RCL Exclusive

Modern Sea Piracy on the Decline, But Far From Dead

From hijackings off Nigeria to boardings on the South American coast, pirates are still hunting.

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For nearly five days much of the world was transfixed on a small lifeboat in the Indian Ocean where three Somali pirates held American Capt. Richard Phillips at gunpoint.

Phillips had been captured aboard his cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, and allowed himself to be taken hostage in the ship’s lifeboat in order to protect his crew. The U.S. military brought in helicopters and warships to monitor the situation, and hostage negotiators attempted to convince the three pirates on the lifeboat to surrender.

Eventually, the pirates allowed the lifeboat to be towed by a Navy ship, ostensibly so it could sit in calm waters in the larger ship’s draft — but also giving a trio of U.S. Navy SEAL snipers on the back of the ship relatively easy shots at the pirates. On the fifth day of Phillips’ captivity, three simultaneous headshots from the SEALs’ rifles ended the stand-off for good.

The dramatic episode, later turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Hanks as Phillips, belied a dire international threat. The New York Times reported that at the time of Phillips’ rescue, other pirates were holding a “dozen ships” and scores of crew members.

It has been nearly a decade since Phillips’ ordeal and modern piracy has largely fallen out of the news, mostly because incidents of pirate attacks, especially off Somalia, have been on a downward slide for years.

But that doesn’t mean piracy has gone away. Reports of ship attacks, boardings and thefts the world over, compiled for the Live Piracy Report by the International Chamber of Commerce, show that the modern banditry remains expansive in its geographical scope and all-too-regular in its frequency.

To get an idea of what modern piracy still looks like, here’s a sampling of the dozens of incidents reported to the ICC just this year:

Date: Feb. 25
Location: Anchored off Guayaquil, Ecuador
Duty AB [able seaman] on routine rounds onboard an anchored container ship was confronted by five robbers on the aft deck. One robber, with a gun was seen near the entrance to the steering gear room. The AB immediately retreated and informed the Duty Officer. Alarm raised and port control notified. A coast guard boat was sent to the vessel. All crew safe. Nothing reported stolen.

Date: March 22
Location: Atlantic Ocean, off Badagry Nigeria
Pirates in a speedboat hijacked a fishing boat and forced it to sail into Benin waters. They kidnapped two crew members before releasing the fishing boat.

Date: March 31
Location: Gulf of Aden
Two skiffs with two armed pirates in each skiff chased and closed in onto a tanker underway. Alarm raised and crew mustered. When the skiffs closed in to around 100m from the tanker the pirates fired upon the tanker. The armed guards onboard the tanker returned fire, resulting in the pirates aborting the attack and moving away. All crew safe. Ship sustained minor damage due to the firing. Ladders sighted in the skiffs.

Date: May 18
Location: Anchored off Tarahan, Indonesia
Five robbers armed with knives boarded an anchored bulk carrier using a rope. They took hostage the duty AB [able seaman], tied him up and threatened him with knives. The robbers stole ship’s properties and engine spares and escaped. The AB managed to free himself and raised the alarm. OOW [officer on watch] sounded the ship’s horn and crew mustered. A search was carried out throughout the ship.

Date: May 19
Location: Anchored off Merak, Indonesia
Three robbers armed with knives, boarded an anchored bulk carrier and threatened the Duty AB on routine rounds. The robbers entered the engine room stole ship’s spares and escaped.

Date: May 26
Location: Anchored off Lagos, Nigeria
Seven robbers boarded a berthed ro-ro ship [one capable of transporting wheeled cargo, like cars]. They took hostage the duty crew, tied him up, took his UHF radio and asked for the location of the paint store and then stole ship’s stores. The duty crew managed to free himself and raised the alarm resulting in the robbers escaping. A search was carried out. PFSO and local agents informed.

Date: June 3
Location: Anchored off Lagos, Nigeria
Two robbers boarded an anchored bulk carrier using a hook attached to a rope. The Duty Officer and the armed security guard noticed the robbers on the forecastle deck. The armed guard fired a warning shot resulting in the robbers escaping. On conducting a search ship stores were reported as stolen. MRCC Nigeria informed.

To see more about 2018 incidents, check out the ICC’s Live Piracy Map 

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.