Anarchy at Sea A Voyage through Pirate-Infested Waters

While the European naval mission Atalanta avoids definitive contact with the pirates who plague the waters around the Horn of Africa, shipping companies are protecting their vessels with armed private security personnel. SPIEGEL joined one such ship as it ran the pirate gauntlet on the world's most important trade route.

Andreas Ulrich / DER SPIEGEL

A cardboard carton the size of a shoebox bobs about in the Red Sea waves. As James Roles observes it through a telescope, a shot rings out. "Not bad," he says, "but you're a little bit short. Go ahead and aim it a little higher."

Kevin McGregor sets his rifle's telescopic sights on the box and pulls the trigger once again. Roles is satisfied. It's a hit. He's ready.

Roles and his British team arrived onboard two days ago. The GasChem Antarctic had just left the Suez Canal when a motorboat approached the ship carrying the men. They are four ex-Royal Marines who now work for the British security company Neptune Maritime Security. The men were sporting military-style close-cropped haircuts, wearing Bermuda shorts and polo shirts, and carrying large, black bags as they climbed the ladder onto the ship.

Roles and his colleagues fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Now their task is to protect the GasChem Antarctic on behalf of Hartmann, a shipping company based in Leer, in northwestern Germany. The gas tanker unloaded ethylene in Spain and is now en route to the United Arab Emirates, where it will be loaded up again with gas to deliver to Argentina.

The Hunting Ground of the Pirates

But first the 155-meter (510-foot) ship must pass through the world's most dangerous waters -- the sea around the Horn of Africa, the hunting ground of Somalia's pirates. In the first three months of this year alone, seven people were killed and 34 injured in pirate attacks. This marks an escalation. "The first quarter of 2011 registered the highest number of piracy incidents since observation began in 1991," reads the latest piracy report from Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). Globally, a total of 142 incidents were reported, with 18 ships hijacked and 350 sailors taken hostage. The number of cases has "more than doubled" from the previous year, according to the report.

And nowhere is more dangerous than around the Horn of Africa, where nearly all the hijackings occur. The stretch of the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea and the Gulf of Oman down to Madagascar is labeled a "high-risk zone." This passage between Europe and Asia is one of the world's most important trade routes, and is a vital artery for the global economy. And it is also where anarchy reigns.

The teleprinter on the bridge of the GasChem Antarctic provides continuous printouts of the latest alerts from international shipping organizations in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), giving Captain Torsten Köhler, 46, an idea of what risks he's facing.

1510 UTC, Latitude 12 33N, Longitude 04 26E, Bab el-Mandeb, Red Sea . Pirates attack a tanker using five skiffs. They have weapons and ladders. Captain sounds alarm, performs evasive maneuver, security forces onboard alert warship. Pirates retreat on its arrival.

1520 UTC, Latitude 12 37N, Longitude 043 19E, Bab el-Mandeb, Red Sea . Two skiffs approach container ship, pursue it from a distance of one-half nautical mile. Captain calls for help, accelerates, performs evasive maneuver. Skiffs retreat.

Bab el-Mandeb, the "Gate of Tears," is the strait that separates Yemen from Djibouti and connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean. When monsoons bring high waves to the open sea, pirates retreat here, where the water is calmer and more suited to their skiffs, narrow wooden boats with outboard motors.

Ships traveling south from the Suez Canal must pass through the Gate of Tears, and this includes Captain Köhler and his tanker. The GasChem Antarctic operates under the Liberian flag, as do nearly all Hartmann ships. Germany prohibits the carrying of automatic weapons onboard, but Liberia allows it under certain conditions. This provides an enormous competitive advantage, since some sailors refuse to work this route without the presence of armed security forces. Köhler sets the engine controls to "Full power." It takes half an hour for the ship to reach its traveling speed, at which the tanker uses 40 tons of fuel a day, making it far more efficient to travel through the Suez Canal than around the southern tip of Africa, a detour of more than 5,000 nautical miles.

A Safe Room in the Ship's Belly

The GasChem Antarctic is nearing pirate territory. The captain reports his route and schedule to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) in Dubai, which coordinates the deployment of warships meant to guarantee security along the route.

Roles inspects the safety equipment. He tests radios and telephones as well as windows and hatches, and tours the citadel, a safe room in the belly of the ship where the crew will retreat in the event of an attack. Roles is satisfied. Reinforced steel doors secure the room, which contains controls to stop the ship, as well as a satellite telephone.

Shortly before midnight, the GasChem Antarctic receives another warning concerning the transit corridor in the Gulf of Aden, which is guarded by warships belonging to the EU naval mission Atalanta.

2118 UTC, Latitude 12 44N, Longitude 047 54E, Gulf of Aden . Suspicious boat approaches the vessel (a merchant ship) on the port side. Captain sounds alarm, performs evasive maneuver, security forces take position on deck.

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