Travel Tips

Pirates of Somalia Are No Pirates of the Caribbean

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA

Johnny Depp piratePirates have been in the news lately, but it’s got nothing to do with Johnny Depp. This time, real pirates are at work off the coast of Somalia, where for the past two weeks they have been holding the crew of a Ukrainian cargo ship hostage while they negotiate a ransom.

Turns out, this is not a unique case.

Piracy is up in recent years, mainly off the eastern coast of Africa and in southeast Asian waters, which are heavily traveled by ships that sail in close proximity to impoverished, lawless nations with well-organized maritime gangs.

With this in mind, some leisure travelers are probably wondering whether cruise ships could be subject to the same kind of pirate attack.

It can happen, though it is exceedingly rare. In November 2005, the Seabourn Spirit repelled an attempted attack by two pirate boats off the Somali coast. The attackers fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the small cruise ship, which was carrying 302 passengers at the time, but the ship’s crew managed to fool the pirates into thinking they were under counter-attack. One crew member was injured.

skull bones piratesAccording to the International Maritime Bureau’s annual piracy report, there have only been four other attacks on passenger ships since 2003, and those were pretty minor. They involved either small ferries carrying fewer than 20 passengers each, or, in one case, a French luxury yacht sailing off the coast of Somalia en route to Yemen in April 2008. There were no passengers on board the yacht at the time, but the 30 crew members on board were held captive for a week, and were freed after the yacht’s owner paid a $1 million ransom.

That said, the waters off Somalia are some of the most dangerous and most prone to pirates, with attacks increasing dramatically in recent months. The failed African state has not had an effective, operational government for nearly two decades, and strife and turmoil have led desperate fighters to assault ships for supplies, ransom money, or other valuables.

According to the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy report, the Gulf of Aden saw 13 pirate attacks in 2007, and in 2008, so far, there have been 61 attacks—17 of which were in the first two weeks of September alone.

Although passenger ships might seem to be likely targets due to their relative vulnerability, pirates tend to prefer cargo and containers ships, which carry more booty and fewer defenses. In fact, the Seabourn attack was the first recorded attack on a major passenger cruise ship in over a decade, and the most notable since the Achille Lauro was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1985. Cargo and container ships on the other hand, get raided regularly, with almost 200 attacks worldwide in 2007, and 82 so far this year.

So, if you’re thinking of going on a cruise, particularly one that traverses the waters of East Africa, there is little to fear. Statistically speaking, your risk of getting hijacked on a big cruise ship is lower than getting hit by lightning.

Links: Canberra Times, BBC, Business Daily Africa, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post

By Karen Elowitt for

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