Preventing pirate attacks on superyachts

20 January 2015 • Written by Kate Hubert
While commercial shipping benefits from military escorts, private yachts can’t rely on naval protection in pirate-filled waters.

With the media seeming to delight in stories of violence and piracy on the high seas, security issues are at the forefront of the minds of many superyacht owners.

The Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and even the Seychelles are known as high-risk areas (HRAs), but with the attack on the 55m Tiara off Porto-Vecchio, Corsica, piracy is no longer just the concern of those choosing more remote cruising grounds.

Piracy’s platinum era

Piracy is defined as ship-to-ship assault or robbery, separating it from shore-based theft. The very name conjures images of bloodthirsty attackers and strikes a note of fear. But just how real is the threat and how seriously should the superyacht community be taking it?

At Boat International Media’s Superyacht Design Symposium in 2009, a presentation by Paul Cook, managing director of International Superyacht Management and Advanced New Technologies, and Philip Cable, co-founder of Maritime Asset Security and Training, gave a chilling insight into the ‘platinum era of piracy’, as Cook calls it. ‘It hasn’t happened to a superyacht yet, but it could do today or tomorrow,’ he warns.

The number of pirate attacks worldwide is shocking. The International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB PRC) recorded 22 attacks and two successful hijackings in January alone. The IMB PRC’s The full 2012 figures record 278 incidents of piracy worldwide, with 71 occurring in Somalia’s waters.

Although the pirates have concentrated on commercial vessels, they have targeted superyachts in the past. In 2008 the 88m Le Ponant and the Carre d’As were both attack and seized by pirates, and their crews held hostage.

With their low freeboards and slow speeds (relative to large tankers) superyachts present a temptingly soft target.

The 52m Alloy Yachts sloop Red Dragon regularly transits through the Indian Ocean and in 2008 the pirate threat became a reality for her crew.

Red Dragon‘s close call

‘We saw the mothership, a large dhow, approach to about four miles away, then it stopped and launched six fast boats that headed straight towards us,’ says Captain Ben Marshall, who is pretty sanguine about what must have been a terrifying experience.

Luckily the yacht was carrying ex-Special Forces operatives from Ironsides Associates. Marshall is convinced that it was their armed, professional appearance that meant the skiffs took a long, hard look at the yacht before returning to the mothership.

‘They were surprised to find eight people in flak jackets with guns awaiting their arrival… Twenty-four hours later at the same location some other ships were hijacked and taken hostage.’

Piracy is now a real consideration for those planning to cruise the Indian Ocean and beyond as Neil Moore, director of charter management at Burgess, explains: ‘The piracy situation is definitely affecting the charter market in the Indian Ocean, which is a real shame as the region has so much to offer for winter cruising.

‘Many owners have been deterred from sending their yachts to the Indian Ocean due to the increased risks and safety fears for their crew. Those that have ventured forth have found increased costs due to the need for extra security and additional insurance premiums.’

Anti-piracy forces

The IMO is one of the agencies working hard to address the worldwide scourge of piracy; in January 2009, Somalia was one of 17 countries from Arabia and East Africa that signed up to the Djibouti Code of Conduct to repress piracy.

There are now unmanned drones patrolling the skies out of the Seychelles and a task force of naval vessels quartering the Gulf and Indian Ocean, but they are not there for the benefit of private yachts. Their first remit is to protect vessels operating for the World Food Programme, and secondly to protect vulnerable commercial traffic.

It may be sobering to remember that, as in the case with the Chandlers, the British couple who were seized from their small yacht and held for over a year, the rules of engagement prevent EU naval forces from taking steps to rescue you. Coalition forces will do their best to monitor convoys or private craft – small yachts have started crossing ‘pirate alley’ in super-convoys of 20 or more – but the navies’ resources cannot protect every vessel transiting the area.

Official advice from NATO is simply not to cross the so-called IGOARS area (northern Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and southern Red Sea), but if you do decide to make the journey, you can register with various agencies who will log your itinerary, keep in regular contact with you and try to arrange support in the worst-case scenario.

The UK Maritime Trade Operations office has a pirate hotline that you can call if under attack. Similarly the US Navy’s Maritime Liaison Office will register and track US-flagged vessels.

An LRAD is a sonic gun: it blasts a powerful beam of sound to disorientate and deafen approaching threats.

Security measures

Ultimately, the risk of a high-risk transit rests on the shoulders of the owner or operator. This means that hiring private security teams is the only way a yacht can guarantee having trained personnel on hand in the worse-case scenario.

There are many companies, often staffed with ex-Navy or Marine personnel, who specialise in superyacht security and are keen to impress the need to involve them right from the drawing board.

Simon Barlow from Special Projects and Services (SPS) explains: ‘Marine architects are now much more security-aware and know that things need to be built in. SPS will review designs at the earliest stage possible to avoid expensive refits.

‘We recently reviewed a 100m yacht and found significant vulnerabilities. In addition to the planned security setup, we recommended an alarm for the gangway, changing and repositioning the CCTV and installing a panic button for the owner.

‘This resulted in an improved, highly effective security system with significant cost savings for the client.’

If your yacht is already afloat you can still seek advice on the dizzying array of gadgets that can safeguard your yacht, crew and guests. But all of these gadgets are rendered useless if your crew is not well drilled in their use.

Alternative threats

The pure drama involved means that piracy monopolises the headlines, so it’s easy to forget that there are other security issues facing superyachts, both at sea and in port.

‘Many crew don’t realise they are targets, they don’t think of themselves as rich, but the locals probably do,’ warns Barlow.

Security awareness training can help crew when in port and avoid the seemingly petty, but sometimes lethal, crimes associated with muggings or tender theft.

Just a few years ago, crew were joking about pirates on the Red Sea to Indian Ocean route but now we know that these are not mere rascals resembling Johnny Depp, they are desperate criminals. With the pirates expanding their areas of depredation, and targeting yachts as well as merchant vessels, this threat cannot be ignored, despite the increase in security measures being taken by international forces.

But it’s important to understand how you can have some control on your level of risk. Hooton notes, ‘You still only have a one to two per cent risk of being attacked by pirates, but if you steam through an area where attacks are occurring, you can increase that to 50 per cent. However, if you take the correct advice and security measures you can reduce it to virtually nil.’

The fact that sensible yacht owners are using highly skilled professionals to help navigate these treacherous seas is the key reason so few superyachts have been taken.

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