by DAVID AXE
In April, the American crew of the container ship Maersk Alabama fought off an attempted hijacking by Somali pirates 250 miles from the Somali coast. As the pirates boarded the vessel, most of the crew locked themselves in the ship’s superstructure, denying pirates the access they needed to seize control. Eventually, the crew counter-attacked, holding one of the pirates and forcing the others off the vessel and into a lifeboat. Maersk Alabama’s captain Richard Phillips had been kidnapped in the brief struggle; the crew’s attempt to trade their captive for Phillips failed, but three days later U.S. Navy snipers killed three of the pirates and freed Phillips.
Maersk Alabama’s struggle was not an isolated incident. As Somali piracy has evolved over the years from opportunistic coastal banditry to sophisticated high-seas crime, so too have seafarers’ defenses. In December 2008, the crew of a Chinese fishing trawler Zhenua 4 barricaded themselves atop the elevated bridge of their vessel as pirates clambered aboard. The crew emptied beer bottles, filled them with fuel, lit them and tossed them like hand grenades at the attacking pirates. The makeshift defenses stalled the pirates long enough for international warships to approach, scaring off the pirates.
Across the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, merchant crews are adopting increasingly effective defenses measures. Commodore Steve Chick, senior officer of a five-ship NATO counter-piracy task force patrolling the Gulf of Aden, recalls flying across the Gulf of Aden in his Lynx helicopter to survey ships’ defenses. He saw ships with barbed wire on their railings, with access ladders cut or raised, and with fire hoses primed to shoot down any boarders. These tricks, combined with improved security on land and the presence of some 40 warships in East Africa waters, have turned the tide in the “global war on piracy.” Between July and September last year, there were 17 hijackings. This year in the same period, there was just one.