Look out from the bridge of a container ship like the Svend Maersk and it's easy to see why the crew is prepared to ward off pirates. This vessel is a gold mine of goods, loaded with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of toys, computers and mobile phones. That's a lot of loot.
Piracy is a scourge on the shipping industry. World trade depends on container ships. The vessels and their routes are required to be as efficient as possible so any disruption raises costs. As the Svend's chief officer Christian Vium told me, in this business, time is money.
The ships are most vulnerable in confined waters near countries in economic turmoil. "There is no doubt in my mind that whatever happens at sea is connected to the law and order on land," explains Captain Bo Nikolaisen. The crew is most on alert when they travel through the Gulf of Aden where one of Maersk's ships, the Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates earlier this year.
The Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia used to be another danger zone until Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia decided to take action to protect the well-trafficked thoroughfare. The threat in the strait today, Nikolaisen says, has dissipated "considerably".
Captain Nikolaisen hasn't had trouble with pirates for over a decade, but he still takes precautions, especially in the Gulf of Aden.
1) Speed up near maximum speed. The ship burns ten tons of oil per hour, but, he says, the fast movement makes it tougher for pirates to come aboard.
2) Turn off all unnecessary lights. Ships keep their navigational lights on but otherwise are cloaked in darkness.
3) Black out the portholes. Sheets of black plastic are fastened to portholes on every door. The crew covers the portholes with the plastic to obscure the view of the ship's interior in case pirates make it onto the vessel.
Captain Nikolaisen says most pirates are thieves rather than hijackers. They sneak on board to steal equipment or rob the captain of his laptop, cellphone, or maybe some cash, but usually they leave the crew unharmed. However, given the economic crisis, better to be safe than sorry.
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