Plain speaking on piracy: what happened in 2014 and what should happen in 2015


James Wilkes of Gray Page – writing in  Cargo Security Intelligence, where this article first appeared – issues an unequivocal call to shipowners and governments to take concerted and firm action over the issue of maritime piracy.

When I venture occasionally into my local pub for a refreshing libation or a dram of something warming – depending on the time of the year – invariably I am asked two questions: ‘Isn’t it your round?’ and ‘What’s happening with pirates at the moment?’ It’s that kind of pub.

While the entreaty to ‘get the drinks in’ might reasonably be expected, it might surprise you that my inn-going chums are as interested in piracy today as they have been over the eight years that I have been wandering into ‘The Boar’ on my return from dealing with one incident or another off the East and West coasts of Africa, or in the South China Sea.

So, what is happening with the pirates at the moment?

Off the East coast of Africa – the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean range (GoAASIOR) – the levels of pirate activity are, at most, negligible. While we receive the occasional report of a sighting of a potential pirate mothership or skiff, and these are rarely more than a single-source report, the numbers speak for themselves; no merchant ship has been hijacked by Somalia-based pirates since the Smyrni was captured in May 2012 (it was later released in March 2013).

Over the last few years, the combination of international development and aid efforts in Somalia (carrot), discreet but effective military action ashore and at sea (stick) and the routine presence of armed guards on ships sailing through the region’s seas, changed the balance of risk and reward for the pirates and their backers. Which factors had the greatest effect can be debated as much as anyone likes, but it is certain that the whole effect was more than a function of the sum contribution of the parts.

One particular item of good news during 2014 was the escape from their captors of 11 seafarers from the Albedo, after three years and seven months of being held hostage. Then in October, the seven remaining members of the crew of the Asphalt Venture (hijacked in September 2010) were also freed. These men had been held ashore after the vessel and eight of its crew were released in April 2011. Sadly, at the time of writing, 30 crewmen from two fishing vessels, the Prantalay and the Naham 3, still remain hostages.

On the western side of the African continent it is a different story: maritime criminality continues to imperil seafarers, ships and cargoes. During 2014, we recorded 36 serious incidents which included: three cases of hijack for cargo theft and 17 other attempted, but ultimately unsuccessful, hijackings; eight incidents of robbery or attempted robbery; and eight kidnappings.

All of the incidents occurred in the waters of countries lying on the Gulf of Guinea, except for one, the hijacking of the Panamax tanker Kerala off Luanda, Angola in January last year. The circumstances of this case are still disputed between the Angolan state and the vessel’s owners and others. However, it is the most southerly instance of a tanker being hijacked for the purpose of stealing its cargo and a demonstration, if one was needed, of the reach and resources of the pirate gangs behind hijack for cargo theft crime.

Two other tankers were hijacked in 2014 and their cargo lightered unlawfully. The Fair Artemis was captured in June and its cargo of gasoil stolen, and the Hai Soon 6 was taken in July and, again, a large slug of gasoil was illegally lightered from the ship.

It is, of course, possible to go into the statistics more deeply and, for example, point out that of the 36 incidents during the year 20 of them involved product tankers, of which half were smaller than 12 tonnes deadweight (DWT). I could also highlight that the vessels principally targeted in the cases of kidnappings were offshore support vessels (OSV) and tugs.

The 2014 numbers for Southeast Asia are arguably more concerning, as they show a 100% increase in incidents, including a substantial rise in the number of cases of hijacks for cargo theft. Indeed, there are innumerable ways to slice and dice piracy statistics and analyse incident reporting, but I won’t do so any further because it’s not actually very interesting.

What is interesting is why, year on year, criminals are succeeding in hijacking tankers and stealing their cargoes, or kidnapping seafarers from ships and holding them hostage for ransom. And the answer is infuriatingly simple: because they can.

I know this to be interesting because it perpetually confounds my public house kin that few shipowners take any meaningful steps to harden the security posture of their ships against criminal attack when trading in the Gulf of Guinea.

It astonishes my friends that ships’ crews are, more often than not, ‘taken by surprise’ by aggressors, whether they are there to rob them of their valuable belongings, kidnap them for ransom or hijack the ship to steal its cargo. Why don’t they see the pirates coming? Why don’t they defend themselves? Why don’t ships have ‘safe rooms’ where crewmen can hide?

It is a further puzzlement that with all the technology surrounding us today, including ship security alert systems which could, if installed and operated properly, do the job, the ships that have been hijacked in order to steal their cargo have been impossible to track. Surely if the hijacked ships could be tracked it would be possible to catch the pirates and the guilty lightering tankers in the act?

There is a collective resignation amongst the group at the cynicism of coastal states that disbar the use of privately contracted armed security guards on ships trading in their waters on the premise that their own maritime gendarmerie, coast guards or naval personnel are a more competent and reliable protective force.

Without doing any disservice to my pub friends, they are laymen. They have no particular experience or expertise in shipping, let alone maritime security and intelligence. And yet they are fascinated by piracy and, moreover, they are always quick to ask the most relevant questions.

At this time of the year, many commentators relish the opportunity to make predictions for the coming 12 months in whatever field their expertise lies. However, as any fool will tell you, we humans are hopeless at forecasting and, anyway, where would be the fun in life if we knew what the future held?

Instead of joining the ranks of soothsayers, forecasters and experts who profess to know what is going to happen in 2015, I would offer a suggestion as to what should be happening in 2015: we need to get a grip on piracy and maritime crime wherever in the world it prevails, but particularly in the seas off West Africa and, once again, in Southeast Asia.

If the average man in the pub can identify what needs to be done, it cannot be beyond the wit of shipowners to properly reduce the vulnerability of their vessels to attack, nor the collective resources of coastal state governments and law enforcement agencies to take the criminal threat head on.


This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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