By Shuli Sudderuddin and Debbie Yong
When Greek shipping chief engineer Apostolos Tsitsopoulos sailed through the Gulf of Aden last month, he was worried out of his mind.
He barely slept a wink in the three days it took the coal-laden bulk carrier he was working on to pass through the gulf, a crucial route for oil tankers and ships coming to Singapore from Europe.
He was filled with fear that the ship would be attacked by the notorious Somali pirates who operate there.
'We had our searchlights on the whole night and at least six men on watch instead of the usual two, just looking for little speedboats. It's a terrible time to be a seaman,' said the 56-year-old veteran seaman, who arrived here from Italy last Friday.
'We feel very helpless, but what can we do? We have to go that way,' he said at Maritime House in Cantonment Road.
The Gulf of Aden, located along the East African coast, has hogged international headlines since Nov15 when Somali pirates armed with automatic weapons and grenades seized control of the Sirius Star, a 330m-long Saudi supertanker carrying US$100 million (S$153 million) worth of crude oil.
It is the biggest pirate hijack to date, for which the ship's captors are now demanding a US$25 million ransom.
Off the coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Aden controls access to the Suez Canal, which channels ships between Europe and Asia without having to detour around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. Shipping experts say this detour will add 4,000km - or 12 to 15 days - to a tanker's trip, at a cost of between US$20,000 and US$30,000 a day.
Piracy is a problem that has been brewing for the past three years in the Gulf of Aden, currently the world's top piracy hot spot.
Thirty-six ships have been hijacked and more than 80 have been attacked off the Somali coast this year alone, said the International Maritime Bureau, a piracy watchdog agency based in Kuala Lumpur. This is a 75 per cent increase from last year.
The latest attack has set off a fresh round of jitters in the seafaring communities worldwide, including Singapore's.
A few months prior to the Sirius Star capture, a Singapore-flagged vessel was chased by pirates south-east of Aden, according to the Singapore Shipping Association's (SSA) newsletter.
The SSA declined to identify the ship. The vessel managed to escape when the UK Royal Maritime Trade Operations team responded with an air patrol.
The SSA has since shared advice with all local ship owners and masters, including a description of pirate boats in the Gulf of Aden.
The pirates are known to use 'white-coloured, open-top speed boats about 20m in length' and are capable of speeding over 23 knots, it said.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) is also advising Singapore ships to make use of the UK Royal Maritime Trade Operations team's Maritime Security Patrol Area, which is patrolled by a force of coalition warships and aircraft, as a transit corridor while sailing through the Gulf of Aden.
Piracy on the high seas has been commonplace for aeons.
But most seamen in Singapore interviewed by The Sunday Times agreed that the nature of piracy has changed 'at a frightening rate' in the past three years.
'Before they were like kids, just coming on board to steal money and electronics. Now they demand ransom and threaten lives,' said Mr Tsitsopoulos.
Concurring, Captain Rohit Banta, 38, who has encountered at least eight pirate attacks in different parts of the world in his 20 years of seafaring, said that pirates of yore were far more timid and rarely planned to take hostages for a ransom. The Singaporean permanent resident said the Malacca Strait used to be the pirate hot spot in this region, but has quietened down in the past three years.
In the 1990s, he recalled, most pirates were village fishermen by day who snuck onto slow-moving or moored ships late at night. They would steal paint cans or ropes from ships' stores or petty cash and personal valuables from the crew's sleeping quarters.
Once they were spotted, the pirates preferred a quick escape rather than a confrontation.
'The longer they stay the more vulnerable they are, as someone may have raised the alarm,' said Capt Banta.
Occasionally, there would be bolder pirates. Armed with machetes or handguns, they would demand money straight from the ship's captain.
It has thus become common practice for captains to keep between US$2,000 and US$5,000 in a safe in their quarters, which could be paid to the pirates in exchange for the crew's safety in such situations, said Capt Banta.
However, pirates these days are more aggressive.
Those in Somalia are dressed in military fatigues and are said to have the support of their communities and rogue members of the government.
They possess satellite phones and global positioning systems. Armed with ladders and grappling hooks, they clamber aboard commercial vessels once their speedboats draw near.
While most pirate attacks occur at night, the recent seizure of the Saudi supertanker happened in broad daylight (10am) - testament to the pirates' growing audacity.
Said Bangladeshi Abdullah Al Mahboob, 39, captain of a chemical tanker: 'Nowadays, they even chase down and attack ships with guns.'
Filipino Jun Sampelo, 40, a third engineer of a container ship, said: 'Even if the ship is very big, the weapons pirates use can create holes in it, so you have no choice but to stop.'
Commercial ships are rarely armed. In the event of an attack, crew members are instructed not to approach or apprehend the pirates. For their safety, they are to comply with all orders from the pirates or, if possible, lock themselves within a safe area.
Hence, most seafarers adopt the mantra that prevention is better than cure.
This means doubling up their security patrols and keeping themselves updated on the coordinates of the latest reported pirate attacks.
Capt Banta, now the general manager of shipping firm Cosmic Ship Management which sends at least one of its nine ships through the Gulf of Aden coast monthly, added that his ships now keep at least 500 nautical miles off the Somali coast to avoid the pirates. They previously kept only half that distance from the shore.
If pirate speedboats are spotted in the vicinity, the large ships will release high-pressured water jets from their fire hoses, which will prevent the pirates from latching onto the ship's sides.
Other precautions that ships take include going full steam ahead through hot spots so pirates will be unable to catch up, and sailing in a zig-zag motion to create choppy water so pirates will be unable to approach and board ships.
All those interviewed hope that the international community will rally to deal with the pirate attacks.
'The shipping industry is already very badly affected by the global financial situation,' said Capt Banta, who is worried that the threats will also worsen the existing shortage of seafarers.
His company has already raised the salaries of its shipworkers across all ranks by 100 per cent over the past three years to lure more new hands on deck - a move shared by most other shipping firms in the Asian region.
'With all this media focus on piracy, families will get scared and dissuade their loved ones from joining this industry,' he said.
Local seafarer unions such as the Singapore Organisation of Seamen and the Singapore Maritime Officers Union (SMOU) said that they will work closely with the authorities to update members on the latest safety guidelines.
The SMOU added that members covered under its collective bargaining agreement scheme can opt not to sail through the region if assigned to. Those who choose to do so will have their insurance and wages doubled.
But for some seafarers, the extra wages are not worth the risk.
Said Mr Sampelo, who has been to Somalia on a reefer ship: 'It didn't use to be a problem but if I was offered a job that would take me to Somalia now, I would refuse. I have my family to think about.'
Added Capt Banta: 'Piracy has taken on a new definition. These attackers are lawless and reckless, and we don't know how soon it will be before they get desperate and take human lives.'
Seafarers' Wish List
- A shipowner whose vessel was chased a few months ago south-east of the Gulf of Aden asked that the United Nations Security Council request the government authorities to send more warships to control piracy in the area.
- Shipowners hope that more companies chartering their ships will be open to avoiding the Gulf of Aden, as they are the ones who decide routes. A detour around the south of Africa could take 12 to 15 more days, at a cost of US$20,000 (S$30,600) to US$30,000 a day.
- Seafarers have requested that more navy ships patrol the area or, if possible, escort their ships.
- Seamen hope for more information on pirate sightings and updated safety protocols to deal with the pirates' new mode of attack.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on 23 Nov, 2008.