The stakes have got higher and David Cameron is right to allow armed guards on British-flagged ships
First, there was a ship-wide sense of nervousness. Then, all portholes were filled with cardboard cut from cigarette boxes and apple cartons. We had reached the end of the Suez canal and pirate waters were dead ahead. Our ship was big and fast. Its 18 knots and 10 metre-high freeboard were thought to be impervious to pirates. But pirates learn. The crew knew this, and wanted armed security. They were on a fast ship, but still had to endure pirate watch – total blackout at night, no one on deck without a radio, five days of fear – once a month.
They were right to be scared. Modern day Indian Ocean piracy used to be thought of as a bloodless enterprise. The business model didn’t require violence: you take a ship and its crew; you negotiate with the owner or insurer; the insurer pays a ransom; the ship is released; insurers increase premiums. Everyone was happy, except the crew.
But that has changed. Ransoms are higher; negotiations longer. I interviewed an Indian seafarer who was kept for eight months on his ship. When negotiations were ongoing, the worst he suffered was a slap. When negotiations stalled, he was tied in a stress position on a hot deck for several hours, and his captain was locked naked in a freezer.
Why should you care? There is more to be concerned about, surely. Most hostages are foreign, along with their ships. But those hostages– Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Ukrainians – bring us 90% of everything. Everything. I sometimes play a game of trying to spot something that wasn’t brought to this island by ship, and I always fail.
As much as I don’t like agreeing with David Cameron, I need to when he says that piracy is a stain on the world. I can’t disagree either with his decision to allow armed guards on British-flagged ships, because every seafarer I have met wants to sail with armed security aboard. Pirates face no risk. Even when naval forces capture them, 80% are released because few countries want the hassle of prosecuting them. The pirates are not stupid – nor are they poor fishermen or Johnny Depp comedy figures. And not one ship carrying armed security has been hijacked, as Cameron pointed out.
“It’s a very grey area,” says Scott Lidbetter, an ex-Royal Navy officer who now runs Veritas International, a maritime security company. What if armed security uses lethal force at sea? The average ship can have a flag from one country (60% of ships now fly flags from “open registries”, a polite term for flags of convenience), an owner from another, plus a crew of at least five nationalities. Judging the legality of using lethal force, says Lidbetter, can depend on the flag state of the ship, the nationality of the captain, the nationality of the crew, whether the ship is in international waters. For starters.
Anyone in maritime security will tell you that piracy has created a boom time. I asked a British ex-Marine in Mombasa how many security companies there are now. “Shake a tree.” But quality assurance is difficult. There are tales of security officials armed with nothing but hunting rifles; of lads who have never been to sea, who see it as easier than foot patrols in Helmand, with far better money (three days of maritime security can cost a ship-owner $30,000).
It isn’t easier. Navigating the maze of export licences required for weapons is complex. Without proper legislation captains could face prosecution. There is a consensus that something dark is bound to happen. A court case, perhaps, brought by pirates if armed security kill their peers. Even more escalation (pirates began with AK47s; now every skiff has at least one RPG). I have spoken to too many terrified seafarers to be against making them feel safer. But I hope that they won’t regret what they have wished for.
• This article was amended on 31 October. The original stated: “Every seafarer I have met sails with armed security aboard.” This has been corrected.