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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 February 2006, 09:59 GMT
Captain counts the cost of piracy
By Margaret Ryan
BBC News

Tales of swashbuckling pirates seizing ships on the high seas are the stuff of folklore and children's stories - real piracy has a human and financial cost, as one former naval captain knows only too well.

The recent attempted pirate attack on the luxury cruise liner Seabourn Spirit, sailing in the Indian Ocean off Somalia, may have focused attention on the issue but piracy is not something that has ever been confined to storytelling and the history books.

Somali pirates
Pirates attacked a cruise liner off Somalia last year

Capt Neale Rodrigues had to take over a ship after its former captain and chief officer had been killed by pirates.

"It takes something like the Seabourn to highlight the issue but merchant ships are attacked every single week," he said.

Traumatised crew

Capt Rodrigues took command of a small container ship after it was attacked en route from Australia to Singapore.

When the 10-men crew heard shots in the night most of them locked themselves in their cabins but the captain and chief officer were later found shot dead.

Captain Neale Rodrigues
Captain Rodrigues: You are defenceless once they are on board

It is believed they were killed after the pirates demanded money. The unmanned ship continued on its course for an hour and a half before the crew emerged to find their shipmates killed.

The survivors were first accused of having mutinied but were later accepted as victims.

When Capt Rodrigues took over the helm he had a new crew as the other men were too traumatised to return.

"We agreed everyone was on piracy watch. I never had to force anyone to go out. They were always up on the bridge."

On first boarding the ship, he said: "I told myself lightning doesn't strike twice."

But he may have thought he had spoken too soon when one night a few months later the ship was approached by a couple of speedboats off the Indonesian islands, south of Singapore.

"We got out the search lights and torches and sounded the alarms," he recalled.

The measures worked as the speedboats gave up their pursuit.

But he later heard pirates had boarded another ship, tied up the chief engineer and ransacked the vessel.

Ransom demands

Capt Rodrigues, who now works for the Standard P&I Club, which insures shipowners, said the best way to avoid being taken by pirates was to keep them off the ship.

"Once they are on board they are armed and you lose control of the ship. You are defenceless," he said.

They hold the crew to ransom and shipowners are left with little choice but to pay
Jayant Abhyankar, IMB

If ships are hijacked it is the job of Alex Pinto to help track them down on behalf of shipping companies and insurers.

In Somalia, pirates tend to be more concerned with getting a ransom rather than stealing the ships for parts or cargo, said Mr Pinto, director of marine and risk consultancy.

But in the busy shipping lane of the Malacca Strait in South East Asia his firm last year helped find five vessels seized by pirates.

Mr Pinto warned speed is crucial in combating a trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

"After about 24 hours, it becomes like finding a needle in a haystack".

"And with every passing day it becomes less possible to recover it.

Pirates can take a smaller vessel to a remote location and dispose of the cargo and cut it up quickly," he said.

Ships may be stripped down and components resold or altered and then sold.

Alternatively they may lie undetected and rusting for months in a remote cove.

Crew adrift

He said the success rate of getting ships back had improved since the introduction of tracking devices.

His firm is currently helping recover a ship and its cargo of tin, after it was attacked by pirates en route from Indonesia to Singapore last year.

Somalia has become a hotspot for piracy

The pirates scuttled the ship after the crew had thwarted their hijack attempt by disabling the engine. Thanks to the tracking device the vessel has been found.

While a ship's crew may fall under suspicion for having helped plan a raid, Mr Pinto knows they often suffer the most.

He helped a ship where a crew had been set adrift in lifeboats with few rations and resorted to drinking their own urine before they were rescued a fortnight later.

"No one wanted to come close because they thought they were pirates."

The situation in the Malacca Straits improved last year, with only 12 cases reported, compared to 38 the previous year, according to the International Maritime Bureau's annual piracy report.

Better law enforcement by the Malaysian and Indonesian authorities has helped, according to the IMB's deputy director Jayant Abhyankar.

But Somalia has become a piracy hotspot where the situation is now so serious ships not making scheduled calls at Somali ports, are being advised to keep at least 200 nautical miles from the coastline.

Thirty five piracy incidents were reported in Somalia last year compared to just two in 2004, according to the IMB.

Despite a rise in attacks in some areas, the number of reported piracy attacks reported globally for 2005 fell from 329 in 2004 to 276 in 2005, the lowest recorded figure in six years.

And no crewmembers were killed, although 12 remain missing.

Loyal crew

Somalia's poor record is partly because of an unstable government and the lure of ransoms, said Mr Abhyankar.

"They hold the crew to ransom and shipowners are left with little choice but to pay, when human life is involved."

Shipowners can improve security with electrified fences, searchlights locked, accommodation and employing a loyal, vigilant crew.

But security measures can only go so far in tackling a problem which, according to the IMB, costs transport vessels $13-$15bn a year in losses in the waters between the Pacific and Indian Ocean alone.

"You accept there is a risk as part of the job but only up to a point. It takes governments to change things," said Capt Rodrigues.

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