What to Do in the Event of a Pirate Attack

The average American may associate pirates with fairy tales or ancient maritime trade, but this threat is still very real for today's seamen. In 2022, there were 115 pirate attacks worldwide. In 95% of these incidents, the perpetrators were successful in boarding the targeted vessel. Modern pirates use semi-automatic weapons and even rocket launchers, along with GPS and other technology, to carry out these attacks.

Despite concerted efforts by naval forces, including the U.S. Navy, to combat piracy, attacks continue, though their frequency and nature have evolved over the years. One of the most notable incidents in recent history involved Somali pirates, who were once notorious for hijacking ships in the Indian Ocean. A stark reminder of their brutality was the sentencing of 3 Somali pirates to 21 consecutive terms of life imprisonment for the murder of 4 U.S. citizens in 2011. This incident was part of a surge in piracy off the Somali coast, which saw hundreds of ships hijacked over several years. The primary motive for these hijackings was ransom, with pirates demanding and often receiving substantial payments for the release of ships and their crews.

However, recent statistics and reports indicate a shift in global piracy hotspots and tactics. The Gulf of Guinea has emerged as a new epicenter of maritime piracy, surpassing the waters off Somalia. Pirates in this region are known for their violent attacks on vessels and crews, often involving kidnapping for ransom.

Precautionary Measures by Maritime Employers in High-Risk Waters

For maritime employers and offshore companies, ensuring the safety of vessels and crews in pirate-prone waters is a critical responsibility. Implementing comprehensive security measures is essential to mitigate the risk of pirate attacks.

Here are key steps that should be undertaken:

  • Mandatory Onboard Training and Drills: Employers must ensure that all crew members undergo thorough training and participate in drills designed to prepare them for the possibility of a pirate attack. This training should be conducted before the vessel enters high-risk areas.
  • Ship Fortification: It is the employer's responsibility to equip the ship with defensive barriers such as barbed wire, particularly around vulnerable points like gangway openings, to prevent unauthorized access.
  • Fire Hose Preparation: Fire hoses should be strategically placed and ready for use on the ship. Crew members must be trained in using them effectively as a non-lethal means of repelling pirates.
  • Securing the Ship: All potential entry points on the open deck, including those leading to the engine room and steering area, must be securely locked to prevent intrusions.
  • Coordination with Maritime Security Centers: Prior to entering areas known for piracy, it’s vital for maritime employers to communicate with international maritime security centers. This ensures the vessel has the latest safety information and can establish a line of assistance if needed.
  • Vigilance and Watchkeeping: Employers should enforce strict watchkeeping protocols, ensuring continuous surveillance of the ship’s surroundings using lookouts and radar.
  • Monitoring Nearby Vessel Movements: Keeping track of other merchant vessels in the vicinity is crucial. This not only helps in assessing potential threats but also facilitates quick assistance or coordination in case of an emergency.

If a Pirate Attack Is Imminent

For maritime employers and shipowners, a well-defined protocol for managing pirate attacks is crucial for the safety of the crew and the security of the vessel.

In the event of an imminent pirate attack, the following steps should be implemented:

  • Alert Coastal Security: Immediately inform the nearest coastal security authority about the approaching pirates to initiate a timely response.
  • Maximize Ship Speed: Increase the ship's speed to its maximum RPM, making it more difficult for pirates to approach.
  • Aggressive Maneuvering: Employ aggressive driving techniques to create waves that can disrupt the pirates' approach.
  • Safety Measures for Crew: Instruct the crew to stay low to minimize the risk of injury from firearms or other weapons used by the pirates.
  • Use of Non-Lethal Weapons: If pirates get closer, deploy non-lethal weapons like water cannons or sound cannons to deter their advance.
  • Designate a Safe Room: Should pirates begin boarding, have a protocol for all crew members to retreat to a predetermined safe room.
  • Compliance with Pirates’ Demands: Instruct the crew to comply with the pirates' demands and avoid aggressive interactions to reduce the risk of harm.

Vigilance is one of the best methods for protecting a ship against a pirate attack. Pirates tend to approach and attack at dawn and dusk to avoid detection. If shipowners can steer clear of "pirate hot spots," that is recommended too.

In the event of a pirate attack, it is also a good idea to notify the Navy, and transmit Mayday signals or satellite messages as soon as possible. If the military can intervene, The Maritime Security Center recommends that crew members, "…keep low to the deck and cover head with both hands, with hands visible and empty." Some shipowners carry actual weapons as deterrents, but that is a complex decision with legal and safety implications. Keep in mind that non-lethal weapons can also intimidate and encourage the pirates to "pick on" a safer target.

Helping Crews Impacted by Maritime Piracy

The international maritime community continues to face the challenges posed by piracy, and it is up to vessel owners and operators to coordinate with government authorities and implement safety practices that protect their crews. At Arnold & Itkin, we represent injured maritime workers who have been harmed in U.S. or international waters. We have won over $20 billion for our clients and are known as the national leader in maritime law. To find out how we can help you, call (888) 346-5024

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