Yo-ho and avast, there still be pirates — and why you might care

I saw an article today in the StarTribune, Miami-based Cruise Ship Attacked by Pirates off Somalia, and it reminded me of a book I read last year by John S. Burnett entitled Dangerous Waters.

It’s an excellent and eye-opening read about a subject most people think has become quaint: high seas piracy. Burnett was motivated to research and write the book after his own small boat was boarded and robbed. While you won’t find much in the way of masted ships flying the Jolly Roger looking for easy pickings today, the reality is that the basics of piracy in the 17th century and today are still in place: slow-moving, lightly-guarded ships loaded with valuable cargo in international waters with little controlling authority — and a large, international pool of people greedy enough, or desperate enough, that have access to fast boats and weaponry and little fear of being caught. In fact, about all that’s changed is the technology. Galleons have been replaced by high-speed boats; cannons replaced with rocket-propelled grenades; cutlasses with Uzis.

While this (literally) cut-throat business has never really gone away, even in the age of high-tech navies, it is mostly invisible because it doesn’t affect our lives in many noticeable ways. As Burnett points out, however, piracy today can easily lead to a serious and confounding global problem.

One of the most pirate-infested areas today is the Malacca Straits. While the location might not be as colorful-sounding as, say, the Caribbean and you might be a little vague on the geography, the Malacca Straits are a very important little body of water. They link the Indian and Pacific Oceans and are the shortest sea route between India, China and Indonesia. They are filled with shallow reefs and tiny islands and there are only narrow channels available for the nearly 1000 ships – mostly cargo ships and oil tankers – that pass through each day like slow, fat fish in a barrel. Heavy traffic in narrow confines makes for relatively easy pickings for pirates in “smash and grab” types of raids (board, loot any crew and passengers, take electronics and other valuables from the bridge and beat it to a nearby hideout or fishing village). Sometimes, however, this results in tanker or cargo crews being tied up and their ships left to plow on out of control through a highly congested area. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of the effects that a grounding or sinking of a tanker in this area could have on this vital commercial thoroughfare. Here’s some of what the above link about the straits has to say:

The narrowest point of this shipping lane is the Phillips Channel in the Singapore Strait, which is only 1.5 miles wide at its narrowest point. This creates a natural bottleneck, with the potential for a collision, grounding, or oil spill (in addition, piracy has historically been a regular occurrence in the Singapore Strait, but over the past 15 years has grown alarmingly). Some 400 shipping lines and 700 ports worldwide rely on the Malacca and Singapore straits to get to the Singapore port. For example, 80% of Japan’s oil comes from the Middle East via the Malacca Straits. To skip the straits would force a ship to travel an extra 994 miles from the Gulf. All excess capacity of the world fleet might be absorbed, with the effect strongest for crude oil shipments and dry bulk such as coal. Closure of the Strait of Malacca would immediately raise freight rates worldwide. With Chinese oil imports from the Middle East increasing steadily, the Strait of Malacca is likely to grow in strategic importance in coming years.

Whether through criminal accident or premeditated terrorism (elements of Abu Sayaff and Al Quaida are active in this area), it may be just a matter of time before such an incident fills headlines around the world.

It’s not an unknown threat to people who’s business it is to be concerned with these things, Burnett’s book and others (see below) does a good job of describing the efforts cargo and passenger lines, governments and military forces are making to mitigate the problem while also describing the bureaucratic, political and logistical hurdles they face.

All in all, today’s news story (selected by the Strib perhaps because it was so unusual sounding) highlights an issue we often overlook. If you’re intrigued by this information, Dangerous Waters is a sobering but very interesting read. You might also find the following related books suggested by Amazon of interest:

Jolly Roger With an Uzi: The Rise and Threat of Modern Piracy by Jack A. Gottschalk

Pirates Aboard!: Forty Cases of Piracy Today and What Bluewater Cruisers Can Do About It by Klaus Hympendahl

Maritime Terror: Protecting Your Vessel and Your Crew Against Piracy by Jim Gray

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