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High stakes for cruisers in pirate waters

Four American cruisers shot and killed, seven Danes taken hostage on their yacht, a Dutch couple's 60-foot dive boat boarded, all in a month's time in the Indian Ocean, as the plague of Somali piracy continues unabated.

The range of Somali pirates has steadily expanded.

The attacks now come with more violence and over a much greater expanse of water, from the Horn of Africa east to India and south to Mozambique.

"It's a war zone," says Thomas Jakobsson, chief of operations for Naval Guards, a United Kingdom-based security firm that fields armed ex-navy patrol boats to escort client vessels through pirate-infested waters. His message to pleasure boaters is brutally simple: "You don't go hiking in Iraq. You don't take a bicycle camping trip through Afghanistan. Who takes a holiday in a war zone?"

Jakobsson says pleasure boats have no business anywhere in the Arabian Sea or the northern Indian Ocean, where pirates now operate across a million square miles with virtual impunity - even with 34 warships from 15 nations patrolling the sea lanes. The pirates operate from mother ships - hijacked fishing vessels and cargo ships - that give them the range to hunt for spoils more than 1,000 miles from Somalia.

In a Feb. 24 Local Notice to Mariners, the Coast Guard "strongly advised" U.S. yachts and U.S. citizens aboard foreign yachts to steer clear of the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Somali Basin and western parts of the Indian Ocean.

In a March 2 attack, a pirate skiff zoomed up alongside a 60-foot motorsailer midway across the Indian Ocean between Africa and India. Surprisingly, the pirates were undeterred by the vessel's armed escort - Naval Guards' 126-foot, gray-hulled Marshal 5. Though not at liberty to divulge much about his clients, Jakobsson says their boat, named Capricorn, was en route from Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden to Asia to go into dive service. Its crew, a Dutch couple, barricaded themselves in the engine room below - as they had been instructed to do if attacked - while six pirates boarded.

Meanwhile, Marshal 5 pulled alongside. A firefight ensued. (Jakobsson says Naval Guards' tactics include a show of overwhelming automatic firepower.) "The pirates decided it was not the brightest idea to continue," he says. They jumped back into the skiff and fled to its mother ship seven miles away, where five more skiffs were buzzing around.

Members of the Navy and Coast Guard head back to the guided missle destroyer USS Farragut after destroying a suspected pirate skiff in the Indian Ocean.

Jakobsson suspects the mother ship was preparing to return to Somalia to reprovision and refuel, and saw the yacht as a target of opportunity. "They would prefer a supertanker, but they will take a yacht," he says, especially if pickings have been slim. He says the pirates had to be "pretty desperate" to attempt an attack on an escorted vessel, but he says it illustrates the dangers of transiting pirate waters, whether alone, with an escort, in a convoy, even with armed men aboard. None of the options guarantees safe passage.

A case in point: Pirates hijacked the German-owned cargo ship Victoria in May 2009 while it was transiting the Gulf of Aden in a convoy with other ships in a traffic corridor guarded by warships. Another: Although Jakobsson thinks it makes sense to ship a yacht across the Indian Ocean or Gulf of Aden on a carrier, that approach also turns out not to be foolproof. Somalis seized the German-owned yacht carrier Beluga Nomination Jan. 22 while it was en route from Malta to the Seychelles with nine pleasure boats aboard. The pirates killed two of the ship's crew after they tried to escape; two others fled in a lifeboat, and another drowned. In early March, the Beluga Nomination and its remaining six crewmembers were being held for ransom in Somalia, along with 32 other pirated vessels and 705 of their crewmembers.

Pirates adapt

As warships have focused on guarding sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden and approaches to those sea lanes, the pirates have moved farther into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, where most attacks now occur - off Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles, Madagascar, in the Mozambique Channel, off Oman and Yemen, India's west coast, the western Maldives and places far from land. Somali pirate attacks have been reported from the Horn of Africa to 72 degrees east to 22 degrees south to 21.5 degrees north, according to the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center.

"Every time the good guys have done something, the pirates have adapted," says Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical intelligence for Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based global intelligence group. He foresees no letup in the attacks.

Jakobsson says the pirates have become more brazen, more violent and have demonstrated that they will kill hostages if necessary. The bureau reports seven crewmembers killed in the first two months of 2011 alone.

Others agree that the violence has ratcheted up. "Most of these Somali pirates are using khat, which is like cocaine," says Will Watson, spokesman for the Marshall Islands Registry, which offers a flag of convenience for more than 500 yachts - mostly megayachts. Chewing the narcotic leaves induces paranoia, and with increasingly protracted negotiations and the navies launching more rescue operations, "their level of paranoia is just off the scale now," he says.

On Feb. 22, pirates killed Americans Scott and Jean Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., and friends Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle of Seattle after seizing their 58-foot sloop, Quest, four days earlier off Oman. A U.S. Navy ship began shadowing the sailboat, and as negotiations between the FBI and two pirates aboard the Navy ship stalled, it became clear to the pirates that the ships were not going to let the pirates reach the Somali coast to unload the hostages. Shots rang out on Quest - perhaps after a dispute among the pirates themselves - and the pirates fired rocket-propelled grenades at the warship. U.S. Special Forces then boarded Quest and engaged the pirates, killing two and taking 13 captive. The four Americans had been shot, as had two more pirates found dead below.

Pirates killed U.S. cruisers Scott and Jean Adam and two friends earlier this year.

Far off Somalia two days later, pirates seized a 43-foot Danish sailboat with seven on board - Jan Quist Johansen; his wife, Birgit Marie; their 12-, 14- and 16-year-old children; and two other adults - as they made their way toward the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal to complete a circumnavigation by August. The pirates threatened to kill the Danish family if military forces tried to rescue them. The pirates reportedly anchored the sailboat, named ING, off the Somali village of Hafun and were holding the family aboard a hijacked ship along with crews taken off other ships to discourage rescue attempts.

In another case involving cruising yachtsmen, Somali pirates freed veteran British cruisers Paul and Rachel Chandler last November for a ransom thought to be as much as $1 million after 388 days in captivity - an ordeal that included beatings and psychological torture. Pirates captured the Chandlers aboard their 38-foot sailboat, Lynn Rival, 60 miles off the Seychelles. Bruno Pelzzani and Deborah Culitz, from the South African sailboat Choizil seized last Oct. 31 off Tanzania, remain hostages.

The Danish security firm Risk Intelligence identifies at least nine yachts, all sailboats, captured by pirates in the northern Indian Ocean or Arabian Sea since June 2008. Are the pirates changing tactics? Are they targeting yachtsmen and turning to violence to extort ransoms? Unlikely, says Peter Chalk, a senior analyst who follows piracy in the region for the Rand Corp., of Santa Monica, Calif. Chalk doesn't think the pirates have changed their business model - seize commercial ships and hold their cargos and crews for ransom, then negotiate a payout from the insurance company for their release.

Crews are valuable bargaining chips. It doesn't pay to kill them. "I don't think [the pirates] intentionally execute crews," he says. "And Somali clans to this point at least have avoided yachts because they don't have as much ransom potential. ... I firmly do not believe that the Somali pirates are changing tactics and targeting Westerners." Nor does he believe that Somalia's al-Shabab Islamist insurgents are using pirates to launch attacks on Western interests in what essentially would be acts of terrorism.

Watson, of Marshall Islands Registry, agrees yachts are not targets. They are just easy marks. "These guys go out in these skiffs and float around for days waiting for a target of opportunity," he says. "It's a crime of convenience. They're looking for the lowest-hanging fruit." That means a slow boat with low freeboard. Sailboats are easy prey. Watson says boats that can make 15 to 18 knots usually can outrun their pursuers.

Armed sentries are a good deterrent, as well. "I've not seen a single commercial vessel with guards on board that has been taken," he says. But an armed guard can cost $1,000 a day, and most ships will carry three to five. "That adds a little to your cruising costs," Watson says.

Rooting out pirates

Even with a significant military presence in the Arabian Sea and northern Indian Ocean, the spread of piracy has proved difficult to quell.

The spread of piracy across the region is bad news for cruising yachtsmen, says Rand's Chalk. "There's no reason for these people to be in these waters," he says. "They are exposing themselves to attack and possible murder."

The pirate attacks are not likely to abate anytime soon, says Stewart. Piracy remains profitable. The 445 actual or attempted acts of piracy in the region last year was the highest number ever. The warships, try as they might, can't root out piracy over more than a million square miles of ocean. Though the average ransom paid to Somali pirates for a ship, crew and cargo has risen from $1 million to $5 million (last November an insurer paid $9.5 million for a South Korean supertanker, the highest sum to date) ship owners still treat the payments as part of the cost of doing business.

There has been no effort by shippers to alter their routes and go around the Cape of Good Hope instead of through the Suez Canal to avoid the pirates. That would be too costly, especially with oil prices rising, Stewart says. He thinks the answer to Somali piracy lies landside. "The problem is that Somalia is such a basket case of a country," he says. It has no functioning government, only a weak interim one appointed by the United Nations, and it suffers from grinding poverty and an Islamist insurgency. It is a failed nation, and no outside power has the stomach to go in and build it back up. "I don't foresee any progress," Stewart says.

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Piracy is never easy to root out, as the United States found out when trying to deal with the Barbary pirates in the early 19th century, says Frank Lambert, a Purdue University historian and author of "The Barbary Wars, American Independence in the Atlantic World" (2005, Hill and Wang). "The Barbary pirates captured the first American ship in 1784, a year after Britain recognized United States independence," Lambert says. The U.S. Navy didn't bring the pirates to heel until 1816, when 17 warships descended on Algiers in a show of force that persuaded the Dey (leader) of Algiers to stop demanding tribute. Up to that time, the United States had been paying the pirates' sponsors (Algiers and Tripoli) $1 million a year - a sixth of the national budget - in tribute to leave U.S. shipping in the Mediterranean alone. However, the ante kept going up, and the pirates kept violating the agreement with impunity anyway.

Lambert doubts a military solution would work in Somalia and suspects that, like the Barbary pirates, Somali pirates will be with us for a while. "That's one of the things about pirates," he says. "They operate at the edges of imperial power. They are extremely opportunistic. They are able to duck, dodge and dart."

In the early 1800s, when the Barbary pirates were operating with impunity like the Somalis, U.S. ships looked for other markets to trade in and other places to sail to. "That might be the way to do things today," says Lambert.

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This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.