become more swift and dangerously equipped with nasty intentions of robbing people not only of their personal belongings; but also sailing away with the tankers and bulk-carriers, changing their papers and registries overnight to be used for smuggling illegal goods without any fear. Thus, the entire International Sea Community should get together to discourage piracy and ensure safe passage in all the international waters across the world.

Captain Supriyo Mukherjee. CMS

Master Mariner- Unlimited, Certified Security Manager (CSM)