Queen Mary 2, the world's largest ocean liner, crosses the
Suez Canal in Ismailia. Posted between septuagenarian
passengers in deck chairs, lookouts stand watch over the
Gulf of Aden, scanning the horizon for pirates.
Posted between septuagenarian passengers in deck chairs,
lookouts stand watch over the Gulf of Aden, scanning the
horizon for pirates.
After more than half a decade of Somali men attacking Indian
Ocean shipping from small speedboats with AK-47s, grappling
hooks and ladders, the number of attacks is falling fast.
The last merchant ship to be successfully hijacked, naval
officers monitoring piracy say, was at least nine months ago.
It's a far cry from the height of the piracy epidemic two
years ago, when several ships might be taken in a single week
to be traded for airdropped multi-million dollar ransoms.
But as the Queen Mary 2, one of the world's most recognisable
ocean liners, passes through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and
out towards Dubai, its owners and crew are taking few
"The pirates have weapons and are not afraid to use them,"
Commander Ollie Hutchinson, the British Royal Navy liaison
officer aboard the liner for its trip through the Indian
Ocean, tells a briefing of passengers in the ship's theatre.
"Once the pirates have identified their target, they will try
whatever means they can to get on board."
To underline his point, he displays a picture of an Italian
helicopter hit by small arms fire from a pirate dhow late
last year followed by assorted images of gunmen holding AK-47
assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades.
In truth, the Queen Mary 2 - carrying 2,500 passengers and
1,300 crew from Southampton to Dubai on the first leg of a
world cruise - is not particularly at risk.
Some 345 metres long and 14 stories high, even its promenade
deck is seven floors above the sea. The liner is fast, hard
to board and - on this passage at least - moderately well
Like many merchant vessels, the QM2 now carries armed private
contractors when passing through areas of pirate risk.
Cunard will not discuss precise security arrangements. But
contractors on other vessels routinely carry M-16-type
assault rifles and sometimes belt-fed machine guns, often
picked up from ships acting as floating offshore armouries
near Djibouti and Sri Lanka.
Additional lookouts from the ship's regular onboard security
force - mostly Filipinos - are also posted on the main deck
to give warning of any suspicious craft.
"Depending on what happens with attacks, I'm hopeful we may
be able to reduce our security measures when we pass through
the same waters next year," says Commodore Christopher Rynd,
senior captain of the British-based Cunard line and current
master of the QM2. "But that's not a decision we will be
making at this stage."
A CHANGING GAME?
When ships do come under attack, the first phone to ring is
usually in a nondescript white bungalow in the gardens of the
British Embassy in Dubai.
The UK Maritime Trade Organisation (UKMTO) was set up shortly
after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to provide security advice
to British shipping in the area. As pirate attacks soared in
the second half of the last decade, it found itself
coordinating international shipping across much of the Indian
Most vessels passing through the area - container ships,
tankers, cruise liners and dhows - now register daily with
UKMTO. If they believe they are in danger, they will contact
the British team to request military support.
"We've had calls when you could hear gunfire and rocket
propelled grenades in the background," says Lieutenant
Commander Simon Goodes, the current officer in charge. "But
lately, the phones are ringing much less."
The only confirmed attack this year, Goodes said, was on a
merchant vessel in early January as it sailed towards the
Kenyan port of Mombasa. On-board private security guards
repelled the assault after a 30 minute firefight.
According to the European Union anti-piracy task force EU
NAVFOR, 2012 saw only 36 confirmed attacks and a further 73
"suspicious events" - incidents in which a crew report a
suspicious craft that might be pirate but could also be
simply an innocent fishing boat. That itself was a
substantial fall from 2011, with 176 attacks and 166
Only five ships were captured in 2012, down from 25 in 2011
and 27 in 2010.
"This is an important year," says Lieutenant Commander
Jacqueline Sheriff, spokeswoman for EU NAVFOR. "We will find
out whether this fall in piracy is really sustainable."
Sea-borne attacks off West Africa, however, appear to be on
the rise in what some analysts believe is a sign that
Nigerian and other criminal gangs may be tempted by the
Somali pirate model.
PIRATE BUSINESS MODEL FAILING?
Exactly what is behind the fall in Somali piracy is a matter
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the navies patrolling the Indian
Ocean say the numbers show they are finally having an impact.
Since piracy first grabbed global attention in 2008, a number
of nations have sent ships to the region.
Sailing through the Internationally Registered Transit
Corridor, a protected route between Somalia and Yemen, the
QM2 passed warships from the United States, France, India and
As well as the EU force, there are separate flotillas from
NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces that often include Asian
vessels. Several other nations including China and Russia
also keep ships there, running convoys through the "high-risk
In May last year, EU NAVFOR launched its first onshore raid,
targeting a suspected pirate group on the beach as it
prepared to head to sea with helicopter and small arms fire.
Not everyone, however, believes that explains the fall. For
many in the shipping industry, the fall in attacks is a
vindication of the decision to massively ramp up the use of
So far, not a single ship with armed guards has been taken by
pirates - although naval officers and other piracy
specialists say hired guards can be excessively trigger-happy
and have fired on innocent fishermen from India, Oman and
The situation is also changing in Somalia, which has been
without a functioning government for two decades. The present
administration is becoming more effective, as is an African
military force tasked with tackling Islamist rebels.
RETIRED PIRATE, DARKENED LINER
Last month, one of Somalia's highest profile pirates told
Reuters he was giving up his life of crime at sea.
"I have given up piracy and succeeded in encouraging more
youths to give up piracy," said Mohamed Abdi Hassan. "It was
not due to fear of warships. It was just a decision."
In an apparently separate development, three Syrian hostages
held since 2010 were released without the payment of a
ransom. Four vessels are currently still held by pirates
along with 108 hostages, the EU says.
The bottom line, some military officers and analysts believe,
may be that the lower success rate for pirates in the last
year has prompted those bankrolling them to stop.
But no one is taking the pirates for granted. An apparent
attempted night-time attack on a merchant ship only a handful
of miles from the entrance to the Gulf at the Strait of
Hormuz was a reminder attacks can take place across a huge
Shortly before entering the Suez Canal, QM2 held a security
drill to instruct passengers in what to do if the ship comes