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Modern Piracy

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USS Bainbridge tows the lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama after Somali pirate attack, 14 Apr 2009.

Whatever you might have heard, piracy is not a thing of the past. In fact it is larger, more organised and more profitable than ever. Worse still, these aren't the kind, shanty-singing pirates seen in films. With dozens killed every year, piracy is not for amusement, it is for abhorrence.

There has been recorded piracy for millennia, but it has normally been either single ships commanded by captains who required victory, and more importantly booty, to maintain their position, or privateers initially sponsored by certain governments. The privateers would have an amount of legal protection in the form of Letters of Marque, in return for attacking only ships of certain countries. Since pirates don't generally follow the rules, and countries being attacked don't appreciate pieces of paper, the Letters of Marque were often ignored.

Summary of Modern Piracy

Piracy is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as:

Any criminal acts of violence, detention, rape, or depredation committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or aircraft that is directed on the high seas against another ship, aircraft, or against persons or property on board a ship or aircraft.

Who's at Risk?

Other than everyone? Everyone is affected by piracy, but acts of piracy are usually aimed at certain types of vessels. These are generally either large commercial container ships, worth a fortune to their companies, or small yachts with a few passengers, easy to capture and hide. Some categories of boat are generally safe; passenger liners have so many crew and passengers that they make extremely difficult pickings for any pirate.


The wide variety of pirate groups will each have different bases on land. Each one, however, will share common characteristics. The bases themselves must be isolated, but be capable of maintaining themselves (this is normally done by sea); attached to this necessity is that of a shoreline or lee capable of landing boats and small ships. The bases will be well defended to aid fighting off possible attacks by land. Their size will vary depending on the pirates' knowledge of military action - a larger camp is harder to defend, but can support more boats and hold more stolen cargo.

The crucial feature of any pirate camp is its geographical location. They must be based in a country without the capability to shut down the piracy. As well as this, the country must be unwilling to accept assistance from outside countries, that otherwise might eliminate the pirates' support base. This normally means that countries that are suffering political and/or social upheaval are preferred, especially those that are hostile to large maritime countries.

Financial Backing

Pirates require a modicum of financial backing to hire soldiers and sailors and to purchase some firearms. The extremely high levels of poverty in most areas where piracy is rife make it easy to find willing members, given the potential to make enormous fortunes very quickly. A background knowledge of shipping patterns and possibly information concerning actions of different navies add greatly to the chances of a successful attack.

Large Ships

Most pirate groups will have at least one large mothership. This ship will be what goes to sea for extended periods of time. It will travel an area of sea looking for a suitable ship to attack. Fifty people is a common number to be aboard such a ship with all the weapons, food and other support that any attack might require.

Smaller Ships

On finding a target vessel, several smaller boats are generally launched. These are generally high speed powerboats with perhaps ten pirates on each. These are used as they are faster than the ships they are attempting to catch and because it is too potentially costly to risk the larger ships, a substantial part of the pirates' base. Finally smaller ships, obviously, are harder to see and have a smaller radar return.

Taking Ships

There are several actions involved when pirates capture a ship. Firstly they must find one, either by travelling in frequented areas, by luck or by insider knowledge where a crew member will send the current navigation information to pirates. Knowing where the ship is allows the pirates and small boats to be launched to close on the ship. Normally the boats will try and sneak up from behind, which often acts as a radar blackspot and is less frequently viewed by crew members.

The first method of capturing a ship is just by demonstrating strength. Either guns or rockets are fired to try and persuade the crew members to surrender and allow the pirates on board without a fight. If this doesn't work pirates will try using either a rope ladder or grappling hooks to get onboard the ship. Once onboard, the pirates will try to secure the ship's critical areas, such as the bridge and engine room. Rounding up crew members is a priority since otherwise they may contact help or disable the ship to prevent its movement to a more dangerous area.

If necessary, the pirates may damage the ship to prevent it escaping. Even a small number of rockets will have a massive effect on a ship, and any ship carrying volatile substances, such as natural gas, risks becoming an enormous fire if the pirates choose to fire on it.

If there is a bribed crew member on board, they may attempt various actions that make it far easier for pirates to capture a ship. These include deactivating the distress signal, giving more time for any captured ship to be moved to a safe haven for the pirates before any help can reach the crew. If on watch, the bribed crew member can ignore the approach of the pirates allowing a stealthy capture of the ship, reducing chances of the crew successfully resisting.


The crew of any captured ship will normally be left onboard until reaching a pirate port where they will be held. The hostages ensure that companies and governments will respond to demands made by the pirates. They also make it far harder for navies to retake the ship without loss of innocent life. Pirates will almost always treat any hostages well - dead hostages are worth little to companies. Governments are more likely to act against pirates that have murdered their nationals and any remaining crew members are likely to try and escape or retake the ship if they consider themselves at risk. The only risk to hostages from pirates once a ship has been fully taken is if pirates have been killed while taking the ship, and the remainder wish to take revenge.

Ransoms of People and Ships

The primary way that pirates make money is by returning the crew, ship and cargo to the owners. Evidently this is not out of the goodness of their hearts. Once the ship has been subdued and the ship has been docked at a safe port, the pirates will ring the company (on a satellite phone). They will then tell the owners that the crew and ship are in good condition (hopefully). At this point, the company will do several things, only two of which will pertain to getting the crew and ship back. These are:

  • Seeing whether there is any chance of retaking the ship - by the nature of where the pirates choose to stop, this is an unlikely option.
  • Handing over negotiations about the ransoming to one of several negotiation specialist groups that focus on dealing with pirates, often based in countries such as Switzerland. The ransom value is generally calculated by the value of the ship and the payouts given to pirates previously. With the combination of these two factors, costs have been skyrocketing over just a few years. A decade ago, £40,000 was a possible payout to pirates, nowadays £10,000,000 is possible.

While the cost is being figured out, the insurance companies are watching to see what they will be required to pay out. Pirate insurance is a common feature with commercial ships; however, small yachts with a few passengers will have to rely on their personal wealth or that of friends to pay their ransom in order to buy their freedom.


Cargo is normally returned with the ships - the thousands of containers on a modern container ship are far too many for most pirates to be able to transport to possible markets. The same is likely to apply to ships holding enormous amounts of oil or gas. Anything convenient however, such as cash, valuable items and small amounts of cargo that can be used, will quickly be stolen to supplement the payments given to pirates.

There are certain so-called hostile ports, that act against the interests of most countries, where it is possible for large amounts of cargo to be offloaded and then sold on. However due to the scarcity of ports that are both willing to act against the large maritime nations and are large enough to deal with ships hundreds of metres long, it is a rare option.

High-Risk Areas

There are a surprisingly large number of areas currently deemed to have a high risk of piracy. Despite the appearance that the entire sea entails doom, the areas listed occupy only a small amount of our very large oceans. Nevertheless within the waters given below, there is a notable threat, and so it pays to try and pick as safe a route as possible.

There are three main areas within which piracy is mainly contained, with specific sub-sections.

South East Asia

  • Bangladesh: attacks are often made while ships are anchored. Most attacks are made while close to the shoreline.
  • Indonesia: well-armed pirates usually attack at night. Piracy groups note that if spotted sufficiently early, the pirates will usually break off their attack.
  • Malaysia: it is rare for larger ships to be taken but barges and tugs, usually safer due to their lower values and higher crew/passenger numbers, are common prey.
  • Singapore Straits: once the bane of ships sailing through them, the area has improved in security due to an enormous fleet deployment to counteract the piracy. Nevertheless, attacks have not ceased.
  • The South China Sea and Vietnam are also reporting rises in pirate activity, with little protection yet being offered around Vietnam.


  • Nigeria: many attacks have been made, along with high fatality rates in all areas of Nigerian waters. Raids are especially common, with many attacks not being reported.
  • Gulf of Aden: a very dangerous area, with several ships sunk after being fired at by rocket-propelled grenades. Most ships captured will be taken to Somalia to prevent them being retaken.
  • Somalia: perhaps the most well-known of piracy areas, most would say it deserved its reputation. A complete lack of internal government prevents land suppression of pirate bases and allows piracy to occur with near invulnerability. Attacks have occurred up to 1,000 nautical miles from the Somali coastline.

South America and Central America

  • Brazil: attacks have risen year after year, despite measures taken to eradicate the piracy. As one area is cleansed pirates move into another.
  • Peru: attacks often occur while the ships are docked, including times when despite ships having left watchmen guarding the ship, pirates have either subdued or killed the guards and then taken the ships
  • Haiti: attacks have been prevalent on approach and soon after departure of ships, as well as at shore. Piracy is reasonably rare further away from shore.

The above is not a definitive list of possible dangerous places, even within the areas mentioned. It does not exclude other locations all over the world - many places can be dangerous, especially straits. Up-to-date lists of risk zones are freely available and should always be researched before any voyage out into the sea.

Defences - Governments vs Ships

Defences against piracy can be separated into two primary areas: what can ships do and what can governments do?


There are many things that ships, of any size, can do rather than sit still while pirates hoist the Jolly Roger and take over. Some of these may appear blindingly obvious, some might appear not to have much apparent effect at first sight and others might appear to be impossible for a certain ship or company to do. Most wise ship crews use a mix of methods that suit them and update them as necessary.

  • Lookouts: so obvious and yet the Mark One Eyeball (preferably enhanced by binoculars) is extremely good at picking pirates up at a range. If pirates are spotted at a distance, then ships have many more options open to them - they can take evasive action, send out a distress call and warning, prepare a defence and many other things. Much of what a ship can do requires a small amount of forewarning of an attack; the more warning the better. The reason why ships don't always have several crewmen out on deck looking around is simple: more crew means more cost and companies always strive to cut costs. A crewman's salary, though, costs less than a ship, so it is to be hoped that all ships have lookouts on guard.

  • Searchlights: many pirate attacks happen at night, for simple reasons of visibility. Searchlights help counteract this problem, but still need crewmen on watch to make use of them.

  • Radar: all modern ships will have radar, but most large ones have a blind spot dead behind them. The use of extra radar allows ships to eliminate this blind spot. While the initial cost can be high, maintenance is not too costly, so this is becoming an increasingly popular option by larger ships. It is however providing a false sense of security, where ships don't think to watch out for smaller ships with harder to spot radar signatures.

  • Safe Rooms: technically, these aren't ways of fighting piracy. Safe rooms - aka citadels - are places within a ship that are resistant to pirates, where the crew can shelter. Strong, large enough for all the crew and well stocked with resources and communication devices, it protects the crew in case of capture. This can actually deter pirates for several reasons: pirates have small ships, they often need the crew to manage large ships and while armed forces are often against storming a ship with hostages, when the crew has been confirmed as safe, ships have been retaken.

  • Electric fences: a step up from those used to guard your cattle, these 9,000-volt fences prevent the sides of a ship being climbed. They can, of course, be turned off when letting customs officials come on board. The system can be quite complicated but has been improving in design for the last few years.

  • Dazzle gun: this is a laser that when shone into a pirate's eyes temporarily blinds them. They have been available for several years now and are quite common on large commercial ships, they are slowly appearing for smaller ships as well.

  • Armed guards: at the moment, if you have these on any ship that isn't part of a navy, you are breaking the law. However maritime law is being looked at to see whether licensed private guards could be placed on at-risk ships. This could well prove a disincentive to pirates. It could also prove dangerous to those guarding the ships, although trained personnel that are always present allow a more consistent level of security.


Which of these quotes would you agree with? Eternity begins and ends with the ocean's tides or Nothing that happened an ocean away seems very threatening. Certainly those crewing the ships, both genuine and pirate, would think the former, and yet huge hordes of people, and many governments would agree with the latter. What can and should be done is shown below.

  • Ships: most governments deploy parts of their navy to protect shipping routes. The problem is that there only a few frigates, destroyers etc. There are a lot of pirates, a lot of ships that can be held to ransom and a massive amount of space for any hijacking to take place. The chance that a ship is in exactly the place at the right time is always unlikely. Nevertheless, extensive patrolling of an area will always reduce the pirate activity, and is helpful in resolving any situation where piracy has occurred.

  • Shipping Lanes: by telling ships that they should only pass through specific parts of dangerous waters, it cuts down the size of the area that has to be patrolled. This creates a higher chance of there being a nearby ship in case of emergency. It also means navy ships can hunt down ships outside the lanes and inquire their reasons for being there. Clearly this is more helpful the more countries that agree to it.

  • Convoys: this does sound rather like what you would expect in a world war; nevertheless, it is extremely helpful and quite practical. Ships of similar speed are placed together. If guarded, they are easier to guard, and even if not, the larger number of ships means more crewmen to watch for pirates.

  • Negotiating: another method that is not technically a defence against piracy. Governments can assist in the negotiating for hostages. While governments will not pay the fees, they will often provide the personnel to conduct talks with the pirates. This is especially helpful for those who aren't part of large shipping firms with trained personnel concerning hostage taking.

  • Land security: this takes many forms from stable governance to ensuring jobs to patrols along the shore. Pirates rarely operate out of stable countries where there are opportunities for jobs and a sufficient military to eradicate any land base. Countries should therefore help ensure that other countries remain stable and assist them in matters concerning piracy if asked. Revolts and riots on land often trigger pirate attacks hundreds of miles from shore.

Maritime Law

Maritime law is what is supposed to cover all matters concerning ships travelling between nations, especially those of the High Seas, the waters which are outside of any individual country's national jurisdiction. However there are massive flaws concerning maritime law and piracy. Maritime law includes quite a long section on privateering; since this is no longer a way of warfare, however, these laws are of little use.

Maritime law, as it stands, only gives true jurisdiction to countries over their own citizens (meaning, in theory, that a British frigate could only protect a container ship if either the crew or the pirates were British). This means that many parts of either national or more obscure parts of maritime law must be used. Attempts are being made to alter the law to allow more effective combating of piracy; however, there are several flaws with respect to capturing pirates under modern laws. The most critical of these is that the capturing party is responsible for imprisoning the pirates and then dealing with them after their release from prison.

The difficulty in holding and punishing any captured pirates is reducing much of the deterrent factor that any armed presence might provide. Frequently, captured pirates are simply let go, with their possessions destroyed. If pirates believe they can raid and have no possible consequence other than the loss of some guns that cost less than 1/100th of the potential profit from a single successful attack, then there is no reason to stop.

The Cost of Piracy

The true costs of piracy cannot be conveyed by cold statistics, but this Researcher hopes that the staggering costs of piracy will eliminate any sympathy for the murdering robbers who are spreading across some of the busiest parts of our world.

The obvious costs are those of ransoming hostages or lost ships. These are large but there are massive costs aside from these: replacing lost cargo, insuring ships, rerouting ships to avoid pirating zones, protecting ships and the costs of naval forces. The rough cost in 2010 alone is believed to be 10 billion US dollars. The lost profit that the ships would otherwise have provided would have been over one billion US dollars. That means in one year alone 11 billion dollars, bigger than many countries' national budgets, was lost due to pirates.

The true cost cannot just be counted in money though. Since 2006, when more detailed records started to be kept of the threat piracy posed, nearly 4,000 innocent crewmen have been taken prisoner, hundreds have been tortured and over 100 killed. These are not pirates who let orphans go, they are murderers.

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