Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Thursday, 19 February 2009

Somali pirate patrol: Day one


On the deck of HMS Northumberland

The BBC's Jonah Fisher has joined British Royal Navy frigate HMS Northumberland as it patrols the Gulf of Aden in an EU taskforce to deter Somali pirates.

In the first instalment of his diary from the ship's deck, our correspondent finds that even with a fleet of warships, catching the seaborne hijackers is not as easy as one might imagine.


We've been at sea now for a few hours and still no sign of Keira Knightley or Johnny Depp.

Once the Somalis have scrambled up a ladder on to deck there is no prospect of a rescue bid
It's an obvious joke. But the deployment of a British frigate off Somalia's coast and in the Gulf of Aden shows just how seriously the struggle against modern piracy is now being taken.

HMS Northumberland has for the last three months been part of the European Union's anti-piracy Combined Task Force Atalanta.

It's one of six warships from across the continent trying to cover an area of more than a million square miles (2.6m sq km).

From Mombasa in the south and as far north and east as Oman.

Elusive prey

Duties within the taskforce are shared between the warships and are a mixture of escorting aid deliveries into Somali ports and patrolling commercial shipping lanes to try to deter attacks.

A gun is manned on board HMS Northumberland
The ship's nearly 200 crew have had only limited contact with the pirates

Warships from Russia, China, Malaysia and India are also on their own anti-piracy missions in the region.

So far the jury is out on their success.

After the high-profile captures of the oil tanker, the Sirius Star, and the Ukrainian MV Faina in late 2008 the last two months have seen the number of piracy attacks decrease markedly.

So far this year there have been 21 attempted boardings - just three of them successful.

But that improvement could also be down to changing sea conditions.

Monsoon winds made December and January much harder for the pirates in their small open boats to operate.

Now the weather is improving and the navy is waiting to see if the pirates emerge.

So far the nearly 200 crew of HMS Northumberland have made only limited contact with the pirates.


And when they have, the complex legal basis for the operation has made taking action difficult.

"For us to intervene we have to actually arrive as an act of piracy is taking place," Martin Simpson, the commander of HMS Northumberland, told me.


"That means we see the pirates approaching a merchant vessel with AK47s (automatic rifles) or RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and trying to put a ladder in place to climb aboard."

On two occasions HMS Northumberland has arrived just too late and was unable to prevent the ships being taken.

Once the Somalis have scrambled up a ladder on to deck there is no prospect of a rescue bid.

The owners of the merchant vessels prefer to enter into ransom negotiations with the pirates.

After several months of talks with intermediaries the crew and cargo have usually been released unharmed in return for several million US dollars.

For the next few days I'll be reporting from on board HMS Northumberland as it patrols the world's most dangerous shipping lane through the Gulf of Aden.

At present we've just left the Omani port of Salalah and are heading west towards Somalia and Djibouti.

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