Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Pirate Country

Update: An interesting BBC Radio 4 programme discusses the topic of pirate activity in this reagion and validates some of the information we were given on board Arcadia. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01095mf 

When we left Mumbai, we started the last leg of our world voyage, and we also entered the Arabian Sea, setting a course for Egypt. Unfortunately, this also means we have entered waters that are renowned for pirate activity, especially as we reach the infamous Gulf of Aden just off the north coast of Somalia. Over the last week we've seen an increase in activity on the ship with regards to "preventative measures" and this culminated yesterday in a full pirate drill for both passengers and crew. You might think like we did that the likely hood of anyone having the audacity to try and board a huge cruise ship containing 2500 people would be remote, but the precedent has already been set. Only in January of this year, a Saga cruise ship was "chased" by a pirate vessel, but out-ran it. The story made it to the UK newspapers and you'll find it if you Google for it. In total so far this year, there have been 20 attempted attacks in this area, 9 of which have been successful!
So you can understand why P&O, if not their insurance company, take this sort of threat very seriously. We are subject to several preventative measures whilst in this area for the next 5 days, and we attended a very interesting talk this morning, given by a Royal Navy Lieutenant who has spent 7 months in the area performing intelligence gathering. He is on board to offer advice to the crew and I thought you might be interested to hear about it all.
Our main defense against an attack is the fact that we can do 23 knots which is too fast for the small boats that the pirates use. Add to that the huge wake at the back of Arcadia, and a small boat would not stand a chance. We have been doing this speed since leaving Mumbai, and will continue to do so whilst in this area, provided nothing breaks! The talk this morning gave us insight into the tactics used too. Usually a larger "mother ship" is employed to tow smaller boats and to carry supplies and fuel. Once a target is acquired, the smaller boats will be used to try to board it by using ladders at the back of the ship. Again, Arcadia has an advantage here because she has a 6 meter freeboard (the height above water before any deck opening). Nevertheless, the openings on the lowest open deck all have grills around them now, the back of the ship has razor wire around it, and the outside of that deck is completely closed from dusk until dawn. Water hoses and LRADs (Long Range Audio Devices) which I've seen positioned around the rear of the lowest outside deck, provide a non-lethal way of discouraging any approach and these use directional sound waves to make it "uncomfortable" for anyone within range.
We're also keeping a low profile at night by turning off any unnecessary deck lights (great for star gazing) and being asked to keep cabin lights to a minimum and curtains closed whenever possible. Add to all these things the fact that we using an "internationally agreed transit corridor" backed and supported by the UN and enforced by 25 warships and I think that we should be ok! The problem, according to our Royal Navy Lieutenant is that the area is so large, and the waters in which they operate is expanding every year, that 250 warships would be needed to patrol properly. As it stands right now, it might take 2 hours for one of them to reach a particular position where it was needed.
Still our pirate drill yesterday told us that we have to return to our cabins and sit on the floor outside them in the corridor should we be instructed by the bridge to do so. We're not to sit against the doors or near windows because of armed pirates. As was explained to us in a very matter of fact manner, Rocket Propelled Grenades are used to cause a distraction and potentially a fire that diverts attention and crew resources away from a potential boarding attempt.
It begs the obvious question; if so much money and resources are being directed to keeping this stretch of water safe, then why is it still a problem, when we're fighting a handful of people in small fibreglass boats? From what we were told this morning and offering my own opinion here, it seems that the so called "Rules of Engagement" are the biggest thing holding it back. These rules say that the Navy can't shoot to kill a pirate unless he has shot at them first. It says they can't do anything to step in, unless they see them climbing the ladder at the back of the ship. The same rules are adhered to by the UK, US, French and Spanish forces, but you should have heard the cheer that went up on hearing that the Russian Navy are somewhat less forgiving!

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