Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mitigating the threat

I was very interested to learn that shortly after the Maersk Alabama was a second time attacked by pirates, this time thwarted by armed security, the vessel made the news again. Now a number of crew, some wielding lawsuits, are lodging complaints against the master and former hostage turned national hero. This is an interesting turn of events for the ongoing story of the Alabama and worth paying attention to.

The seizure of the Maersk Alabama has had profound ramifications for the crew, the company and the industry. First of all it brought to light the hazards merchant mariners are facing at this very moment in the Indian Ocean and their limited options at self-protection when boarded by Somali militias. Until the Alabama was seized very little attention was being paid to this issue, especially by the media in the United States.

The event also precipitated a major reversal in the stance on arming merchant vessels from one of the largest shipping companies in the world. I remember reading somewhere about Maersk Line’s stance on arms the last time I went through the Gulf of Aden just as things were beginning to heat up. I knew that when ship’s were getting hit a couple hundred miles ahead and astern of us how much more comforted I would be with a few well trained and armed mercenaries standing watch instead of a can of pepper spray and an LRAD. It appears that the A.P. Moller Group now shares my sentiment.

The Alabama also spurred the adherance to allready adopted corridors for shipping traffic through the Gulf of Aden in conjunction with timed convoys under naval surveillance. As the threat of piracy now extends to South Africa and the Seychelles only a concerted naval response will disable the Somalis profiting from this lucrative business. Securing the shipping lanes will also allow the Somali people to focus on a more constructive and sustainable means of securing their future.

It was after the rescue of Captain Phillips that a Captain at my former company approached the owners to insist that armed security had to be provided for the fleet of 8 U.S. registered vessels. In his view, and mine, the only real deterrent for pirates at this point in the game is to meet them with more potential firepower than they are already bringing into the Indian Ocean. Aided by the dramatic media aftermath of the Alabama, something else I’ll mention shortly, the company took this Captain’s heartfelt request for safeguarding his crew into consideration.

After conferring with lawyers and government advisers in Washington my former employer decided to contract a security service out of the Carolinas which would provide small teams of very seasoned Special Forces to provide security for all points in between Egypt and India. The legality and liability of the arrangement was very thoroughly researched to enable this action but in the end I’m positive and grateful that the company made the right decision.

I became aware of this arrangement when I was sent to a security conference hosted by the company and the security contractor along with all the officers employed on the Middle East run. The company made it very clear that they were arming our ships to protect us from Piracy and to eliminate the chance of one of our vessels, laden with government cargo, falling into the hands of the Somalis.

The security service made it clear that the very last thing they wanted to do was to actually use the “Tools” they would be breaking out in conjunction with the master every time the ship left a port. This was no Blackwater but instead a professional company that only hired veterans and law enforcement professionals that had been exposed to combat and were the absolute opposite of trigger-happy.

Everyone at the conference agreed that the escalation of force and use of weapon systems was under the authority of the security team. It was emphasized that deadly force was only used if the pirates were aiming their weapons and that the master’s presence on the bridge, not the firing position precluded him or her from making that decision. Otherwise the weapons would only serve as deterrents hardening the defensive posture of the vessel when swarmed by skiffs full of RPG touting thugs. All of my colleagues supported this policy and had Captain Phillips misfortunes to thank.

We also agreed that after any incident involving pirates the only external communications made would be to government authorities and the company. In the case of the Maersk Alabama as we learned from a former manger at Maersk now working for my company, the event was a media fiasco. According to him some members of the crew were on the phone with parents and news agencies before Maersk was even consulted. I can understand the urge to let your family know you’re all right after being held hostage in the steering gear room of your ship but to be talking with CNN while your captain is being held at gunpoint is not a good idea.

I actually knew more about the sequence of events on the ship than the media knew shortly after the fact because of one email that was sent by a crew member on board to a friend ashore which then wound up being circulated around the union. Another email reached my inbox originating from a crew member I knew from school that was in the same vicinity of the Alabama on another Maersk ship. She gave a blow-by-blow account to all her friends via email as the Alabama was being attacked and her own ship was being assessed by another group of pirates.

This former Maersk employee didn’t mention either of these emailers but both messages highlighted the reasons that my company was asking us to use discretion until the situation was known and a response prepared. There was a massive amount of confusion initially at Maersk. Besides creating a media circus the uncontrolled flow of information jeopardized Captain Phillips precarious rescue. A fact the speaker new firsthand and justly emphasized to us.

The last day of the conference the company staff and officers got together on the shooting range for an unlimited ammunition test firing of the weapons systems that were being deployed to the fleet. After firing a couple of magazines from a .50 Caliber Barret sniper rifle I was convinced that while the LRAD is a wonderful means for determining intent and discouraging approach only an expert marksmen could stop the engine of a pirate’s skiff.

Looking back at the Maersk Alabama it is not hard to criticize the Captain for not giving the reported pirate activity a wider berth. But it also is not very hard to criticize the Captain of a grounded ship. I think a wider context is needed in this case. At the time Maersk was not willing to arm their vessels, the Navy was not willing to allocate sufficient patrols and the world was not ready to acknowledge the voracity of the Somali’s perpetrating these crimes.

Sailors from all over the world are being shot at, captured, wounded and killed. Companies are paying millions of dollars to get their ships out of Somalia. If anyone regrets the events on board the Maersk Alabama it’s the Captain himself more than anyone. Hopefully we can learn from the mistakes he may have made, which merit study, and as an industry prevent this from ever happening again. Something I hope for as the schedule here is looking more and more like West Africa for the spring.


  1. Intresting post. Like you we saw emails and so forth as well as policy changes after the Alabama incident. One small point however, the IRTC in the Gulf of Aden were in place before the incident as well as the group transits.

  2. Yep. Wanted to post the same thing, but its only written that Alabama "spurred adherance to allready adopted corridors". But I feel that even though public awareness wasn't there about the matter, the companies operating in Asia and Europe have already been well aware about the situation for some time & its been standard practice to use the corridors for a long time.

    But a very interesting read. If Maersk has taken the gun route, it really should help change attitutes within the shipping community. Unless what actually happens is that since the Americans start shooting back, the pirates kick our Asian arses all the more harder. :)