This website uses cookies primarily for visitor analytics. Certain pages will ask you to fill in contact details to receive additional information. On these pages you have the option of having the site log your details for future visits. Indicating you want the site to remember your details will place a cookie on your device. To view our full cookie policy, please click here. You can also view it at any time by going to our Contact Us page.

Safety at sea: The evolving threat of piracy

12 April 2013

Among the most serious of the hazards faced by merchant vessels in recent years are piracy and armed robbery, particularly off the coasts of Somalia, in the Indian Ocean, in South-East Asia, and off Nigeria. Companies sending seafarers into these areas need to keep abreast of the latest developments and best practice to ensure their safety. 

A Belgian frigate, part of the EUNAVFOR task force, escorts semi-submersible heavy-lift ship Mighty Servant 1 transporting an oil production platform section through the Gulf of Aden - Photo: EUNAVFOR
A Belgian frigate, part of the EUNAVFOR task force, escorts semi-submersible heavy-lift ship Mighty Servant 1 transporting an oil production platform section through the Gulf of Aden - Photo: EUNAVFOR

According to the website, run by the One Earth Future Foundation, 3,863 seafarers were fired upon by armed Somali pirates in 2011. Of these, 968 seafarers (25%) came into close contact with attackers who had gained access to their vessels after the initial assault and 413 (11%) were rescued from closed-access citadels on their vessels by naval forces, often after waiting for hours or days in terror and uncertainty.

The remaining 555 (14%) were taken hostage. Those kidnapped are often held for months without proper nutrition, access to medical care, or communication with their families. All suffer psychological damage and many extreme physical abuse. Of the 35 hostages killed by Somali pirates in 2011, eight were murdered, eight died in captivity of disease or malnutrition and 19 were killed in rescue or escape attempts.

Some 645 hostages captured in 2010 remained in pirate hands in 2011, reflecting a 50% increase in the average period of captivity to 8 months. Of these, 26 hostages were held for over two years and 123 for over one year. 

In 2012, according to, there were 60 high-risk hostages being held in Somalia with little prospect of release from captivity, out of a total of about 200.

Then there is the overall cost. According to studies by OEF Foundation, piracy is costing the global economy up to 12 billion per year, and the global cost of Somali piracy is $6.9 billion per year.

Best practice

Practical measures include the hiring of security guards and, off Somalia, vessels can register to use the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) for passage through the Gulf of Aden, which is protected by warships from a number of nations.

Individual shipowners are encouraged not to rely exclusively on outside help, but to take measures for their own protection. Available options include following the recommendations of the Round Table of International Shipping Associations, set out in their “Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Coast of Somalia” (BMPs), and the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF)’s guide ‘Practical measures to Avoid, Deter or Delay Piracy Attacks’.

The BMP4 guide, for example, has sections on risk assessment, typical attacks, company planning, ship master’s planning, ship protection measures, what to do during an attack and if pirates take control, amongst much else.

The guide says primary consideration should be to ensure the safety of the crew, with shipowners asked to consider issues such as the ballistic protection for the crew on the bridge, often the main target during a pirate attack.

But one of the most important elements is crew training. There is a danger, with the polyglot nature of many modern-day crews, that insufficient time is spent on counter-piracy drills as part of safety training. The consequence can be confusion and even panic among crews in the event of an attack. And even with a crew well-trained in counter-piracy measures, it can be difficult for them to maintain the high degree of alertness required during the whole of the period that a vessel will take to transit, for example, the Indian Ocean.

Also, with shipowners facing the ever-present need to minimise costs, another problem is low manning levels. A ship with a smaller crew is less likely to be able to post sufficient lookouts in danger areas, or to allow the crew to react effectively in the critical period when an attack is threatened or underway. 

In a briefing for shipowners on piracy, international law company HFW makes the point that vessels making their way through ice need to be specially strengthened, and nowadays each classification society has a set of rules governing this. Similarly, the company says, it would be sensible for vessels making their way through waters infested by pirates to be strengthened in ways designed to counter the serious risk of piracy. 

This could entail an effective warning system of the approach of potentially hostile craft, particularly from the stern; an effective method of deterring boarding; a procedure to follow in the event that boarding cannot be prevented; and a method of alerting rescuers. Meanwhile, a vessel’s crew should be protected as much as possible, and voyages should be planned and executed in the light of an understanding of the specific risks, based on the latest available information.

UK involvement

UK-based companies and organisations have been heavily involved in countering the threat.

The Chamber of Shipping, the trade association for the UK shipping industry with 137 members representing 917 ships of 27 million gross tonnes total, believes UK government action has been “positive and prompt”, with close liaison between government and industry. 

One success has been the secondment of Merchant Navy Liaison Officers (MNLOs) since 2008 to work in counter-piracy operations at the Northwood HQ of European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) and Operation Atalanta, the EU’s Indian Ocean naval force. BP, Shell and Chevron senior officers have received awards for their work as MNLOs

UK-based oil companies also work closely with the industry’s main anti-piracy coordinating body, the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee (SDAC), with Shell providing a co-chair to sit alongside Rear Admiral Philip Jones, Assistant Chief of Naval Staff. 

An interesting new development is the proposed launch later this year of a service to provide private convoy services through pirate-infested waters.

British businessman Anthony Sharp has teamed up with Simon Murray, the chairman of commodities giant Glencore, to launch Typhon, which plans to protect ships in its care with a private navy comprising a mothership and rigid inflatables (RIBs). The vessels will be manned by armed ex-Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel, and the group will be based in Abu Dhabi. 

Murray will be Typhon's chairman, with non-executive directors including the former UK Chief of Staff General Lord Dannatt, ex-head of US naval forces in Europe Admiral Harry Ulrich and Peter Ahlas, former chief of HSBC's marine and insurance business. The company reportedly has the backing of two major international shipping companies.

Typhon CEO Sharp says existing vessel protection with security teams onboard is a flawed concept. "You're taking the fight to the protected vessel and taking shots inbound. Our protection model is based on putting an exclusion zone around a convoy and protecting the zone, helped by unmanned aerial vehicles that at 10,000 feet can spot a potential threat miles away."

Typhon’s main USP will be reduced insurance rates for its convoyed vessels. The company says rates are costing the industry $10bn-$12bn a year altogether, with ransoms worth up to $1.2bn alone. One South Korean company is said to have paid $2.5m to reclaim a ship last year, causing turmoil in shipping insurance markets.

The future

Recent anti-piracy programmes off Somalia have for the most part been successful, with pirate attacks falling from 176 in 2011 to 35 in 2012. Meanwhile, pirate hijackings fell from 25 in 2011 to 5 in 2012, and EUNAVFOR claims no vessel has been successfully pirated in the Indian Ocean since May 2012.

Other than increased naval patrols, some observers put this down to the unseasonal monsoon weather, and say nations involved in naval patrols in the Indian Ocean should not let down their guard. Typhon quotes Russian Navy Rear Admiral Vasily Lyashok who says Somali pirates are flexible, quickly adapt to new strategies, have become better organised and enhanced by a support network, have satellite communications, shore bases, depots, arsenals, training facilities for their pirates, and a unified leadership.

Meanwhile, piracy is increasing significantly in areas such as the Gulf of Guinea.

On January 13, a Nigerian oil tanker was hijacked off the port of Abidjan while waiting to berth. The vessel then sailed away from Ivorian into Ghanaian territorial waters, where it was released with its crew after its cargo had been siphoned off.

On February 4 a French-owned tanker went missing off the Ivory Coast with 17 sailors on board and was confirmed likely to have been hijacked by the International Maritime Bureau. The same day saw pirates attack another oil tanker anchored off Lagos, shooting one of the crew members.

A few days previously, pirates attacked a tanker in the waters off Nigeria's southern delta, firing a rocket-propelled grenade at the tanker, which, the Bureau said, missed the ship. The crew suffered no injuries in the attack and their ship escaped, but it sustained damage from gunfire.

There has been a steady increase in the capabilities of pirate groups in the Gulf of Guinea since last year. They have extended their operating range further west and south than in the past, with an increase in attacks on oil supply vessels off the Niger Delta. The perpetrators of most of these attacks are said to be Nigeria-based organised criminal gangs heavily involved in the smuggling and onward sale of oil products and LNG.

With increasing instability in a number of Third-World coastal countries and shrinking naval budgets in the First, piracy will remain a serious threat for seafarers into the future.

At a July 2012 seminar on piracy hosted by Canada’s Dalhousie University, Professor Hugh Williamson, lead investigator with Dalhousie’s Marine Piracy Project, pointed out the devastating effect on the kidnapped crews, with many of those not physically harmed treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There’s a tremendous human cost to piracy that doesn’t get quantified in the numbers they talk about in insurance costs,” he said.

Print this page | E-mail this page