Our arrival in German waters was greeted by an offshore breeze drawing
the smell of fresh manure off of newly fertilized fields. Farmland
abounds along the flat and featureless shore of the German Bight and the
farmers obviously haven't been wasting the long hours of sunlight they
receive at fifty three degrees north latitude.
Yesterday the weather cleared allowing brilliant sunshine, tempered only
by the cold water of the Northern Sea, to burn off the clouds shrouding
Boulogne-Sur-Mer as we approached the strait. The green treeless hills
of France were a welcome sight after a typical gale and grey skies
initially greeted us at the mouth of the English Channel.
We heard the news late Wednesday night that an American ship had been
hijacked off the Horn of Africa. Thanks to a friend of the Captain's
ashore we have been kept abreast of the developing situation surrounding
the hijacking and subsequent recapture of the Maersk Alabama by her own
crew. This is the worst possible way I can imagine for the plight of
mariners transiting these waters to be given the full attention they
deserve from the media and government. This situation has been growing
worse and worse that it's no surprise that a sixth unarmed and
unescorted merchant vessel was taken this week, this one just happened
to be crewed by Americans.
Besides the danger of modern piracy this incident shows the character of
a crew unwilling to become captives on their own ship waiting out a
ransom or rescue while lying to the anchor for weeks on end. As for the
Alabama's Captain, who to the best of my fourth hand knowledge is still
being held by 4 pirates in his vessels own lifeboat, he has reportedly
exhibited selfless courage sacrificing his own safety for that of his
The New York Times does a much better job of summarizing the events so
I'll let them take over in case you haven't yet heard much of this story
(I have no idea how much coverage it is receiving at home beyond Cape
Cod). It is particularly of interest to me because one; any deck officer
who graduated from one of the two more northerly "MMA"s knows Joe Murphy
and probably owes their passing the Coast Guard exams to his study books
and last minute visit to the exam room telling you how not to screw up
multiple choice when under pressure. Secondly; the article also shows
Maersk's stance on the much touted LRAD which I wheeled out for the crew
just yesterday as part of our security drill onboard (And our only form
of self defense besides a fire hose and a prayer).
NEW YORK TIMES - APRIL 10, 2009
Navy Tracking Pirates and Their U.S. Hostage
By MARK MAZZETTI and MARK McDONALD
A U.S. Navy destroyer kept close watch Thursday on a lifeboat holding
four Somali pirates and their hostage - an American ship captain - one
day after the pirates briefly seized a United States-flagged cargo ship
off the coast of Africa. As Washington awoke to a second day of the
crisis, the Navy summoned the FBI for advice on how to rescue the
hostage, Capt. Richard Phillips, of Underhill, Vermont.
An FBI spokeswoman, Denise Ballew, described the bureau's crisis
negotiators as "fully engaged" with the military in strategizing ways to
retrieve the ship's captain and secure the unarmed container ship, the
Maersk Alabama, and its American crew.
The FBI was summoned as the Pentagon substantially stepped up its
monitoring of the hostage standoff, sending in P-3 Orion surveillance
aircraft and other equipment and securing video footage of the scene,
The Associated Press said.
The pirates boarded and seized the Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, taking
20 American sailors hostage. Although the crew managed to retake the
ship within hours, the pirates were still holding the ship's captain as
they fled the ship in a lifeboat.
The Maersk Alabama is keeping "a safe distance from the lifeboat," at
the request of the U.S. Navy, a spokesman for Maersk Line Ltd., Kevin
Speers, said at a news conference Thursday morning. The crew is in
contact with the lifeboat via radio, he said.
"Our most recent contact indicates that the captain remains hostage but
is unharmed," Mr. Speers said. The rest of the crew, he said, is also
uninjured. A distress call from the ship Wednesday brought the
destroyer, the U.S.S. Bainbridge, to the scene, and other warships were
en route Thursday as well.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that the lifeboat on
which Captain Phillips was being held hostage had apparently run out of
gas, Reuters reported. "We are watching this very closely," Mrs. Clinton
told reporters, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates at her side.
The Alabama was the first American vessel to be hijacked in the
pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa. More than 150 ships were
attacked off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden last year, according to the
International Maritime Bureau, and there have been six attacks in the
region in the past week. Sixteen ships are currently being held for
ransom by seagoing pirate gangs.
In this case, however, the crew of the Alabama managed to disable the
ship at about the time the pirates came on board, according to a senior
American military official. The four hijackers, apparently overrun by
the ship's crew, then loaded the captain into a lifeboat, shoved off
from the Alabama and began negotiating for his release.
American officials praised the crew's decision to disable the ship. The
Alabama's second in command, Capt. Shane Murphy, is the son of an
instructor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy who teaches a course on
how to repel pirate attacks.
The crew apparently put some of these lessons into practice. At one
point, they ambushed and managed to capture one of the pirates, holding
him "for 12 hours," Ken Quinn, the second mate on the ship, told CNN.
They eventually released the pirate in an attempted hostage exchange.
"We returned him but they didn't return the captain," he said.
The 508-foot-long Alabama had been bound for the Kenyan port of Mombasa
and was carrying food and other agricultural materials for the World
Food Program, a United Nations agency, and other clients, including the
United States Agency for International Development.
Andrew Mwangura, head of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program
in Mombasa, an organization that tracks pirate attacks, said the
developing situation was unusual. Generally, the Somali pirates hold
entire ships and their crews for ransom, or are thwarted in their
initial attack and escape.
The situation, he said, may well become a waiting game - with the
pirates insisting on cash for the captain's release, and the American
authorities strengthening their hand as the pirates become increasingly
uncomfortable on the exposed lifeboat, which is carrying at least a few
days' supply of food and water. "What they are trying to achieve is
money," Mr. Mwangura said of the pirates' likely motivation.
At the White House, military and national security officials tracked the
developments from the Situation Room, and they provided several
briefings to President Obama and other administration officials.
Mr. Obama first learned of the hijacking early on Wednesday morning
after he returned to the White House from his overseas trip, and he
later convened an interagency group on maritime safety, aides said. The
White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said, "Our top priority is
the personal safety of the crew members on board."
In Vermont, friends and relatives gathered at the home of Captain
Phillips to await further news. His wife, Andrea, has not heard directly
from him, said Michael Willard, a family friend reached by telephone,
but she did receive a phone call Wednesday night from Captain Murphy,
who is now the highest ranking officer aboard the ship.
Captain Murphy told her that Captain Phillips, 55, had volunteered to
become the hostage to win the release of his ship.
"Knowing Richard as well as I do, that would be what he would do," Mr.
The Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest and most important shipping
lanes, is patrolled by an anti-piracy flotilla from the European Union
and a U.S.-led coalition of ships, plus warships from Iran, Russia,
India, China, Japan and other nations. But pirates using mother ships -
oceangoing trawlers that carry speedier attack vessels - have extended
their reach into the waters far off the East African coast. On Saturday,
for example, a German freighter was hijacked about 400 miles offshore,
between Kenya and the Seychelles.
At the time of the attack on the Alabama, the closest patrol vessel was
about 300 nautical miles away, a Navy spokesman said.
"It's that old saying: where the cops aren't, the criminals are going to
go," said Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Fifth Fleet spokesman. "We patrol an
area of more than one million square miles. The simple fact of the
matter is that we can't be everywhere at one time."
Maersk's senior director for security, Finn Brodersen, said in an
interview with the International Herald Tribune last month that three of
the company's ships had been attacked off Somalia - all unsuccessfully.
Mr. Brodersen said Maersk, like most major shippers, did not favor the
use of armed guards on its ships, largely for safety and liability
reasons. Fuel or fumes could be ignited by gunfire, for example, and
crew members would be put at further risk if a gun battle took place.
Some crews have sprayed fire-retardant foam at approaching pirates, and
the Alabama crew reportedly used water hoses to battle the pirates on
Wednesday. Some shipowners spray super-slippery goo on their decks to
trip up pirates; others have even strung electrified wires around the
hulls of their vessels.
Maersk also has tested LRADs, long-range acoustic devices. These sonic
cannons, which look like TV satellite dishes, shoot disabling sound
waves at approaching pirate ships. But these were found to be
ineffective, Mr. Brodersen said, and they "expose the crew to being shot
And now for yet another blogger's opinion:
It seems that the unwillingness of shipping companies to provide trained
and armed security personnel onboard merchant vessels has finally caught
up with us, the American Merchant Marine, and it distresses me. I know
several people who have worked onboard this particular ship and may very
well be aboard her now and I can only pray that their good captain is
released unharmed to return to his home in Vermont.
If we cannot put a stop to this illegal and disruptive threat now than
the mightiest Navy in the world will be left to watch as international
commerce pays tribute to armed gangs with speedboats. It is the Navy's
mission to keep sea-lanes open for free and innocent passage and I
really believe that it is the responsibility of shipping lines to
protect their crews regardless of the insurance premiums they may have
to incur. It's either hire a few "Xe" mercenaries or stem the bunkers to
round the Cape of Good Hope. Anything less is negligent and will leave
us with more of the same, innocent mariners risking their lives to pass
through Bab el Man dab. If these guys were hijacking airplanes in East
Africa don't you think we would have already dealt with it?