Review – Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas

Pirates often find their prey to be easy pickings

These stories about Pirates are Fact, not Fiction

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Dangerous Waters

Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas

John S. Burnett


<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />New York, New York


Reviewed By Captain E.H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.)


Even author John Burnett might have though pirates were the stuff of storybooks, of vivid imaginations, of swashbucklers and Peter Pan and Captain Hook.  But Burnett found out the hard way that thieves prowl the sea-lanes in search of easy victims.  Himself a victim of a pirate attack, he set out to shed light on the subject of crime and terrorism on the high seas.  Piracy is real, and a deadly serious problem.


According to Burnett, piracy is a crime that has been around since the earliest hunter-gatherer floated down some wilderness river on a log raft and was robbed of his prized piece of meat.  “He probably defended himself better than the lumbering slow moving merchant ships that are so often attacked today.  As we’ve seen, every vessel at sea is vulnerable to piracy or act of maritime terrorism.  From the state-of-the-art warship USS Cole to the modern VLCC M/V Limburg, from fishing boats and yachts to large passenger ferries and cruise ships.” 


Burnett narrowly survived a 1992 pirate attack while on a solo voyage aboard his own sloop Unicorn within just hours of Singapore.  In 2001 he joined the 300,000-ton very large crude carrier (VLCC) Montrose, carrying oil from the Middle East.  Carrying as much 2 million barrels of crude, could such a huge ship be victimized by pirates?    Burnett set out to see for himself.  Later, Burnett sailed with Petro Concord, a smaller tanker, but a large ship nonetheless, in the South China Sea.


Burnett also share other pirate stories, like the tale of the tanker Valiant Carrier, which was firebombed by pirates who turned violent, and severely beat the master, his wife and their child. 


The “Anti-Shipping Activity Message” about Valiant Carrier is an officious understatement:


STRAIT OF SINGAPORE-Vicinity of Bintan Island. 242200LAPR92 ten armed pirates boarded the VALIANT CARRIER unnoticed despite illumination, piracy watch set, and additional precautions. Stolen were $4000.00 cash and personal possessions. Injured were the Captain's infant daughter, Captain's wife, Captain, and Navigation Officer.


Piracy is not only a nasty business, it is deadly.  When pirates attacked the Baltimar Zephyr in 1992, they killed the ship’s master and first officer and threw three seamen overboard.  The pirates absconded with several hundred dollars, leaving the moving ship’s bridge unattended for ninety minutes until the crew freed themselves. 


Montrose’s captain reads the daily situation reports from the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur as they come off the telex.  “Very useful,” the skipper says.  “This could happen to us as well.” 


I confess that I check these reports myself every week (


Pirates are smart.  They catch their prey largely unaware, and make of with cash, cargo, consumables and whatever valuables they can carry.  In some cases the pirates are part of a crime syndicate.  In other cases they are poor villagers who see a ship as an easy mark.  One ship had the clothes taken from the laundry.  One crew arrived in port and requested clothing.  Authorities found the captain standing naked behind the wheel.  Ships may have strong boxes, but carry little cash. 


Some pirates take mooring lines so they can be taken apart and the fibers used to make fishing nets.  Pirates may be armed with guns, or perhaps just machetes known as “long knives.”  They may have masks to conceal their identity and for shock value.  Mariners are instructed not to resist or fight back.  But they don’t have to make it easy for the pirates, either.


A VLCC is big.  It takes a half hour just to stop. 


Shipping lanes like the Singapore Straits are crowded.  As many as 25 ships pass through them each hour.  With Malaysia to the North and Indonesia to the south, there are many places for pirates to hide.  Most ships have watch standers patrol the decks and keep deck lights on during transits in pirate-prone waters, and many rig fire hoses to make it harder for pirates to board.  The Montrose’s skipper had a pair of dummies rigged to simulate watchful eyes.


The seafarers unions in the United Kingdom chided ship owners about their reluctance to rig video camera systems topside, remarking the petrol companies spend more money on a service station surveillance cameras than on a system for a supertanker.  Some ships have mercenaries (Said one such professional, “We really try not to kill them.  There are administrative problems.”), such as retired Special Forces personnel, or even Nepalese Gurkhas.  All for good reason.  Piracy reportedly costs $16 billion a year.


Pirates have been known to steal a ship, paint out the name and give it a new identity.  New technology allows for transponders to use satellites to track the whereabouts of ships.  But most ships don’t have these “automated voyage monitoring system” devices.


The pirates often find their prey to be easy pickings.  “Merchant ships are the lowest hanging fruit of world commerce,” Burnett says.  Nearly ninety-five percent of world commerce is transported by ship. The most essential of all commodities shipped in bulk is oil. Sixty percent of the world’s crude oil is carried on supertankers and even larger Very Large Crude Carriers.  And they are defenseless.  Fire hoses blasting outboard, an extra crewmember patrolling the decks, the transom illuminated by halogen lamps; these precautions cannot stop a pirate determine to board the vessel. Indeed, they these only serve to alert pirates that this ship is aware it is steaming through pirate territory and that another ship without these obvious defenses might present a softer target.


Piracy today is a crime, and it is out of control, Burnett says, no matter the well-meaning efforts of governments.  “A ship is easy to take down.  Pirates know that it is far less risky to rob a ship than it is to rob a bank.  Few pirates are ever caught and fewer prosecuted.”


Burnett reports that the highest number of attacks last year occurred in Indonesian waters, followed by attacks in the Malacca Straits and then Nigeria. “The greatest concern at the present is piracy in the congested Malacca Straits, through which half of the world’s supply of oil and a third of world’s commerce passes.  The straits winds through numerous islands, with many places for pirates to hide ands await the target of their choosing.”


Because of the strategic importance of the straits, he says, the high number of attacks and the threat that terrorists in the region will learn to become pirates, the littoral states of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have established joint patrols, increased intelligence sharing, and formed a joint radar surveillance project.  Yet an indispensable tool to combat piracy, hot pursuit, the right to chase pirates back to their liars in another country’s territory, has not been resolved. Most attacks are launched from the Indonesian side of the Straits. When Indonesian pirates attack a ship on the Malaysian side, the Malaysian Navy or Royal Malaysian Marine Police can only chase them to the territorial limits and then watch helplessly as the pirates on their fast boats flee to their kampongs in the mangrove swamps.  Certainly in this area, if hot pursuit were permitted, piracy would be severely curtailed, Burnett says.




Edward Lundquist is a senior technical director for the Center for Security Strategies and Operations, Anteon Corporation, Washington, D.C.  He is a retired U.S. Navy captain.

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