Piracy and Armed Security

Posted: 8th January 2013 | Written by: Daniel Shea

OO Mark OConnell PMSC

It was a hot day, the sun high overhead, when the pirates made their move. The water was calm. A steady breeze blew. And there was nothing visible on the horizon. The sea looked empty and endless.

But then, in the afternoon, a blip popped up on the radar. The blip looked as if it could indicate any one of the thousands of local fishing vessels off the Horn of Africa. Only, as just about anyone with even cursory knowledge of the maritime thoroughfare knew, pirates used the same boats as the local fishermen. After all, most of them had been fishermen themselves.

The yacht had maintained its distance off the Somali coast, as much as was reasonable and advised. Most vessels making the transit through the Gulf of Aden had been told to do just that. The frequency of hijackings had startled the industry, though it had not quite become a global media sensation just yet. By this point, in the Spring of 2008, many knew their true business dealt with hostages. They were armed thugs who hijacked ships and held the crew for ransom.

Now, with the blip on the radar, the captain grew wary and tried to maintain distance between themselves and the unknown dot some 10 miles off. The situation felt tense. No one knew exactly what to expect, if anything. Eyes scanned the horizon anxiously for any sign, any movement – anything. It wasn’t long before the skiffs came into sight, each headed straight for the yacht at upwards of 20 knots.

Two large yachts separately confronted this situation only one month apart, but to radically different ends. The outcomes – along with others like them – have helped shape the debate within the maritime industry on how best to respond. One yacht, S/Y Red Dragon, hired armed guards to train its crew and defend it against attack. The other, the French luxury cruiser M/V Le Ponant, proceeded under fairly normal conditions and, only as the boat entered the most dangerous waters did its crew discuss and run refresher drills on how to deploy its non-lethal defences.

One incident provided high drama for the world over and the other barely registered on the world consciousness. In the case of Le Ponant, a handful of well-armed pirates in two skiffs quickly overtook the vessel, and after a week of negotiations, earned $2.1 million ransom and worldwide renown. Meanwhile, Red Dragon scared off pirates loaded into six skiffs by simply putting themselves and their weapons on display – essentially letting the pirates know in no uncertain terms that attacking this ship was not in their best interest.

The stark contrast between the two incidents was certainly understood within the industry itself and the demand for private maritime security companies – or PMSCs – has been on the rise ever since. By one estimate, there were fewer than 100 PMSCs before 2009; now there are close to 400. And with each new company comes a new operating procedure – a worrisome notion when considering the complicated jurisdictional web inherent in international transit, especially when dealing with firearms. By most accounts, there is everything from highly professional to abysmal firms, but no clear means of telling them apart when their services are required. The industry is itself undefined. There are no set standards, and no clear and overriding policy on use of force. There’s little beyond what a company has set up for itself, and no regulatory body to check up on those standards or ensure companies comply. 

It’s also unclear what happens when things go wrong, as they have. Some observers have said that without stricter controls and clear guidelines, the employment of some armed guards has become more of a liability than a benefit. A number of recent incidents have called into question some PMSC practices, and international bodies are reeling in an attempt to standardize the industry. In November, the International Maritime Organisation is expected to review a proposed set of PMSC standards written by the International Organisation for Standardisation.

Meanwhile, the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting centre recently announced that pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia had dropped significantly – down to 177 reported incidents in the first six months of 2012, compared with 266 during the same period of 2011. That’s the first significant drop since incidents began to suddenly rise after 2004. While some observers offer the kudos of international navies for frustrating pirate operations in the region, others feel the real source of decline has been the growing deployment of PMSCs.

From Capt. Ben Marshall’s point of view on the bridge of Red Dragon in May 2008, as his ship was surrounded by six pirate skiffs, it was clear what made the difference to the pirates.

“They understand,” Marshall said of the pirates. “They understand that if someone shoots at them, they understand not to go any further – that they might get hurt.”

And as he watched the pirates bearing down on the ship, as he watched the four members of the armed security team establish their positions with weapons in hand, as he watched the skiffs slow and stop and eventually turn around without a single shot fired, Marshall saw firsthand how effective the mere presence of armed personnel could be.

The search for new markets

The increase in the number of PMSCs since 2008 coincided with growing numbers of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who were looking for employment with private security contractors. But private security’s work in the war zones had fallen under heavy scrutiny after Blackwater Worldwide’s highly publicized Nisour Square shootings in late 2007. The fallout from the incident, in which private security personnel killed 17 Iraqi civilians, reverberated throughout the industry. In order to continue its growth, the industry was searching for opportunity.

OO Quinsec on watch canal passage 200Over just six months in 2008, Somali pirates hijacked over 30 vessels and received ransoms totaling more than $12 million. The mayhem reached a crescendo with the September hijacking of M/V Faina, a 123m (500-ft) Ukrainian tanker loaded to the teeth with arms and tanks that were being shipped illegally to Sudan. The pirates took $3.2 million in ransom. Seven years earlier, in 2004, there was only one reported attack off Somalia.

They had officially hit the bigtime and the world was watching. Keith Simpson was one of many following early developments off Somalia - he had been for some time. He ran his first anti-piracy job off Somalia in 2005.

“In the early days, there was a spate of hijackings and it was unarmed ships that was being hijacked,” he said. “And it was blatantly obvious to a professional what the solution was.”

The solution was armed security on board ships. Simpson saw it earlier than most. That first job in 2005 was on board Red Dragon. The former Royal Marine Commando and member of the Special Boat Service established the London-based Ironside Associates a year later, targeting the high-end luxury yacht market. However, after the media blitz of 2008, a wave of newcomers flooded the market, many of whom lacked proper training to operate in that environment. Many still lack proper training, given the absence of industry standards.

“You really want to look at people who have experience in a maritime environment – and a lot of experience,” said Corey Ranslem, the CEO of Secure Waters Security Group, a Fort Lauderdale-based PMSC. “It’s very difficult to engage another moving target on the water successfully. So you need to have well-trained people who understand that concept. You know – the yacht’s moving, the target’s moving, the ocean’s moving – you have so many moving factors.”

The problem is, not every PMSC is sourcing the right people for work in a maritime environment. Get the wrong person on board without the proper training, give them a gun, get their blood bubbling about pirates and things can go wrong in a heartbeat. It’s a widely acknowledged threat to the industry – one with the potential to blow up every bit as messily as did Blackwater.

Talk to experienced captains and they’re full of stories of rogue, ex-military types keen to shoot off their weapons. Trigger-happy and hungry for target practice, or inexperienced and a bundle of nerves; some people still operate as if they’re in the military. However, the rules change once you cross into the private sector.

“The military’s rules for use of force and their continuum of force and the rules of engagement are different to that of the private sector,” said Jez Dillon, the managing director of European operations with London-based Blackstone Consultancy. “The military are more likely to pull the trigger if the hair on the back of their neck stands up, because they’ve got the full backing of the Ministry of Defence.”

But even that is not always enough.

The case of two Italian marines who’d been on board the Italian tanker M/V Enrica Lexie has just about every PMSC’s and every industry analyst’s attention. The two marines are facing murder charges in a court in India, in connection with the February killing of two Indian fishermen, who were on a small fishing boat with nine others. The two active duty marines were providing anti-piracy protection. They mistook the fishing vessel and its occupants for pirates and fired upon the ship, resulting in the deaths. The incident has since led to a diplomatic row between India and Italy. As of this writing, the marines were awaiting word from India’s Supreme Court on the issue of jurisdiction – the Italians’ lawyers saying the two should be tried in Italy. It has now been agreed upon that the incident took place in contiguous waters, not international waters as initially believed.

“The Italian incident was unbelievable, in my opinion,” Simpson said. “The only good thing about that was that it was the military that did it and not a civilian security company. Because, had it been a civilian security company, I can’t imagine what the implications would have been.”

Military personnel are usually cloaked in immunity by their government. In July a team on board the U.S. Navy ship USNS Rappahannock similarly fired upon a small boat of fishermen off the coast of Dubai and killed one fisherman. Those men were protected from any local prosecution by the U.S. Department of Defence. However, in the private sector there is no shield of immunity.

PMSC1 copy2Finding out just what the implications are for a PMSC may be just a matter of time. The number of attacks on fishing boats in that region is steadily growing, said Michael Frodl, founder and head of C-Level Maritime Risks, which analyzes risks for underwriters and other maritime players. “The U.S. Navy doesn’t really have to worry about killing people by accident. They’ve got sovereign immunity,” he said. “But you’re a wealthy executive and you put your armed guards on that ship and they kill somebody by mistake – you got a problem.”

Part of the complexity comes down to the difference between the military’s graduated response and what’s expected from private security. The military’s response is not so gradual and errs on the side of responding with gunfire. Usually there are three steps taken by military if an unknown vessel begins to come too close and continues to approach – a visual alert, an auditory alert, and then they shoot at the operator.

PMSCs are expected to show more restraint. The exact policy for use of force is up to each PMSC to decide, but it must be graduated and cannot be consistent with the aggressiveness of the military. Generally, they must go through visual and aural warnings, as well. But they might also have to get on the radio and tell the ship to back off. Then come the warning shots – usually next to the boat, so they can see the rounds impact the water. Some will then recommend trying to shoot out the motor before actually resorting to shooting into the boat.

However, not everyone is properly trained on these procedures and, coming straight from the military, they are used to the much quicker call-to-arms. And guards must react quickly. “One kilometre at 25 knots and closing – that’s over really fast,” Frodl said.

It was in this regulatory vacuum that the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, or SAMI, formed in mid-2008. Its mission was to help standardize, regulate and certify PMSCs. Seeing the incredible disparity between companies, SAMI hoped to be a guiding light. However, due to growing pressures, the task of producing standards has now fallen to larger international bodies, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO).

“Our main concern is there is no formalized process of due diligence to make sure they’re actually properly trained, make sure they’re not a danger to themselves and make sure they’re not a danger to anyone else,” said Chris Trelawny, the IMO’s senior director of the Maritime Safety Division, which is responsible for counter-piracy. Even PMSC representatives raised the issue – the concern being that they’re operating in a fog, without clear guidelines on what’s acceptable and what’s not.

“Up until the time that something goes wrong, people are always saying we don’t need it,” Dillon said. “But when you need to commence a criminal investigation because there’s been a shooting or a negligent discharge or a firearm on board and someone’s been injured or an asset has been damaged, that is when questions are going to be asked about standardization and procedures.”

Preparation and planning

In early 2008, Red Dragon, a 52m (170 ft) sloop sailed from New Zealand to the Seychelles, headed for the Mediterranean. The yacht and its 10 crew set out from Auckland and picked up two Ironside security personnel in Indonesia. Red Dragon’s captain, Ben Marshall, is a pragmatist to the bone – of a school that values hands on experience over the classroom. There would be no fooling around. He knew it would be foolish to set out without serious defence. When they reached the Seychelles, two more security personnel joined the crew. Before they set off again, the Ironside team drilled the crew extensively. They assessed Red Dragon’s weaknesses and ran drills so that each person knew exactly their role in the event of an emergency. They established the engine room as the citadel, and in the event the boat was overtaken, the crew would gather there and wait for the security team to give the all-clear. If they didn’t hear anything, they would know the worst had happened.

Ben Marshall 3 copy5"The people on the outside would have to be dead, in other words," Marshall said. "Especially when you don't have any military training, it's just a weird concept."

Simpson, who would have been one of the people on the outside, described the whole thing simply as “pretty standard procedure.” Ideally, the bridge can be secured to protect occupants from assailants while still allowing the crew to maintain control of the ship. But that’s not always possible. “Otherwise, you just have to make the best of what you’ve got,” he said.

Ironside Associates had made the passage aboard the previous Red Dragon on multiple occasions without any problems. But news in the Seychelles was consumed by talk of the recent events off Somalia. Le Ponant had been hijacked after setting off from the Seychelles a month earlier. The Spanish fishing vessel M/V Playa de Bakio and its crew had just been released after being held by pirates for nearly a week. The actual odds of being attacked are incredibly low, but the worry still percolates. “It’s actually less than a quarter of one percent of ships that are actually attacked in the Gulf of Aden,” Trelawny said, trying to put some perspective on the matter. “And of that, something like only 15 percent are successful.” So, while armed PMSCs still hold the record of never having been successfully taken, the reality is that most never have their services tested.

Adding to this, the Somali pirates, like most ambush predators, were interested in easy prey. And however unlikely, Marshall knew they needed to be able to brandish their teeth just as fiercely as the Somalis in the even something did happen. They would be on high-alert for the next 12 days – from the moment they left the Seychelles until they reached the Suez Canal.

Adequate precaution

The use of armed PMSCs has been practically institutionalized through Pirate Alley due to piracy’s successes. The majority of attacks have been on commercial tankers – by far the lion's share of traffic through the region. Besides Le Ponant, at least one other cruise ship was attacked, while the remainder have tended to be fishing boats and private yachts.  The trend could increase if luxury boats continue to risk sailing these waters without adequate precaution, Frodl said. With low freeboards and an expectation that owners have the means to pay large ransoms, pirates will inevitably target these vessels, especially smaller yachts that are less likely to have security on board. A prime example was the case of a retired English couple, the Chandlers, whose sailboat was seized off the Seychelles in 2009 as they spent their retirement pleasure cruising. The couple were held for over a year, as pirates insisted on a multi-million dollar ransom from cash-strapped pensioners. They were finally released in late 2010.

OO Mark OConnell silhouette PMSC2As the threat grew, the industry searched for a solution. In October 2008, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution urging “all states interested in the security of maritime activities to take part actively in the fight against piracy in the high seas off the coast of Somalia,” in part by deploying their navies and military aircraft. But few results have come of such naval efforts until recently. The most immediate solution has been the use of PMSCs.

“I know people say it’s terrible – we shouldn’t have to have this and everything like that. I totally agree. We shouldn’t have to,” Marshall said. “Ideally, the people in the big grey boats – the navies – they actually go out in peacetime and keep one of the major shipping arteries of the world free of scumbags. They’re not doing that, so people have to take, you know, their precautions.”

Over the past year, the international navies have upped their campaign, but the waters are still murky in terms of weapons and jurisdiction. Under conventional rule of sea, it’s the state’s obligation to intervene and thwart piracy. But Somalia is a state without a functioning government, leaving navies to wonder: to what extent can they legally intervene? A recent slew of raids on pirate enclaves by international navies appears to have had an effect, but navies still cannot make arrests based merely on suspicion.

“Piracy is a crime,” Trelawny said, but “there is no crime of conspiracy to commit piracy. So, being in a boat on the high seas with a boarding ladder and an AK-47 and an RPG actually isn’t a crime. So, you can’t prosecute them for that.”

Due to these limitations, the navies have begun to implement a policy known as “Catch-and-Release.” This consists of interdicting suspected pirate action groups, getting on board the skiffs, taking weapons, removing big motors and replacing them with smaller ones that would barely allow them to chase a tugboat.

“That keeps them out of action for a couple weeks, which damages the pirate business model,” Trelawny said, pointing out that the groups are financed by local backers who pay to arm the pirates and put them in decent boats. “It costs money to set up a pirate group,” he continued, “and they have to go out and start again.”

“It’s really about causing the maximum disruption,” he said.

Cyrus Mody, assistant director of the IMB, tends to agree. He said the Catch-and-Release policy has proven very effective.

“There has been a lot more active targeting of pirate action groups which are active in the high-risk area,” Mody said. “It has reduced the number of pirate action groups in the region and it has reduced their rate of attacking and hijacking.”

While some attribute the significant drop in the number of attacks to the navies, the numbers would indicate otherwise. Even as the total number of attacks off Somalia reached its highest level to date in 2011, signs were indicating that the tide had begun to turn earlier, as the number of successful hijackings dropped drastically to 28 – just two more than in a three-month span in 2008. One factor may be been that fewer ships are reporting attacks to avoid insurance increases, Frodl said. Still, most point to the employment of armed security and the record they love to boast: that no ship carrying armed security has been successfully hijacked. And while some warn the dangers of such simplistic statistics, it is hard to deny the role armed security has played.

Futility of non-lethal weapons

On 1 April 2008, as Le Ponant headed north from the Seychelles, no one on board could have known that they would soon make headline news. Despite best practices in place, what followed demonstrated the futility of non-lethal weapons against pirate attacks. The vessel relied on water cannons and other non-lethal methods of defence. Many of the crew had made this passage before. The captain, Patrick Marchesseau, had himself directed the ship through the Gulf of Aden at least six times since he’d taken over the helm in December 2004. “We were used to pirates by this area,” Marchesseau said. For five years the transit had become a regular staple, marking the passing of seasons.

PatrickMarchesseau copyThe ship moved north at 13 knots. On the second day of the voyage, a report came in warning of increased pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden – a shipping lane that sees 20,000 vessels pass through annually. Of that, 31 ships had been attacked the previous year.

They took their normal precautions – ran drills, sailed without lights, and maintained contact with the French Navy. They trailed lines from the stern to snare the skiffs’ motors, and positioned water cannons on deck ready to deploy. 

At the time, the use of non-lethal devices was considered adequate. Most ships wanted to avoid bringing guns on board because of the added expense – the most significant being skyrocketing insurance rates. In most cases, the risks of having a weapon on board actually outweigh the benefits – the prime reason 99 percent of Blackstone’s assignments are unarmed, according to Dillon.

“The maritime industry does not want the carriage of firearms to be institutionalized,” Trelawny said. “They see it very much as a temporary measure.”

It’s also subject to a raft of regulations, starting with the flagstate and continuing through any ports of call or territorial waters traversed. Each state has its own regulations. For a long time Great Britain resisted changes to its gun laws for ships flying the Union Jack. However, Prime Minister David Cameron reversed that position in late 2011 after a number of British-flagged ships ran into problems off the Horn of Africa. Cameron told the BBC: “The evidence is that ships with armed guards don’t get attacked, don’t get taken for hostage or ransom.”

Some countries, including Italy, don’t allow private companies to carry weapons, requiring that armed guards be provided only by the military. Meanwhile Germany only recently changed the law allowing armed PMSCs to operate on German-flagged ships, but they are limited to the use of semi-automatic weapons.

Beyond the flagstate, ships must also be aware of gun regulations wherever they transit. “There’s no right to take arms through a country just because you happen to believe it’s for your self-protection,” Trelawny said.

The diplomacy of guns can be very touchy. Sri Lanka, for example, recently announced it found proof that British PMSCs had breached its laws – essentially smuggling arms into the country. A number of PMSCs used Sri Lanka as a regional launching pad, believing its laws were easier to work through. Either way, this accusation prompted the Sri Lankan government to outlaw private arms on land, relegating them to floating armouries off the coast and complicating matters greatly. “There are some situations that make it impossible,” Ranslem said.

In an attempt to clarify the situation, the IMO has written to member governments asking them to provide information on each of their policies regarding firearms and private security personnel, with the intention of posing those on IMO’s website. “We’re slowly but surely getting responses to that,” Trelawny said.

The complications inherent in the use of firearms initially caused many companies to opt for non-lethal weapons. Among them, water cannons and LRADs – long-range acoustic weapons – were the most popular. But these have proven mostly to provoke annoyance. In November 2008, a new British PMSC, Anti Piracy Maritime Security Solutions using only non-lethal weapons, was hired to escort the shipping vessel M/V Biscaglia through the high-risk area. The vessel came under attack by pirates armed with AK-47s and RPGs. The LRAD and water cannons were futile. When that proved insufficient, the three guards jumped ship, leaving the 27-member crew on board as the pirates took control of the ship.

“The sound cannons are basically completely useless on the water,” Frodl said, pointing out that they are easily neutralized by wearing sound-cancelling protective gear or even earplugs.

This is the position Le Ponant found itself in as it moved well into the gulf on April 4, 2008. And while the odds were overwhelmingly in their favour for an uneventful trip, it became harder to rest comfortably on statistics with a suspicious ship lurking nearby. Marchesseau was about to go for lunch when a blip popped up on the radar – a ship sitting still about 10 miles away. He altered the ship’s course and was reassured to see the boat drift off to stern, until a crewmember spotted two small boats quickly closing in from behind at nearly twice their speed.

Marchesseau sent out a distress signal and ordered the men to the water cannons and the women to hole up below the waterline. The pirates had no intention of boarding from the stern; the lines trailing in Le Ponant’s wake would do no good. Marchesseau attempted a number of manoeuvres to prevent the pirates from approaching broadside while the crew fired water cannons. This only angered the Somalis, and a number of them promptly put their Kalashnikovs to use, hitting the ship at least 20 times. The water cannons were quickly abandoned.

It wasn’t long before the band of 12 Somalis boarded Le Ponant. After a week, the owners agreed to pay $2.1 million for the safe return of crew and ship. Le Ponant and Marchesseau would brave the waters off Somalia on subsequent voyages, but not without a team of French special forces.

The call for standards

In the current environment, a PMSC’s reputation is tantamount. Anti Piracy Maritime Security Solutions didn’t exist a year after its three guards jumped ship. And in the absence of formal standards, the IMO has issued a number of documents warning ships to take care when hiring an armed PMSC. “The absence of applicable regulations and industry self-regulation coupled with complex legal requirements governing the legitimate transport of firearms gives cause for concern,” the IMO said. “This situation is further complicated by the rapid growth in the number of private maritime security companies and doubts about the capabilities and maturity of some of these companies.”

OO Mark OConnell wire PMSCFor its part, the IMO has taken no position on the trend to arm ships because of disagreements among the 170 member states. Instead, they’ve issued a series of documents guiding the use of armed guards. However, the recommendations are light on specifics, given that each country approaches the same situation differently. In short, the document advises that each PMSC should maintain proper documentation, be aware of all applicable law, have insurance coverage for liability and personal incident, a written policy for transport and handling of firearms, and a written policy on the rules for use of force based on a graduated response – “using only that force which is strictly necessary and reasonable.” The document also advises PMSCs to seek certification from national and international bodies – once the standards are established.

This has been a long time coming. SAMI was initially tasked with developing security standards, but after a lengthy delay, the IMO approached the ISO to fill that role. Trelawny said the standards will be based largely the IMO’s guiding documents and are expected to be ready for the IMO’s review and approval at its November meeting. Attention will then turn to the question of how to police these standards.

“There’s really going to be no worldwide enforcement body,” Ranslem said. There are a number of organizations that claim to certify PMSCs, he continued, but “if you write them a big enough check, they’re going to certify you.”

It will likely come down to insurance providers and what they require from PMSCs and ship owners if they want to receive coverage. Meanwhile insurance companies say that while the situation is constantly changing, so are their coverage requirements. “It is a grey area, this liability coverage,” said Vincent Huens de Brouwer, with Ascoma Insurance. As it is, insurance companies wield great power and have influenced the market.

“The insurance industry is driving standards and offering lower premiums for shipping companies who hire reputable security firms,” according to John Holden, managing director of QuinSec, a UK based PMSC. Because of this, PMSC representatives have been known to make the rounds at yacht shows asking insurance providers to recommend them.

At this point, however, the issue of exactly who will certify PMSCs on the ISO’s forthcoming standards and how reliable that will prove is as open as the Indian Ocean. It is a major issue within the larger maritime industry as it tries to prevent catastrophes.

“The current operational environment is poor and we are in danger of a race to the bottom, driven by price and the necessity to undercut,” said Holden. “Quality is not often looked at by commercial shipping companies – ‘I just want a bloke with a gun,’ was how one potential client put it to me. We didn’t take the contract.”

Within the superyacht sector, it’s less of a concern.

“There was the worry that maritime security would wind up like Iraq, where it would be a case of shoot first, ask questions later,” Simpson said. “Now, that’s all down to who you employ and how they’re trained.”

It is just care and caution that will protect owners, Dillon said. Especially in the superyacht industry, where cost isn’t such a determining factor, and owners are willing to pay for quality. The top firms have retained the top people and the name of the game is discretion.

“They’re prepared to pay for it because they know they’re getting quality,” Dillon said. “It won’t happen on a private yacht, because they don’t hire people with that kind of background.”

That’s because reputation becomes even more important if a company hopes to work in the superyacht industry. An immaculate record is a must – not only a record of getting the job done, but a record of getting the job done in a quiet, professional manner.

“A superyacht is not just a boat,” Simpson explained. “A superyacht is a five-star hotel on water. So, you know, you’ve not only got to conduct yourself on it, and you’ve got to respect it.” It’s not a job just any ex-military can do. “That’s why we’re limited to the vessels that we can do,” he continued. “Because, clearly, there’s not hundreds of guys out there. You’re limited on the number of quality people.”

This is a theme many PMSCs touch on – this element of exclusivity, of only hiring the best of the best.

“We don’t take CVs online or people who just ring up about a job,” said Dillon, who is himself ex-military, ex-federal law enforcement. Everyone employed by the company comes solely on recommendation.

QuinSec, which also works in the commercial sector, requires a minimum number of years in the Royal Marines or Navy – or a lot of relevant experience.

Secure Waters maintains a database of guards from many different backgrounds and nationalities to facilitate worldwide operations – all of them thoroughly vetted, Ranslem said. The services offered and advice given by many PMSCs varies as well. Ironside, QuinSec and Secure Waters do provide armed guards for transits through the high-risk area. Blackstone, however, does not and strongly advises its clients to stay away completely. “None of our vessels go anywhere past Malta, because it’s not safe for them,” Dillon said. “We tell them not to go.” Usually, clients listen, he said. And if they’re insistent on heading to the Indian Ocean, they will usually put the yacht on a transport bulker.

Many owners are opting to go that route, but it all depends on the boat, said Jan Maarten Boissevain, a representative of Sevenstar Yacht Transport. As yachts become larger, the option becomes less tenable. “It becomes more costly – you start looking at a million-plus.”

OO Quinsec porthole 3Red Dragon would be looking at a million-plus figure to ship from Singapore to the Mediterranean – around 1 million, Marshall said. The Suez Canal also has an air-draft restriction of 68m (around 220 ft), which would essentially prevent any tall-masted yacht from taking this route. Owners also have to be aware of the bulker’s on-board security. In January 2011, the German-flagged M/V Beluga Nomination was successfully hijacked as it transported nine megayachts.

The IMO also issued a best management practices document for the high-risk area. Its advice to yachts and luxury crafts: “The advice is NOT to enter this area.”

And while some PMSCs do advise against the passage, it gives others few qualms. “When you’re talking Red Dragon size – 52 meters – you’re talking a bigger vessel,” Simpson said. “It’s got capacity. It’s got the crew. And it’s not been a problem.”

Marshall has resolved the issue from a slightly different angle. “Is it better to run the gauntlet through the area past Somalia and then, when you get somewhere, you’re in an absolute paradise; or do you do the other way, to the Caribbean, and when you get there, it’s dangerous to even go out at night?” he asked. “I, personally, would prefer to take armed security and go down to the Indian Ocean.” He paused. “But everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.”

No shots fired

As usual, his opinion is based on experience. In May 2008, Red Dragon powered ahead at a steady 15.5 knots, taking the same route as Le Ponant a month earlier. The crew didn’t bother with the sails. Everyone worked on rotation.

“You’ve got people on watch for a given time, in brackets of time. And then when they’re off watch, they’re effectively on standby to be crashed out of their beds in the event of an incident,” Simpson said. This is how the crew lived for the duration of the trip – on the edge, ready to muster at any time.

There was a lot of waiting, but when the pirates came, they were ready. An alarm sounded. Everyone on the deck wore flakjackets. The four Ironside guards took their positions – two near the stern and one to both starboard and port. The pirates’ mother ship launched two skiffs at a time, six in all. They kept their distance, gauging the situation. One boat zipped across Red Dragon’s path, well ahead. The pirates looking at Red Dragon would have seen eight people, all in body armour, a number with high-powered weapons pointed their way.

“We didn’t feel in danger,” Simpson said. “ We were monitoring them through binoculars. We obviously had skiffs on either side, but at no time did we see any weapons. So, because of rules of engagement, we didn’t engage them.”

It was a kind of standoff. The Somalis appeared to be deliberating. Everyone  on board Red Dragon waited to see what the pirates would do – their hearts in their throats, their pulses high. And, eventually, the Somalis retreated.

“All we used was our sheer presence,” Simpson said.

The incident was over without a single shot fired.

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Photos courtesy of Mark O'Connell: www.markoconnell.photodeck.com.

To read more about piracy and PMSCs visit the following links:

-New York Times Magazine feature on a couple held hostage by Somali pirates: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/magazine/taken-by-pirates.html.

-Bloomberg story on the benefits and risks of PMSCs: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-08/shooting-to-kill-pirates-risks-blackwater-moment.html.

-Vanity Fair feature on the Le Ponant hijacking: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/04/somali-pirates200904.

-The IMO's recommendation on best practices: http://www.imo.org/MediaCentre/HotTopics/piracy/Pages/default.aspx

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Readers Comments

  • Comment by: maureen - 02/07/2014 1:38pm (5 years ago)

    Fear sir. Need some help on a friend who is a guard on a vessel and no word from him for a month.don't know the vessels name. How do I go about enquiring about his safety.