The captain of the Queen Mary 2 keyed his public address microphone and spoke directly into it, sending his voice booming throughout the ship and its open decks, informing all of his passengers, everyone on the Seabourn Encore, all the ships in Mutrah harbor and inquiring minds for miles around exactly what his anti-piracy measures would be for the next leg of the voyage.
The sound reverberated around Oman’s fabulously reflective hills, invaded the souk, coursed across the harbor waves and awakened sleeping dogs. The speech went on and on, at length assuring of little risk while simultaneously instructing passengers what to do if fired upon. No one could miss it. Personally, I preferred the skipper of the Encore’s method: a short letter in every suite.
Piracy is simply stealing, a human act which has been with us since man began to walk. When man went to sea he took stealing with him, hence piracy. When the Somali government fell apart and the country degenerated into civil war and chaos, the country’s economy collapsed. People starved. Millions tried to flee. Some turned to piracy, which proved, initially, to be fantastically profitable.
The ‘head pirate’, who took no risk, supplied starving farmers and fishermen with small boats, arms and the promise of riches if they were successful. The fledgling pirates put to sea in swarms, immediately seizing small tankers, cargo vessels, fishing boats, anything that could be ransomed. Since there was no government in Somalia, only the muscle of strong men, stolen vessels were brought right into Somali harbors where the pirates awaited their payday. Shipping companies and their insurers were obliged to fly over the harbor with bundles of cash, kicked out of the airplane doors, to obtain release of their vessels and crews.
Somali piracy exploded, pardon the pun, until it threatened the entire Indian Ocean west of India. Pirates operated north into the Red Sea until they ran into the curtain of Saudi firepower, forbidding more northerly expansion. No pirates tried the Persian Gulf as the area is so militarized a pirate could not survive more than a day or two. Soon shipping begin detouring far out to sea around Somalia, necessitating a change in tactics for the pirates. Pirates began hijacking fishing dhows. The dhows could tow two skiffs far out to sea where the prey had hidden. For some ships the sudden appearance of small, high speed pirate skiffs some hundreds of miles from the coast was a huge and dangerous surprise. For several years piracy was so lucrative that land prices in northern Kenya soared – the Somalia pirates were fleeing their country, also, after making their big score.
Today, not so much. Industry and governments banned together to police the seas and mitigate their risks. Naval vessels patrolled the Arabian Sea. Convoys formed. Ships strung concertina wire on their decks and aimed high pressure fire hoses at likely pirate boarding places. Armed guards were hired. The sun set on the heyday of Somali piracy. But. Not all pirates went away.
Still, it would be a bold pirate indeed who would attempt to tackle a whale like the Queen Mary 2. First, she is known to charge around at speeds in the 22-24 knot range. Fast. Second, counting the decks from sea level to the first open deck, a pirate would need a rocket propelled grappling hook to reach an open deck. Then he would have to pull himself up the side of that 10 story building moving at high speed on the open sea. It would be a thrilling attempt.
Days later, cruising west at 17 knots in the Arabian Sea, the Seabourn Encore has the sea to herself. Not another vessel is in sight anywhere to the blue horizon. Empty. I spoke with one of the armed guards who said this was boring. Back in the heyday of piracy he said the ocean was “…full of high speed skiffs and fishing boats who weren’t fishing.” On one occasion a skiff raced past them at about 25 knots with a man standing in the bow, holding a fishing pole. As the guard used his stabilized binoculars to observe the skiff, he noted two other pirates in the stern of the boat looking back at him with stabilized binoculars. They exchanged friendly waves and the pirates continued on their hunt for easier prey. Today – empty blue sea.
Late in the afternoon, with the sun dropping lower in the sky and reflecting on the sea, a dhow could be seen far off the starboard side, halfway to the horizon. It was proceeding on an opposite course and towing two skiffs. A glance at the bridge indicates that it has the full attention of the bridge team. Later the dhow alters its course to the west, then the southwest, paralleling our course. It was circling the area, probably good fishing there. Odd that it was fishing adjacent to the main shipping lanes going into the Bab el Medab Strait between Africa and Arabia.
Late that afternoon the First Mate suddenly pointed out the window and said: “What’s that?” Glancing up a flash of white bobs by on the sea, a couple hundred yards out. Probably just some garbage floating on the sea. Then the garbage turns sideways, revealing a skiff with several Somali yachtsmen in it. I grab the camera and step outside to record the adventure, only to have the heat and humidity fog the camera lens. The Encore charges past the yachtsmen at 17 knots and they make no movement. Reaching the promenade deck I encounter 3 members of the ship’s deck division, standing at the rail, smiling. I ask if they saw the skiff and they laugh, admitting that they waved but the Somali yachtsmen did not wave back.
The Encore slips through the Strait after sundown, the lights of Africa visible on the port side, town lights from poor and troubled Yemen visible on the right side. All is quiet. Early the next morning, upon reaching Saudi waters, the armed guards, complete with their aluminum suitcases, disappear over the side into a pilot boat and are gone. The skipper slows the Encore to a leisurely 12 knots, just enough to make our next port, Aqaba, on schedule. Our cruise continues.
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