By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Forget Johnny Depp and cutlasses. Pirates today carry AK-47s and use speed boats to plunder gas tankers and aid ships - with six attacks this week alone.
"Off Acheh, Malacca straits: Armed pirates in an unlit speedboat, blue hull, length about 10 metres. Approached a bulk carrier underway. They tried to board from stern. Raised alarm, crew mustered and activated fire hoses and directed search lights. Noticing crew alertness, pirates aborted boarding."
This isn't a scene from a movie, it's a real-life report of a pirate attack on Monday off the coast of Indonesia.
The pirates are not always foiled. The International Maritime Bureau's piracy monitoring centre has already recorded six attacks this week, including two which succeeded in robbing ships carrying relief to tsunami-affected areas.
"The big worry is that the attacks are getting much more violent," says Andrew Linington, of the maritime officers' union, Numast, which warns about the escalating problem.
"It's moved on from being maritime muggings, where half a dozen robbers would steal something and escape, to something much more organised with much greater use of weaponry."
Hollywood's version of pirates
"They're carrying AK-47s and in a number of cases using rocket-propelled grenades," says Mr Linington. He's amazed that the attacks haven't - yet - resulted in a major disaster.
"We've had cases where a fully-laden oil tanker has sailed down the Malacca Straits, the second busiest shipping route in the world, with no one at the controls because the crew have all been held at gunpoint. We've had gun battles being fought on board gas tankers.
"And what worries us is that if this continues unchecked it's going to be seen as a big advert for terrorists telling them how easy it is to take over a ship."
The problem of modern-day piracy has been scrutinised by the House of Commons transport select committee, which published a report on Thursday calling for a tough international response to a 168% increase in attacks.
And it dispelled the notion that any hint of Hollywood glamour might surround these modern-day pirates.
Two-time America's Cup winner Peter Blake was killed by pirates
"We must be clear about what piracy involves: kidnapping, theft, assault, rape, wounding, murder. There is nothing remotely romantic about the perpetrators of these appalling crimes," says the committee chairman, Gwyneth Dunwoody.
The MPs have strongly rejected the government's argument that there is no evidence that piracy could be exploited by terrorists.
"This is the wrong message for the government to send out," says the committee's report, which warns that a ship seized by terrorists could be used for "terrible ends".
It highlights the fears that terrorists could already have "phantom ships" which have been taken in pirate attacks and which have had their identities changed.
There be pirates
But who are these modern-day pirates? Are they anything like the movies?
"Colourful pirates don't exist. They're either well-organised gangs, making a lot of money out of it, or opportunistic thieves," says Ian Taylor, editor of Cargo Security International.
3,583 pirate attacks since 1992
340 crew or passengers killed
Dangerous areas: Malacca Straits, coast of Somalia, South China Sea, coast of Iraq, Niger Delta
Their target might be those on board as much as the cargo, as the current trend is for pirates to seize crews and demand a ransom from their employers. Abducting a crew can yield a $200,000 ransom for a pirate gang in Somalia, says Paul Singer, of Securewest International.
Numast's Andrew Linington says attacks show increasingly sophisticated planning and tactics that suggest military training. The suspicion among seafarers is that in some parts of the world there is only a "fine line between who is a pirate and who is a law enforcer".
Preventing attacks is becoming a bigger challenge for shipping firms. The International Maritime Bureau provides a warning system about suspicious craft - and ships can be kitted out with non-lethal defensive devices.
When the luxury cruise liner Seabourn Spirit was attacked off Somalia last year, the invaders - who shot at the ship with a grenade launcher and machineguns - were repelled by a sonic blaster which delivers an extremely loud and debilitating noise.
Seabourn Spirit repelled pirates
Mr Singer, of Securewest International, says it is now commonplace for ships to take on security staff if their course crosses pirate territory - his own company provides teams of ex-servicemen, including former Gurkhas.
UK ships carrying nuclear waste on the Pacific can also carry Atomic Energy Authority police, says the MPs' report.
The need for security is a reflection of an increasingly violent threat, says Mr Singer. Attacks, particularly off Somalia, are becoming more elaborate, with the use of bigger ships which can extend the pirates' range.
"When people hear about pirates, they think about Johnny Depp swinging through the rigging, but you really wouldn't want to be on the end of one of these attacks."
Pirates caught off Indonesian coast
Yet there is little appetite for arming merchant crews, not least because of the potential legal complications for crew members who might shoot someone in an attack. And Numast has expressed fears it would only trigger an "arms race with the pirates".
But the House of Commons committee says a clear line is needed on what is permissible in defending shipping, and adds that international co-operation against piracy has been "woefully lacking".
The lack of action reflects an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude, says Numast's Andrew Linington, who believes things would be quite different if pirates started attacking planes.
In the meantime, Johnny Depp's latest outing as a pirate of the Caribbean will ensure that sea-borne raiders still carry an air of romance and derring-do. Avast indeed.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
It's not just big ships - yachts and pleasure boats are just as much targets. There are regular reports of yachts being robbed at gunpoint and worse, with crews (often singlehanders or couples) threatened, beaten, raped and murdered. While it's a fun fantasy for Johnny Depp to buckle his swash all over the movies, it's not funny for the victims. Much of the world is now viewed as a 'no-go' area for cruising yachtsmen, which is a real shame, as they bring valuable money to spend if it doesn't get stolen first.
Janey, South Coast
It is obvious that these so called "pirates" have taken advantage of a situation were the Royal Navy has lost very strategic bases in Hong Kong, Singapore and Simonstown. When these bases where manned by the RN and regular patrols were in place, it was common place to see RN warships in passage to and from the UK to the Far East, these so called "Pirates" just wouldn't have had the sea room or the bottle to make these attacks as a warship would not have been too far away to offer assistance and offer protection.
Graham Linton, Nantwich
Is piracy on the high sea a crime you can still be hanged for?
In World War One Britain used "Q" ships: heavily armed merchant vessels disguised as lumbering freighters. When a U-boat surfaced to engage the ship (using it deck gun) covers would drop from the hidden gun mounts and the submarine would be blown out of the water. A few of these off the coasts of Indonesia and Somalia may deter attacks!
I'm sure that piracy back in the 17th Century wasn't all yo-ho and rum either, but fraught with stabbings, scurvy, rape, pillage, syphillis, hangings, festering wounds, tetanus, cannon balls, muskets, amputation, drowning and being eaten by sharks. Hollywood glamourises everything, and as far as today's pirated are concerned, at least an AK47 is quick.
Interesting that someone in the Government doesn't think terrorists would attack and board a ship and then utilise it in an attack on a foreign power, tell that to those that died in the September 11th and the July 7th attacks, how diffcult would it be for a ship to cruise up the Thames and wreak chaos.
Why are pirates considered romantic? 'Cause they arrrrr.
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