A year after Somali piracy peaked with more than 100 ships attacked, the world’s navies have assembled dozens of warships to combat the threat. David Axe joins the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook in Djibouti, to observe firsthand this “global war on piracy.”
by DAVID AXE
“Ship of interest off the port side,” the voice intoned over the ship’s PA system. It was near dusk on September 24th on the Gulf of Aden. The destroyer USS Donald Cook was zigzagging inside a patrol box assigned by NATO, trawling for Somali pirates.
I raced up four flights of stairs to the bridge, fingers crossed for an honest-to-God pirate or two to liven up my four-day embark on the 9,000-ton ship. But the vessel approaching on Donald Cook‘s port side was a medium-sized tanker, hull number 421, wearing the gray livery you usually see on military vessels. Plus, she had a blue-and-white-camouflaged Sea King helicopter on her flight deck. One country is famous for that style of camouflage. Iran.
The tanker wasn’t responding to hails from “DC,” as Donald Cook is known to her crew.
Ensign Roland Machado, a tall Cuban-American, was on watch. “There’s so many warships out here,” he breathed. He wasn’t kidding. Some 40 warships belonging to more than a dozen nations have assembled to deter pirates. They’re spread out from the Gulf of Aden all the way down to Mombasa, Kenya. Almost all the nations — the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, China and others — cooperate and share information. Just one country refuses to play ball. Iran has deployed several vessels to African waters, but refuses to be a team player. Iran is the only country not to participate in monthly coordination meetings in Bahrain.
“Usually it’s cordial,” Machado said of DC’s encounters with other warships, including Iran’s. “Sometimes it’s annoying.”
DC’s bridge crew pulled out a ship recognition guide, just to be sure of the tanker’s identity. Meanwhile, DC’s skipper, Captain Derek Granger, hustled in, wearing a t-shirt, shorts and combat boots and clutching a fresh cigar. He consulted with the crew. The Iranian tanker usually traveled with a frigate, Granger said — so where was the frigate? There were some objects on the radar, but it wasn’t clear what they were. These were crowded waters. “No military emissions. Com-nav only,” reported DC’s Combat Information Center. “I’m not surprised,” someone muttered. The Iranians aren’t famous for their rigorous adherence to standard military procedures.
Pirates or no, it was shaping up to be a strange night in Somali waters. Granger installed on the port bridge wing, lit his cigar and blasted Everclear on his iPod. “We can live beside the ocean, leave the fire behind,” the song warbled, “swim out past the breakers, watch the world die.”
(Photo: David Axe)