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.
Barbed Wire and Fire Hoses
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.
It's Friday morning. The Filipino bosun, the first mate and the security team consider where to place barbed wire and discuss when to close which hatches and secure them from inside. The teleprinter spits out another telex message.
0830 UTC, Latitude 07 09N, Longitude 053 20E. The hijacked ship Orna has been identified off the Somali coast as a possible pirate mother ship. It is traveling at 7.5 knots with course 078 degrees, toward the Indian Ocean .
The GasChem Antarctic is currently traveling on a course of 160 degrees, heading south. The temperature rises to over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). Sweating as they work, the crew fastens barbed wire around the ship and to all the ladders and stairs. Then they attach fire hoses to the railings at a downward slant. Streams of water impair the pirates' vision and make it harder for them to climb aboard the ship.
That evening, Captain Köhler invites the crew to a buffet on the deck behind the bridge. Dinner includes beer, a rare treat, because he wants to the crew to relax.
On Saturday, the GasChem Antarctic is traveling on a slightly more easterly heading, with a course of 145 degrees. The captain has the sprinkler system tested that morning. If an attack does occur, the sprinklers can help by obscuring the ship in a fine mist.
"If You Hit a Shoulder, That's an Arm Gone"
Roles and his team load the magazines of their two semiautomatic weapons. They are 7.62 mm caliber, like the pirates' AK-47s, but the British security forces use a more powerful propellant. "If you hit a shoulder, that's an arm gone," Roles comments dryly. Three shots are enough to sink a skiff, and they have 600 rounds. Merchant ships and pirates sometimes trade fire for several hours. The men unpack helmets and bulletproof vests reinforced with steel plates.
For Roles' partner McGregor, this job is practically relaxing. He spent two years working for a security company in Baghdad and another two years in Basra. Eight of his friends didn't survive the assignment. McGregor developed cancer and returned to England, where, after successful treatment, he's slowed down a bit. "I'm married and I have an 11-month-old daughter," he says. "If we don't see any pirates, I'm happy."
That morning, Köhler calls the entire crew to the bridge and Roles introduces himself and his team. "We've got over 100 missions in pirate waters behind us and not once has something happened," Roles says. If the alarm sounds, he adds, everyone has to go to the citadel. Only his team and two officers will remain on the bridge.
McGregor retrieves the morphine that the captain keeps under lock and key. "If there are any injuries," he says, "it will be on the bridge." Pirates sometimes fire anti-tank missiles and AK-47 volleys at the bridge, and in some cases, the ship looks like a sieve by the time they're finished. "This is war," Köhler says.
It's an absurd war, one in which a few Somalis in flip-flops and tiny boats manage to put to shame modern warships from the most powerful countries in the world. On his last voyage, Köhler's ship was pursued by a pirate boat. The captain accelerated, sprayed water from the fire hoses and held up a homemade wooden weapon that looked like an AK-47 from afar. The pirates turned back.
Another 50 nautical miles on, the GasChem Antarctic hears another captain radio "Mayday", the international distress signal, from a location Köhler passed three hours before. A Spanish frigate makes contact and asks for more and more details -- the shipowner, the name of the ship, various technical specifications. He doesn't have time for such questions, the captain shouts into the radio, he's under attack. Then he breaks off contact, saying, "You are useless!"
The Chance to Hunt For Profit
A study by the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research concluded that the pirates are by no means poor fishermen who have turned to hijacking out of desperation. The fishing grounds off Somalia, the study found, are still productive, and in fact piracy started with comparatively well-to-do clans, who from the beginning simply saw a chance to "hunt for profit."
Night has fallen. Aboard the GasChem Antarctic, the crew fastens thick steel plates over the ship's windows, so that no light from the cabins is visible outside. The hatches are closed and secured on the inside with heavy steel bolts. The idea is to make it as difficult as possible for the pirates to penetrate the ship's superstructure.
The ship is at security level two, with watches doubled and lookouts to both port and starboard manned continuously. No one is allowed on deck. If the cook wants to take out the trash, he has to officially sign out of the kitchen.
At 7:36 p.m., the ship passes 16° 20' north latitude. It has now entered the high-risk zone. The instrument lighting on the bridge is dimmed as much as possible and the ship continues through the night as a dark shadow. The teleprinter chatters.
Warning! 2252 UTC, Latitude 09 32N, Longitude 058 07E, pirate mother ship Orna traveling with course 076, speed 8.2 knots.
"If the navy knows it's a mother ship, why aren't they doing anything?" Köhler asks, frustrated. It's a question that comes up again and again: Why doesn't anyone do anything? "They can see how a couple of men riding in tiny boats hijack the largest merchant ships and get rich."
Köhler has doubts about the point of the naval mission at the Horn of Africa. Germany is represented by the frigate Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), along with Naval Air Wing 3, known as "Graf Zeppelin", out of Nordholz near the North Sea and about 300 soldiers. Yet even on the high seas, German law doesn't allow the German Navy to fight pirates, even if international law does. In Germany's case, the BKA would be the body responsible for such action, and they aren't deployed to the Horn of Africa.
'They All Carry Weapons Here'
On Sunday, the wind dies down and the water is as smooth as glass. This is pirate weather. The GasChem Antarctic passes the Haycock Islands, between the Yemeni mainland and Eritrea, at 5:00 a.m. "No-go area -- piracy" is handwritten on the chart.
The Hanish Islands appear out of the morning haze and a sailor observes them anxiously through a telescope. "You can't tell fishermen and pirates apart," he says. "They all carry weapons here."
At 8:30 a.m., Captain Köhler turns off the ship's Automatic Identification System, which broadcasts ship data and can be picked up by pirates.
At 9:18 a.m., the portside lookout reports two skiffs across the ship's path, about two nautical miles away. Roles grabs a telescope. For a while, the skiffs travel parallel to the GasChem Antarctic, then they fall back.
At 9:31 a.m., an alarm comes in on channel 16, the emergency channel.
Pirate activity. A mother ship and several skiffs at latitude 12 35N. Bab el-Mandeb.
The Gate of Tears. The GasChem Antarctic will be there in two hours.
Skiffs Appearing Out of the Haze
At 9:44 a.m., two skiffs appear to the port side. They're traveling faster than the tanker, which is unusual. Suddenly, it's not two but five boats, appearing out of the haze. They set course for the ship, but then veer off.
At 9:45 a.m., a warship makes contact on channel 16 and requests a report on any conspicuous activity. The sailors gaze tensely through their telescopes at the hazy horizon.
Around 10 a.m., the third mate orders a fresh supply of coffee. Two French warships and a submarine are waiting ahead to the starboard side, but still five skiffs approach the merchant ship from port, each carrying five or six men. One of the skiffs turns and approaches the GasChem Antarctic at high speed. Roles reaches for his telescope. McGregor reaches for his gun, cocks it and takes aim. Captain Köhler sends water surging through the fire hoses. The boat slows and the man operating the outboard engine hesitates, and then veers off.
The UBC Limas, a cargo ship also operated by the Hartmann shipping company, isn't as lucky and is attacked a few hours later at the same position. Köhler receives word of the attack over his teleprinter.
1150 UTC, Latitude 14 24N, Longitude 042 04E. Six pirates in two skiffs attack a merchant ship. Pirates fire. Crew retreats to the citadel. Security personal return fire and pirates desist.
Later, Roles learns from his headquarters in Bournemouth, England, that it was colleagues of his who saved the Limas.
Steak and Fries for Lunch
At 11:15 a.m., another skiff appears 1.5 miles from the GasChem Antarctic, in line with the Yemeni island of Mayyun to the port side. Köhler turns on the water again and the boat veers off.
The gas tanker reaches Bab el-Mandeb, the entrance to the Gulf of Aden. There's steak, fries and ice cream for lunch -- it probably feels like Sunday to the crew.
At 5:30 p.m., the GasChem Antarctic reaches the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor protected by the EU mission Atalanta. A dhow, a traditional Arab sailing boat, appears about five nautical miles away from the merchant ship to the port side with three skiffs bobbing behind it, a classic pirate formation. "Hoses on!" the captain commands. The gas tanker passes by without the suspicious boats moving closer.
The next morning, the crew of the GasChem Antarctic sees a helicopter clatter overhead, circle and land aboard a warship that's bobbing in the morning haze. Around noon, a warning comes in from an Atalanta reconnaissance plane.
A mother ship is operating at latitude 14 24N and longitude 052 43E, at the end of the transit corridor.
At 2:00 p.m., the tanker Hannibal II passes by, a ship that until recently was used by pirates as a mother ship. It's believed to have been ransomed for many millions.
The next day, pirates attack another merchant ship. The GasChem Antarctic passes 12 degrees north latitude at midday. The ship has now left the high-risk zone and the crew have a few days' break from pirates. They load provisions, fuel and cargo onboard. Next they'll head through the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope, through another 2,500 nautical miles of high-risk zone.