Mon, Nov 24, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Merchant ships look more like sitting ducks

Somali pirates have managed to hijack one of the biggest supertankers and other ships because the crews are unarmed and shipowners appear uninterested in stopping the attacks

By Jon Henley  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The Sirius Star is one of the world’s newest and biggest supertankers. Like other modern Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), it cost about US$150 million to build and measures around 330m from bow to stern, or nearly twice as long as a 41-story building is tall. It is, in the words of Lieutenant Nathan Christensen, a spokesman for the US Naval Forces Fifth Fleet, roughly three times the size of an aircraft carrier.

So how come a vessel whose cargo is so substantial that its loss can cause the world oil price to jump by more than a dollar fall prey to a ragged band of Somali pirates who, in all probability, scrambled on board from a couple of fast launches? How could one of the biggest man-made objects on earth become the victim of yet another hijacking in the waters off east Africa, an area that has witnessed more than 90 such incidents this year alone (and which on Saturday witnessed another, in the shape of a Hong Kong freighter called the Delight)?

The short answer is: easily. Contrary to what many imagine, the deck of a fully charged VLCC will be barely 3.5m above the waterline. After hitching a ride on a similar vessel from Saudi Arabia to Singapore for his book on modern-day piracy, Dangerous Waters, the author and former merchant seaman John Burnett wrote: “Could pirates take over a ship this huge, this important? On a VLCC you are above the world; the idea of being boarded and attacked by pirates seems ludicrous and on this voyage I shared with the captain his sense of invincibility.”

But, the captain conceded and Burnett somewhat prophetically concluded, “laden with crude oil, it will be easy for pirates to take over this ship. They will come up from behind within the shadow of radar coverage and, attacking from the stern, the lowest point of the ship, they will throw their grappling hooks over the railings and scamper up the sides. Anyone standing on the bow of a fishing boat or a large speedboat could be up and over the railing of a VLCC in seconds. Perhaps we are not so invincible after all. Perhaps it is only a matter of time.”

It gives Burnett no particular pleasure to have predicted precisely the fate of the Sirius Star more than five years ago. But piracy is widespread and in some regions very much on the rise.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), which collates the figures for both attempted and successful hijacks, says there were 264 piracy attacks around the world last year. By September there had been 199. Many take place in what has up until now been considered the most dangerous area: the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait between Indonesia and Malaysia.

But the fastest-growing area is the Gulf of Aden, off war torn and lawless Somalia and its breakaway region of Puntland, where the number of attacks doubled to 60 last year and has soared to 92 so far this year.

The Somali brand of piracy is different to that practiced in Southeast Asia, says Peter Newton, a captain with the Danish shipping line Maersk, who was the victim of an attack in the early 1990s.

“We were out of Singapore, bound for New Zealand,” he said, “and well out of the area where we were considered at risk of a pirate attack, so I’d stood down the anti-piracy precautions we had in place as a matter of course. I’d just gone back down to my cabin and a couple of minutes later they simply walked in. It was a bit of a surprise.”

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