In December, a vessel with four men aboard eased into the port of Massawa in the East African country of Eritrea. It was an unplanned stop. The ship, operated by Protection Vessels International, a British company, had encountered rough weather and run short of fuel while sailing through pirate-infested waters around the island of Romia.
At any other time, under any other circumstances, the vessel’s fuel call would have been routine. But this was no typical ship — and times were not normal. What happened after the vessel entered Massawa is indicative of a dangerous, and sometimes confusing, new era for seafarers in East African waters.
For five years now, pirates have waged an escalating campaign of banditry and kidnapping against the roughly 25,000 commercial vessels that pass through the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean every year. Pirates, armed with guns and rockets and riding in fast fishing boats called “skiffs,” have captured an average of 40 large vessels a year. Ransoms can be a million dollars or more. Last year, eight seafarers died in pirate attacks.
Today around 30 warships from a dozen nations patrol these waters. But with nearly 3 million square miles of ocean within range of pirate enclaves, the warships are spread too thinly to prevent most attacks. Increasingly, the larger shipping lines are turning to armed guards — former military personnel, mostly — to protect vessels during their transits.