Cruise ship escapes attack by pirates 100 miles off Somalia

Feb 28, 2007 12:00 AM
The crew of a 9,775-gross-ton, 440-foot-long passenger cruise ship successfully evaded a pirate attack off the coast of Somalia early on the morning of Nov. 5.

The cruise ship lies at anchor near a warship in the Seychelles two days after the attack off Somalia.
   Image Credit: Associated Press

The incident highlighted the peril this region poses to mariners. The Somali coast is now the riskiest place in the world for pirate attacks, according to Capt. Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce. Between March 15 and Nov. 16, 2005, 32 incidents of piracy off Somalia have been reported. The International Maritime Bureau is advising vessels that do not have to call on Somali ports to remain at least 200 nm offshore.

Seabourn Spirit, a Bahamian-flagged vessel owned by Miami-based Seabourn Cruise Line, was en route from Alexandria, Egypt, to Mombasa, Kenya, when the attack occurred, according to Bruce Good, a Seabourn spokesman. The vessel was about 100 nm off the coast.

Apparently a distress call was issued just before the attack, which Seabourn Spirit's master, Capt. Sven Erik Pedersen, did not respond to, because issuing false distress calls is a tactic pirates use frequently, according to Good. At about 0530, the captain spotted two 25-foot-long open boats with outboard motors speeding toward the cruise ship.

There were between nine and 12 pirates in the two boats, armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. The pirates opened fire on the vessel and launched three RPGs at the ship, according to Good.

As the attack started, Pedersen told passengers over the ship's public address system to keep low, stay away from windows and go to the restaurant. "He didn't want to sound the general emergency alarm, because he was concerned that people would go out on deck, and there were bullets flying," Good said.

Pedersen turned the vessel out to sea, sped up and took evasive action, with the two pirate boats in pursuit, according to Good. Seabourn Spirit has a cruising speed of 16 knots. Good would not reveal the vessel's top speed.

News accounts reported that the captain attempted to run down the pirate boats, but Good cast doubt on those accounts. "I think probably what he was doing was creating a bow wave to try to swamp them or drive them away, to make it real ugly for guys in open boats," Good said.

Image Credit: Associated Press

The remnants of a rocket propelled grenade protrude from a bulkhead.

Passengers have stated that Seabourn Spirit used a nonlethal weapon called a long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, to repel the pirates. The device creates a powerful tone between 2,100 and 3,100 hertz, at the most sensitive range of human hearing. Citing security concerns, Good would not confirm or deny the presence of an LRAD on Seabourn Spirit.

The LRAD was developed by American Technology Corp. of San Diego. Essentially a highly directional, highly powerful loudspeaker, the LRAD 1000 reportedly can boost sound in a tight beam toward another boat more than 300 yards away.

After the attack, the ship headed to Port Victoria, in the Seychelles, where experts from a guided missile destroyer, USS Gonzalez, and the Seychelles Coast Guard removed part of a grenade shell that had exploded, but not disintegrated, from a passenger cabin. The grenade initially was thought to have been unexploded.

The crew did an excellent job responding to the attack, Good said. The company does train its crews specifically to respond to pirate attacks, but he would not give any details about Seabourn's security plans or what else the crew did in this incident. "We are extremely grateful to them; they did a superb job," said Good of the crew, whose members come from Europe, India, Korea and the Philippines. "It is a measure of their character and courage that these people put themselves between our guests and danger," he said.

There were 161 crewmembers onboard and 151 passengers, including 48 Americans and 21 Canadians. No passengers were injured, and one crewmember, a security officer, sustained minor shrapnel wounds.

It was an especially dangerous week for piracy off the Somali coast, with five incidents occurring between Nov. 5 and Nov. 8. In fact, it is believed that a vessel equipped with a derrick is acting as a mother ship for the pirates, according to Andrew Nunnington, spokesman for the London-based National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers (NUMAST).

On the same day as the Seabourn Spirit attack, a bulk carrier tried to come close to examine a drifting vessel with a derrick on deck. The drifting vessel suddenly sped up and chased the bulk carrier, which escaped, according to the IMB's Weekly Pirate Report. The bulk carrier's master suspects this was the ship from which the 25-foot boats are launched.

On the following day, Nov. 6, pirates armed with automatic weapons and RPGs fired on a ro-ro vessel off the east coast of Somalia. The master took evasive action and escaped, but bridge windows were damaged by gunfire. On Nov. 7, pirates hijacked a Thailand-flagged general cargo ship off Somalia. And on Nov. 8, a cargo vessel escaped a pirate attack 390 nm off Somalia, according to Mukundan.

More than 150 sailors were taken hostage by Somali pirates this year, he said. As of mid-November, pirates were holding six vessels and 100 mariners hostage, according to Mukundan. No deaths or serious injuries have been reported.

NUMAST officials have said the Somali coast should be declared a war zone and needs to be protected by a naval fleet. U.S. and NATO warships patrol the region but are not permitted in Somali territorial waters. On Nov. 23, the 24th Assembly of the International Maritime Organization adopted resolution that calls for action on Somali piracy by the Secretary General of the United Nations, and if necessary, by the UN Security Council.

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