Saturday, October 15, 2011

Piracy: Prepare to Repel Boarders

Via The Economist -

SomaliS pirates can be persistent. They have attacked the Maersk Alabama, a container ship owned by an American subsidiary of Denmark’s Maersk Line, no fewer than five times, most recently in May. In the first attack, in 2009, the captain was held hostage until the US Navy rescued him. Then Maersk put private armed guards on the ship. Since then, it has successfully repelled all boarders.

Maersk says it is only arming a few ships plying the pirate-infested waters off East Africa. But the practice is spreading rapidly among shipping firms despite the cost, which can run to $100,000 per voyage for a four-man team. That is because the number of attacks, off Somalia and elsewhere, has kept growing despite the strengthening of naval patrols (see chart). The European Union’s NAVFOR task-force, NATO warships and other navies patrol the waters off Somalia, but this has only pushed the pirates out into the open ocean, extending their attack zone towards India’s coast and as far south as Mozambique’s. This has forced the shipping industry, its insurers, and the national and international authorities that oversee them to accept that private armed guards are a necessity.


Until February the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), which represents the world’s merchant shipowners, opposed the use of armed guards—even as some members were discreetly hiring them. Since the chamber changed its line, the number of owners tooling up has accelerated. Now, says Simon Bennett, its spokesman, perhaps 20% of all ships passing through the risky parts of the Indian Ocean have armed guards aboard—typically retired marines or the like.

In recruiting armed security men, some shipowners have defied the laws of the countries where their vessels are registered. But governments, unable to provide the naval cover the shipowners want, are one by one legalising the practice. Spain, one of the earliest to let its fishing-boats carry armed guards, said on September 27th that they would now be allowed to use machineguns and other heavy weapons against the pirates’ AK-47s.

Some countries, such as America and Denmark, have introduced licensing schemes for owners who want to arm their ships. Britain is among those still considering legalisation, and Greece’s shipping industry is pressing its government to do likewise. The UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO), while still not endorsing the practice, last month asked Somalia’s neighbours to let armed merchant ships call at their ports. The ICS says it understands Egypt is to lift its ban on armed merchant ships’ passage through the Suez canal. But the Indian government is still said to disapprove of armed merchant ships calling at its ports: their guards either have to go elsewhere or dump their weapons overboard.


There do not yet seem to have been any claims, or lawsuits, over the use of armed ship guards, says Tom Heinan of International Registries (which runs the Marshall Islands’ shipping register). But shipowners using them could face legal action in various places: their own country, the flag state of their ship, the home countries of injured crewmen, and so on. All the more reason to ensure that the guards are competent and well-insured.

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