A decade ago the scourge of Somali piracy was posing a huge threat to shipping in the Gulf of Aden, Horn of Africa and Indian Ocean.
To the great relief of the maritime industry, the viability of this criminal ‘business model’ was eventually broken. The hijacking of ships by heavily-armed seagoing gangs and the capture of their crews for ransom is virtually a thing of the past. This improvement, however, has only been achieved at huge expense.
Academic studies of the cost of maritime Somali piracy at its height calculated that the damage to the global economy was in the order of $6 billion a year. The actual ransoms being paid, which peaked at $350m a year, were only a fraction of the real costs.
The real dent in the industry’s bottom line was made up of less obvious costs;
- Building secure ‘citadels’ below decks
- The fuel costs associated with longer alternative routes and higher speeds
- Delays and disruption
- Soaring insurance premiums
- ‘Danger money’ payments which became necessary to recruit crews
- Assembling a fleet of some 20 naval vessels to impose a military threat
- Putting expensive teams of guards on board merchant shipping and finding legal ways to arm them.
It took five long years to snuff-out this particularly pernicious crime but that, sadly is not the end of the piracy story. The global battle is far from over.
Shipping operates under the constant threat of criminality and piracy, albeit to a lesser degree, in many other parts of the world. In its simple form, this can be the opportunistic theft of valuables and possessions from ships in port by armed intruders or robbers. This can happen pretty much anywhere, particularly in ports and territories where security is poor or law enforcement weak.
Other crimes include the armed theft of cargo, goods or perhaps fuel, from vessels at sea. In these circumstances the crew may be threatened into submission for a short time, perhaps a few hours.
There have been incidences of the capture of a vessel and its cargo where the officers and crew have been set adrift and their vessel stolen, too. It’s believed that after discharging the stolen cargo these vessels are usually scuttled at sea. They tend to vanish without trace.
The IBM and ICC keep detailed real-time records of where and when numerous incidences of this kind occur.
The increasing occurrence of ‘lower-grade’ acts of piracy raises the question of how individual ship-owners and fleets can protect their assets, cargoes and crew to an appropriate degree without entailing many of the prohibitive costs.
Whilst positioned on board a vessel as part of a security team, our vessel was attacked by Somali pirates.
In order to survive the attack in 2010 the security team and I kept the crew safe using improvised devices to lock, block and jam doors and portholes, creating an impenetrable superstructure ‘citadel’ which included the bridge.
As a result of this experience I set up a business, Easi-Chock, which supplies relatively simple, and inexpensive mechanical devices to ‘harden’ any ship which may face a pirate attack.
Since Easi-Chock was established in 2013, the company has hardened 150 vessels, including bulk carriers, container ships and tankers with what are, in effect, sophisticated, engineered versions of the improvised devices we fashioned during his fraught voyage.
The range includes a number of door-chocks, toughened access door plates, lock reinforcements and porthole grilles. Combined, they create an enlarged area on the superstructure, including the bridge where possible, which the pirates find very difficult, time-consuming or impossible to penetrate.
While Somali piracy is no longer in the news, the threat remains, as highlighted by recent attacks. Piracy and acts of violent robbery are still rife, especially where the use of armed guards is not possible. The Straits of Malacca, South China Sea, Sulu Sea and the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa are the worst ‘hotspots’.
At present, international guidance recommends that ships should be protected by water cannons and razor wire. However, these measures have been found to have limited effectiveness in practice. Using inflatables and hooked ladders the assailants can often dislodge or surmount the razor wire. Water cannons have limited directional capability. It’s almost impossible to sink an inflatable by submersion and the pirates don’t seem to worry about getting a soaking.
The alternative, teams of armed guards, can cost anything between $10,000 and $15,000 per transit. They are often recruited for voyages through the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean but the overall cost of these and other measures, like faster transit speeds and longer routes, still cost the shipping industry billions of pounds per year.
Our system turns the whole of the superstructure into a safe haven by introducing several layers of defense with all the crew safely located in the engine room. The system’s objective is to delay, deny and demoralise pirates. They panic if they are unable to violently intimidate the crew and quickly gain control of the vessel. They also know that the vessel’s distress signals will be producing a rapid military response. They choose to abandon their attempts before being caught and brought to justice. They know there are very onerous penalties for acts of piracy in many jurisdictions.
What started as an instinctive form of self-preservation in desperate conditions has ended up as my mission and my business.
When your back’s to the wall, you think fast on your feet and act with feverish urgency. If it works, you remember exactly what you did and why.
There have been zero reports of successful attacks on vessels fitted with Easi-Chock products.
To fit Easi-Chock equipment on a typical tanker involves a non-recurring cost of approximately £10,000.
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