Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

To the Teeth

April 5th, 2011 · 5 Comments


Granted, I haven’t been following the whole “rebirth of piracy” story as closely as I should be. But I nevertheless floored to read this assessment of just how bad the situation has gotten, particularly for sailors who lack the personal financial resources to wriggle free of captivity:

Some 600 seafarers are at present held for ransom, and the average time in captivity has extended to around eight months. No nation had a strategy to tackle the problem, and seafarers were daily running the gauntlet of armed pirates, with ships’ superstructures being penetrated by rocket propelled grenades, said Mr Hinchliffe. Unfortunately most flag states did not have the resources at their finger tips to provide military guards in the theatre of operation. “In these exceptional circumstances, it is our belief that the use of armed guards, private security, be permitted by the flag state when considered appropriate.”

The riddle of how to stop a crime wave of this nature is near-and-dear to my heart, as it’s central to the book I’m currently working on (often referred to in this space as “my next major project”). My reporting has taught me that when private concerns run the cost-benefit analysis on implementing meaningful security measures, they often conclude that it’s cheaper to lose a certain percentage of their business to crooks. Lost loads can be covered by insurance, and if a shipping company waits long enough, it can doubtless win its employees’ freedom for a relative song. (Somali pirates obviously hope to stumble upon sailors whose families have the means to pay sizable ransoms, but that is a huge gamble given that the majority of modern ship staff are Filipinos and Bangladeshis who come from exceedingly modest means.)

In lieu of hiring pricey armed guards, then, the easy solution would be to arm the sailors themselves. Yet would this lead to a noticeable uptick in on-board violence between sailors? It’s extremely difficult to come by data regarding sailor-on-sailor crime aboard container ships. But I did find one study, which concludes that such violence is relatively rare:

Out of a total of 200 deaths in flags of convenience shipping, illnesses caused 68 deaths, accidents 91, homicide 3, suicide 7, drug and alcohol intoxication 4, and disappearances at sea and other unknown causes 27. Deaths from non-natural causes and, in particular, maritime disasters accounted for a significantly higher proportion of all deaths in flags of convenience than in British shipping. The maritime disasters largely involved small cargo ships foundering or disappearing in bad weather.

I actually feel that arms distribution wouldn’t create significantly more sailor-on-sailor crime, since the cramped environment of a vessel provides no chance of escape, thereby ruling out most premediated assaults and homicides. But handing out guns would certainly given crew members more leverage in dealing with abusive captains, which is something that shipping companies don’t want to encourage. For the moment, then, sailors entering the Gulf of Aden or other risky waters better keep their fingers crossed that their ensuing eight months won’t be spent chained to a basement furnace in Mogadishu.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    I’d be interested to read a comparison of Somalian Pirates vs. the ones in the Indonesia / Malaysia area.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: If you poke around here, I’m well nigh convinced that you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for.

  • Gramsci

    I’m sure Xe is readying some promotional material as we speak.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: They’re way ahead of you.

    Tough part will be making the economics work out. Only a small percentage of ships are seized–still a lot of traffic through that part of the world. Putting armed guards on each one would be prohibitively expensive for most shipping companies, which are notoriously obsessed with cutting costs (hence the whole flags-of-convenience racket).

  • scottstev

    The other aspect of corporate life to consider is the incentive to specialize. A proper drone will want to diffuse responsibility as much as possible to avoid blame when something goes wrong “Don’t blame me, I followed Security Dept’s recommendations to a T.” Plus, the reward for excessive competence is excess work, so it would be a very unique company that would develop a security plan that relies on ordinary sailors (even though it might be the most effective), instead of following standard procedures, and being properly insured.

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