how do pirates hijack a supertanker?
November 23, 2008 9:29 AM   Subscribe

What are the logistics of the pirate attack on the supertanker? How is this possible? Does one just need two speedboats and some rocket launchers?
posted by warsawjude to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
They talked about this on the BBC's Global News (I think it was either the 18 or 19th of November AM episode). The reporter asked this exact question to a British captain who had been attacked by pirates somewhere in South East Asia in the early nineties. His answer was, essentially: the crew is unarmed and not particularly interested in getting killed for the sake of the cargo; the ships actually sit fairly low in the water, so it's not too hard to get over the side; and the ships are slow-moving, so you don't need a super-fast speed boat to catch one.
posted by iona at 9:43 AM on November 23, 2008


I'm not expert on these things, but here is my understanding:

1- Private ships are not allowed to carry fatal weapons by international agreement. Doing so would make them pirates themselves. Therefore, even the most massive tankers is, essentially, defenseless.

2- The crew on these ships has no profit sharing or anything of the like, and furthermore they know that the money behind the ship (the oil people, in this case) will not let the ship be held indefinitely, that they will pay a ransom. So the crew has not only no weapons with which to fight, but no incentive to risk their lives.

3- This is an oil tanker. It really couldn't take more than a rocket or two to turn the whole thing into a massive, burning smear in the ocean.

1 + 2 + 3 = Who in their right mind would fight back?
posted by paisley henosis at 9:44 AM on November 23, 2008


Also, to add on what the others have said, sometimes one or more members of the underpaid crew is on it. They send text messages with the GPS location, possibly help attach a rope or ladder, then play dumb when they're all taken hostage.
posted by sharkfu at 9:47 AM on November 23, 2008


I seem to remember in one report in addition to the above that there's a blind spot, in radar and visually, so that if you approach the tanker directly from behind (and being low in the water etc) the pirates can be on board before anyone on the ship realizes.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:49 AM on November 23, 2008


I also heard that a bulletin went out as a reminder for all ships to pull up their ladders. Also, these ships are enormous and operate with very small crews (I want to say less than 30).
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:05 AM on November 23, 2008


The Arabian supertanker that was just taken had a crew of 25.
posted by Class Goat at 10:12 AM on November 23, 2008


One other key ingredient here is that, at least off the coast of Somalia, there is no law to be enforced against these pirates. If they are captured, they're just let go in almost all cases . So, coupled with the reasons that paisley henosis lists above, there's really no incentive NOT to get your pirate on if you've got a boat and you're anywhere near the coast of Somalia.
posted by Ike_Arumba at 10:18 AM on November 23, 2008


The Guardian has a short account by a pirate:
We give priority to ships from Europe because we get bigger ransoms. To get their attention we shoot near the ship. If it does not stop we use a rope ladder to get on board. We count the crew and find out their nationalities. After checking the cargo we ask the captain to phone the owner and say that have seized the ship and will keep it until the ransom is paid.

We make friends with the hostages, telling them that we only want money, not to kill them. Sometimes we even eat rice, fish, pasta with them. When the money is delivered to our ship we count the dollars and let the hostages go.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:20 AM on November 23, 2008


You might find this show, Shadow Force on the Discovery channel interesting.

About the Show

Shadow Force showcases the history of unconventional military operations through the eyes of an elite team operating in the modern day and offers one of the first real insights into the high-stakes world of private military operations. The Special Forces soldiers do what governments and aid agencies cannot—from combating piracy in Liberia, to stopping illegal forestation and saving rare mountain gorillas in the Congo, to setting up an alert system to help stop tribal wars in Kenya, to tracking illegal ivory into the black market.

posted by meeshell at 10:23 AM on November 23, 2008


As a follow-up, it seems reasonable that you could hijack a tanker, but I don't understand how the pirates make their escape. Once they relinquish the ship, doesn't everyone in the world know where they are? Shouldn't it be easy to apprehend them, or at the very least blow them out of the water?
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 10:23 AM on November 23, 2008


A FAQ on modern-day piracy from my favorite maritime industry blog.
posted by autojack at 10:26 AM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Evasive actions, such as making enormous wake and waves can keep the smaller pirate boats
from getting close enough to board the ship.
posted by hortense at 10:51 AM on November 23, 2008


hortense, um... Have you ever seen an oil tanker cutting a wave as it banks hard to port on Youtube? There's a reason your answer is "no".

"Fords drive like an oil tanker" isn't a compliment; however, even a WW-II Panzer can turn faster than an oil tanker. And since outrunning the pirates isn't an option (see above), there's very little chance the oil tanker can upset any motorized craft with its wake.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:20 AM on November 23, 2008


An excellent book on this topic is John S. Burnett's "Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas."
posted by Carol Anne at 11:52 AM on November 23, 2008


I'm personally surprised more of these ships aren't outfitted with LRADs, which is what Cruise Ships use to defend themselves.
posted by disillusioned at 12:19 PM on November 23, 2008


Cruise ships are fast and tall, and can use their speed to get away in addition to the LRADs. A tanker using these would put itself at risk of having the pirates shoot out the LRAD, then board the ship and kill the crew in retaliation for having used it in the first place.
posted by Dasein at 12:38 PM on November 23, 2008


Most (smart) pirates are not interested in cruise ships. They are a huge headache dealing with the much larger crew and passengers. With that many people, most who are well-to-do civilians, there will be a military response. A tanker or cargo ship has a small isolated crew and is often worth more than the cruise ship when its loaded. The owners can deal with the ransom demands quietly and no one has to get shooty. It's like stealing an ATM vs robbing a bank. The first nets you a lot of money for a minor property crime, the second is armed robbery in a public and secured location. The smart thief manages the risks for the greatest reward.
posted by Ookseer at 12:56 PM on November 23, 2008


Here is where I read about evasive maneuvers,albeit a refrigerated cargo ship. IMB Piracy Incident Report 2008
posted by hortense at 1:51 PM on November 23, 2008


first of all - just a rocket launcher is rather misleading. I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of that. (the video shows a tow missile, which is an often shoulder-fired missile the us military likes to use.)

seondly - imagine you're walking down a dark street at night. there is no cop around for miles. no help whatsoever. you're lucky if your cell phone has any kind of reception and even then it would be questionable if anyone could come to your help. now someone appears and demands money. this person runs faster than you, wields a pretty significant stick and oh yeah, you have a heavy backpack on your shoulders and your knee is hurting already. what do you do?
posted by krautland at 2:36 PM on November 23, 2008


As a follow-up, it seems reasonable that you could hijack a tanker, but I don't understand how the pirates make their escape. Once they relinquish the ship, doesn't everyone in the world know where they are? Shouldn't it be easy to apprehend them, or at the very least blow them out of the water?

Somalia is one of the most dangerous places on the planet right now (not quite Iraq level but its very dangerous even for Americans working for NGO's - the few that are still operating there). The government / legal system is in shambles, hence these pirates can operate with impunity. Other coastal countries (Kenya, Tanzania) are not as conveniently located to the busy Asia-Euro shipping routes and would also stand to lose more from a western-assistance perspective were they to let pirates operate from their countries.

These ships are slow moving. In some cases Somali pirates have their ransoms waiting for them on-land when they arrive at their (rogue) ports of call, and the crew only has to wait a short while to be on their way again. I'm guessing in the majority of situations the only visual contact of the pirates is made by the crews taken captive, and there's no real hand-over of the ships, rather the crew is just allowed to go free with the ship once the ransom has been paid.

Based on a rather cursory investigation, I ascertained that while some shipping companies insure their cargo and ships, this can become a massive cost and therefore very often the calculations lead them to find other methods of making sure their cargo gets delivered safely. Case in point: the small maritime engineering botique companies that you call in when your ship is sinking to see if they can save it (reference the FAIL ship, previously). Now, you'll get a hard time getting a Maersk or anyone else in the shipping industry to admit this to you publicly, but as I understand it, the payoffs that these pirates are apparently asking for (even though they are sometimes in the millions of USD) are of such significantly lower cost compared to insuring every shipment against piracy, that they very often decide not to.

The problem, of course, is that it is a perpetuating problem. The more they continue to pay off these pirates, the more lucrative of a "job" it becomes to your average Somali. The better boats and more weapons the pirates will be able to buy. The more times they'll be able to take ships.

There is as I understand it a sort of consortium of countries that supply military protection to a pre-determined route in this area, however a) ships sometimes stray outside of it (I'm guessing that's what happened with this oil tanker), and b) the ocean is a big ass place and while you can scare the pirates out of an area, they can still sneak in and out with a reasonable enough success rate to sometimes tempt them when they're not catching enough fish in the safer areas. Additionally, you have to remember that the majority of ships now operating are not under the flags of big countries with big militia capable of moving in and striking these terrorists (for the same reason a lot of big companies not necessarily in the shipping industry base themselves in places like Bermuda - flexible tax and business laws). So there's not much infrastructure that *could* protect them even if the incentive to do so was there.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:39 PM on November 23, 2008


Here's a good read with lots of practical details. A reporter gained the confidence of Indonesian pirates and they showed him how they board a ship.
posted by exphysicist345 at 4:57 PM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Private ships are not allowed to carry fatal weapons by international agreement. Doing so would make them pirates themselves.

Mostly false. However, that doesn't make it a good idea -- it's roughly the same principle as why banks and convenience stores instruct their employees to cooperate. No cargo is worth someone's life -- that's what insurance is for.

There is as I understand it a sort of consortium of countries that supply military protection to a pre-determined route in this area

Combined Task Force 150^. Currently under the command of Denmark (it rotates periodically).

the majority of ships now operating are not under the flags of big countries with big militia capable of moving in and striking these terrorists

Uh, this isn't terrorism. It's piracy. Please don't conflate them. The pirates' motive is strictly financial, not political. (The motives of their backers and protectors on land is another matter.)

But this isn't about flagging of ships. Regardless of whose flag they fly, the majority of the cargo is the property of a legitimate company with a physical presence somewhere in the world. Even if they aren't in one of the CTF 150 countries, those countries have companies whose shipping costs go up or choices go down (same thing, really) when piracy increases.

But do note that Somalia -- a long time ago already -- essentially scared off an entire UN peacekeeping mission supplemented by an American strike force. It's just not a place where any military sees a big win in establishing a ground or littoral presence -- it's a country-sized no-go zone.

And anyway, the companies don't actually want that, as shown by the eagerness by which they pay ransom. It's more in their interest. It's a tragedy of the commons type of problem -- they solve their own issue while contributing to a degradation of the environment for everyone else.
posted by dhartung at 10:26 PM on November 23, 2008


Off topic a bit, but an interesting take on the reason for the piracy off the Somali coast is that, because there is no central government, and no navy, Somali fishing grounds are used with impunity by factory ships from more developed nations. I read reports of hostile encounters between these ships and the locals, and that the fishery has been overfished. This has made being a fisherman much less attractive, so they take up piracy instead.

From the Guardian article "We don't see the hijacking as a criminal act but as a road tax because we have no central government to control our sea."
posted by jonesor at 6:26 AM on November 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


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