The yacht slipped through the darkness towards the Gulf of Aden, black ship. No lights showed, the windows blacked out with thick bin liners stuck on with blue tape. It was eerie walking around the boat in the pitch dark, checking that nothing was rattling or banging, skin crawling in that spot between your shoulder blades.
On deck, the glowing ends of cigarettes were shielded from view, iPhone screens hidden, crew crouching behind the main deck bar trying to get a fading internet signal to message home that no mum, the pirates haven’t got me, don’t worry.
Two modern mercenaries stood with machine guns on the aft deck, voices quiet in the night. The moon was hidden by thick cloud; you could barely see the men’s shadows, just slightly deeper shades of black and the occasional flash of white eyes and teeth.
We were heading towards the narrow strait where Saudi Arabia almost touches Africa. Somewhere, pirates waited. Fishing skiffs lying low in the water, weighted down with rocket launchers and powerful outboard motors. In the daytime, with a slight chop, it’s hard to see them coming. After the sun sets, eyes strain for movement, for a flicker of light or a fast-moving shadow in the heaving sea.
The yacht ploughed south into the night. Decks vibrating, the engines groaned and hummed as they pulled us through the ocean, the wake hissing and shining white in the darkness.
I took the slop-bucket out after dinner, feeling exposed as I made my way down the dark companionway, my eyes scanning for pirates. I threw the bucket awkwardly, and it swung back, coating the back of the boat with the remains of spaghetti Bolognese. Whoops.
You really don’t want to get caught by these pirates- they’re not Jack Sparrow types. Some are soldiers of radical Islam, raising money for their global war of ideology. Ex-militia of Mogadishu, who now work for warlords and roam the oceans, looking for boats and crews to hold ransom or, in worst cases, behead to make some kind of point.
We’d had our drills; we knew what to do if the pirates attacked. A few days earlier, the crew had been squished together in the engine control room, looking at the captain expectantly. After a splendid chat about motherships, hot zones and night-vision goggles, he reassured us that in the very unlikely event that something did happen, that we would be safe here, in the ‘citadel.’ I tried not to laugh. The citadel: the gleaming white and steel engine room of a superyacht.
The captain continued. “If I think we’re coming under attack, I’ll radio for you all to come here to the engine room. Security will be on deck, and will fire warning shots across their bow, and fire on them if necessary. You’re in a steel box. You’ll be safe here.” In a steel box, on the waterline. Like a coffin, then. “Hopefully the pirates won’t launch a rocket at the hull,” he continued, almost as an afterthought. Yes, that’s when being in a steel box might not be so helpful. But I didn’t feel unsafe. I felt everything was prepared. Not exactly safe, but as safe as it was possible to be, passing through pirate-infested waters. For anyone with even a slight appreciation of the dramatic, this was quite exciting. It shouldn’t be, I know. But then, yachting isn’t for those with a desire for an ordinary life.
How quickly we become accustomed to having weapons in our lounge room. The first day or two, I took lots of photos of men with guns- doing wonderfully incongruous things like making tea in the crew mess with a machine gun slung across their backs. On the aft deck I asked to hold one of their guns, for a photo. They looked at each other, somewhat reluctantly assenting. This, after all, was not a game. One took the magazine out of his gun, and passed it to me. I slung the gun strap over my shoulder, surprised at the weight. Even unloaded, it made me nervous.
One lunchtime the crew were watching the Bond film Casino Royale in surround sound. In the middle of a very loud fight scene the captain’s voice came over the radio. “Possible pirate sighting. Six skiffs within a mile. All security on deck.” With that, two security guards jumped up, grabbed their guns and hit the stairs at a run, all to blare of Bond music and machine gun fire. The other stew turned to me and said, ‘I half expected them to commando roll out of here.’ We laughed and started clearing the crew mess, eyes occasionally scanning the portholes, Daniel Craig still running around on screen looking ridiculously hot, but now muted. The skiffs fell away, perhaps deterred by the visible firepower. Perhaps they were just fishermen; it’s sometimes hard to tell.
Private yachts in pirate waters = private security. Simple formula, and effective: No private yacht with private security on board has ever been boarded by pirates. Yet this quite logical precaution is not compulsory. Not all yachts insist on armed guards. Some will go to all sorts of lengths to avoid them.
On a boat in Singapore more than a decade ago, our captain came down to morning tea with a printed email in his hand.
“The boss wants you all to get weapons-trained for the Malacca Straits.” The crew mess went quiet. Everyone looked at each other, and back at him. Then it started.
“That will just get people killed,” said the engineer.
“Yeah. Just give them what they want.”
“What if they want the girls?” This came from the female deckhand, and I agreed, rather quickly.
The second engineer rolled his eyes. “Giving us all guns we don’t know how to use will just make the situation escalate.” This also seemed a fair point.
The conversation went in circles round the mess, becoming more heated.
In the end, the captain went away, no doubt wishing we would all do what we were told for once. A few days later we heard that private security would be flying out to do the trip with us. I thought it was probably for the best.
Fast forward to 2008, when another boat was preparing for an equatorial crossing. Piracy in the Gulf of Aeden was skyrocketing, navy ships were patrolling and private security firms were in demand.
For mystifying reasons, my captain convinced our billionaire owner not to bother with the expense of security guards. ‘Overblown’, the piracy situation was, apparently. ‘Everyone making a big deal out of nothing.’ But there were 111 attacks that year, and 214 in 2009. Hardly nothing. Instead of armed guards, our captain ordered some life-sized mannequins wearing hard hats and carrying plastic AK47s, which were scattered around the boat, one centred prominently in the main salon, illuminated from above with a single bright light.
I didn’t do the trip in the end, but the girls told me that one of their watch duties as they passed down the coast of war-torn Africa was to walk around the boat, conducting imaginary conversations with the plasticmen, to meake them seem real. And given that most boats go black ship to escape detection, I’m not sure that an illuminated dummy smack bang in the middle of the main salon was going to help matters. And a hard hat? Surely any pirate worth their salt and parrots would know that private yachts don’t really do hardhats. Pure farce.
The trip passed without incident. Lucky, I think. But why take the risk? This is luxury yachting, and fuel for this trip can cost a quarter of a million dollars, so the owner can afford four security guards. And the crew told me that they were scared on that crossing. Why let your crew be scared when they don’t need to be? Why put that responsibility on their shoulders? We are not soldiers, we are yacht crew.
As pirate activity falls in the Gulf of Aden, there is real concern that yachts will become complacent about the risks. From a peak of 237 attacks off the Somali coast in 2011, there were only 75 reported in 2012, and only 14 successful hijackings.
There are several reasons why pirate attacks have fallen in the area. Some people attribute the decline to the greater naval presence within the Gulf, but many more credit the increased use of private security. Either way, it is reasonable to assume that if security drops, piracy will rise. The danger is not over.
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