The ships that make the two-day run from Mombasa, Kenya, to Somalia carrying vital humanitarian supplies are frequent targets of pirate attacks — and have been for more than a decade. How have ship’s crew adapted? Same way the pirates have adapted over the years: with simple technology and no-nonsense tactics.
On Wednesday, the small cargo vessel Semlow, an old veteran of the Somali humanitarian route that was hijacked by pirates and held for 110 days back in 2005, prepares for a Sunday run to Mogadishu carrying hundreds of tones of split peas and other foodstuffs. Captain Edward Kalendero gives me a tour of the bridge. In the small, wood-paneled map alcove on the starboard side, he points out the green-and-black screen of a simple ranging radar. Kalendero says he uses it to spot incoming boats. If he decides they’re hostile, he can turn tail and open the throttle.
According to experts in Mombasa, you need to exceed 20 knots to outrun pirates. It’s not clear that rickety old Semlow can make that speed.
Stealth is a more reliable tactic. Kalendero lays out a detailed chart of the waters around Mogadishu and traces the most dangerous zone with his finger. When Semlow breaches this zone, he said, it will be night — and he will rig the ship for silent running. That means turning out all the lights and minimizing noise. Rigged like that, Kalendero says, a pirate can pass within yards and not even know Semlow’s there.
But if they are detected, and there’s no chance of outrunning the attackers, there’s one last measure. Kalendero crosses the bridge to the port side and opens a door to the closet-size radio room. He pops open a tiny cabinet. Inside is a white plastic device shaped like a garage-door opener. This, he says, is the panic button. Press this, and it alerts Semlow’s owners, by radio, that the vessel is under attack.
Now, alerting the owner won’t save the ship from being captured. But it will speed the process of ransoming the ship and crew, and hopefully head off any desperate, violent acts by impatient, panicky kidnappers.