Politics & Policy

Could Your Summer Vacation Walk the Plank?

Cruising the pirate scene.

With Captain Jack back on the silver screen, real-life 21st-century pirates operating off Somalia and elsewhere, and National Review preparing to set sail to Alaska, Americans aren’t crazy to wonder: Are cruise ships in any real danger of being attacked by pirates?

The short answer is “no.” And there are multiple reasons why.

Let’s first look at global piracy in 2007, a cruise-ship attack in 2005, and security systems in place today.


Last week, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) issued a public warning to all freighter companies and other seafarers sailing off the Horn of Africa to stay away from Somalia: At least 200 miles away. And a Danish freighter was seized off Somalia as late as Friday or Saturday.

“The dangers in this region are very real,” said IMB Director Captain Pottengal Mukundan in an official statement on Thursday. “Recent reports have detailed attacks involving machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades. We recommend that all vessels traveling in the area do so with caution and unless vessels are calling into Somali ports, that a 200 nautical-mile minimum distance be kept from the Somali coastline.”

According to IMB, the recent spike in pirate activity off the African nation is a sharp turnaround from the decline in piracy in the same region over the past two years. In 2005, pirate attacks off Somalia numbered 35. In 2006, the number dropped to 10. In 2007, however, there already have been nine attacks, six of which were hijackings.

Other high-risk areas and waters where piracy has occurred since 2005, include those off Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, and Tanzania. There also have been attacks on container ships, fishing vessels, or yachts reported in the Caribbean, off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America, the Mediterranean, multiple points off West Africa (especially Nigeria), the North Sea, and the Persian Gulf.


One of the more dramatic pirate attacks was launched against a cruise ship, the Seabourn Spirit, in Somali waters in November 2005. Pirates armed with AK-47 assault rifles and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) attacked the Seabourn Spirit with weapons firing from swift-moving speedboats.

The quick-thinking captain ordered all passengers and crew (the exception being those essential to the ship’s operations and security) out of their staterooms, off the weather decks, and into the ship’s center. This would afford more protective cover from pirate gunfire and grenades, one of which struck and lodged into the side of the luxury liner.

The captain then tried to ram one of the attacking boats before ordering his crew on the bridge to steer the ship through a series of evasive maneuvers, thus making the huge vessel difficult — if not impossible — to approach.

Meanwhile, Seabourn Spirit’s security chief (a former Nepalese Gurkha) manned a sonic cannon — a non-lethal weapon designed to emit a beam of noise so loud it can knock a man off his feet (Such devices have been used by U.S. forces in Iraq to clear buildings). The cannon’s beam was directed at the attacking speedboats, and ultimately drove the pirates back.


Cruise ships may seem like an easy target for pirates, and they’ve certainly been attacked by terrorists: the most infamous being the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists who murdered wheelchair-bound New Yorker Leon Klinghoffer. But remember, terrorists have a methodology of striking large groups of innocent people, killing for the sake of terror, making a big media splash, and hopefully affecting some twisted religious or political change in the process. Pirates on the other hand are simply well-armed criminals. They are thieves looking to make a fast buck. And they view cruise ships as simply not worth the effort.

Here are five reasons why:

Pirates are territorial creatures: Pirates usually don’t venture far from their safe havens to attack ships. Pirates fear navies like those of the U.S. and Britain, and most pirates tend to avoid open water where there is a greater risk of making contact with naval forces. By operating closer to shore, pirates have a sense that if something goes south for them, that can always turn and make a run for the coast. Also, after the Seabourn Spirit attack, cruise-ship companies are far more careful about where they permit their captains to sail.

Too difficult to board: In order to board a cruise ship, one would have to use grappling hooks and rope ladders. This would be very dangerous at sea. And the distance between the sea surface and the main deck of a luxury liner is so great that the pirate boarders would find themselves exposed to counter-fire from shipboard security for a dangerously long period of time. Pirates like to strike fast and hard. They can’t afford to spend too much time and effort on simply “boarding.”

Too many passengers: Unlike freighters that have small crews and a lot of valuable goods headed to market, cruise ships carry lots of passengers: in the hundreds. So if pirates do get aboard, they find themselves in the position of having to control a lot of people. Not good for pirates, because a lot of people aboard a vessel with a lot of places to hide and regroup increases the chances of pirates being overwhelmed or surprised by counterattacking passengers.

Counter-piracy and counterterrorism technologies: Today, cruise ships are equipped with a variety of counter-piracy technologies. I mentioned sonic cannon. There are also high-voltage fencing along the exterior rails, metal detectors (to prevent “inside men” from pre-staging weapons), motion sensors, surface radar, powerful searchlights, and deck-launched unmanned aerial vehicles (just like the small tactical UAVs used by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan) capable of gathering photographic intelligence of pirate boats over the horizon. If pirates do manage to get aboard, there are foams and glues that can be sprayed on decks, even devices that emit low-frequency waves capable of making life debilitatingly uncomfortable for pirates.

Tough security forces: Cruise-ship security forces are now hiring former commandos — British Special Air Service, U.S. Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Recon Marines, and the like — to police and defend ships. No pirate wants to cross swords (or submachineguns) with a special operator.

Of course, our own Navy and Marine Corps have a colorful history of fighting and defeating pirates, particularly the Barbary Corsairs in the early 19th century. Regular shipboard and special warfare sailors also have engaged pirates in little-publicized actions around the world in the 21st century. On Saturday, USS Carter Hall, an amphibious-landing ship operating off Somalia, fired warning shots over the bow of the pirate-seized freighter Danica White. The Carter Hall then destroyed three skiffs, which the pirates had used to attack and board the cargo ship. But the problem for sailors involved in counter-piracy operations today is three-fold: First, U.S. Naval forces were dramatically downsized after the Cold War, and the forces we have are heavily involved throughout the world in the War on Terror. Second, pirates in the 21st century are often very well-equipped: They have computers, satellite phones, GPS receivers, long-range telescopes, and the same weapons any international terrorist might have. Third — and this may be difficult to grasp unless one has ever spent any real time at sea — the oceans cover over 70 percent of the earth, and 60 percent of those oceans are international waters where anyone has the freedom to roam.

Fortunately, most pirates operate in remote areas, relatively close to shorelines that can be avoided. Also they are not nearly as determined as terrorists. Unfortunately, some pirates and terrorists are one and the same, and terrorists are certainly able to move freely throughout pirate communities.

Granted, after the failed attack on the Seabourn Spirit, the threat of pirates attacking cruise ships is pretty low. But an attack — whether from pirates or terrorists — is an attack. And if bad guys are capable of hitting us in lower Manhattan, northern Virginia, and over the Pennsylvania countryside; they are certainly capable of hitting us anywhere on the high seas.

But I wouldn’t cancel my travel plans.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, and in Iraq. He is the author of six books — including co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...


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