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Watchkeeper: Problems in identifying pirates

An incident in the Gulf of Oman has once again focused attention on the difficulties under which ships with armed guards embarked can find themselves in these pirate-infested waters. Pirates, for obvious reasons, are moving further and further from their bases on the coast of Somalia and are tending to blend in to the fishing activities that are encountered in these seas. Very large numbers of these small craft fish these waters. Indeed, an estimate from the Omani authorities suggested that up to 40,000 small craft might be found at sea in the north-western sector of the Indian Ocean.

Many of these craft are indistinguishable from the skiffs and other local craft employed by the pirates, with only a close inspection identifying boarding ladders and firearms providing a reasonable assumption that the fast craft approaching is a pirate skiff and not an innocent fisherman speeding back to shore with his catch. And it would not be the first encounter that saw a furious fisherman whose lines or nets had been damaged by a passing ship speeding alongside to remonstrate with those aboard the ship that had caused him such damage. With those aboard a ship in a high state of alert and armed guards readying their weapons, such an action by an angry fisherman might be extremely foolhardy, but it is then easy to see how mistakes might be made and a situation escalate into something hazardous or even fatal.

Pirates will, of course, capitalise upon such confusion and there can be no doubt that such incidents as that which saw a ship report it was under attack from a large group of pirate craft was just one consequence of the climate of fear that their activities have inflicted upon the region. It is apparently not unusual for such fishermen, in an area where the uncontrolled spread of weaponry has become endemic, to carry small arms in their boats as they themselves need to defend themselves from time to time against both pirates and other lawless elements that are found in these seas.

For the crew of any merchant ship the situation is doubly difficult, but such incidents do once again underline the need to closely comply with best management practice, to have the most vigilant lookouts and to be absolutely sure of any hostile intent before permitting armed response units embarked to engage. For the Masters of such ships, these are not situations for which their professional training has necessarily prepared them.

But it also emphasises the importance of keeping a close weather eye on fishing boats in the vicinity and keeping, where possible, well clear of them. This itself may be quite difficult, as these tiny craft, which can be encountered a long way offshore, can completely disappear in the long swells and providing no radar echo, can only be seen when a ship is almost on top of them. If ever there was a case for the sharpest eyes being employed in a visual lookout, this must be it!

Articles written by the Watchkeeper and other outside contributors do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of BIMCO.

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