Sunday, April 12, 2009

Firsthand Account of Standing Pirate Watch in the Waters Off Somalia

The news is full of the successful rescue by U.S. sharpshooters of Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama. Joseph Schwartzstein, Captain, U.S. Merchant Marine, LTJG, USNR/MMR, who wrote about serving as a Merchant Mariner in a February 1st blog post and a February 2nd blog post, offered to give the readers of this blog a firsthand account of standing pirate watch -- unarmed:

In January 2007 I was sailing Chief Mate aboard the MV Perseverance, an ex-oil tanker that we converted to carry 31,000MT of U.S. aid grain to the country of Djibouti, just north of Somalia and sharing the northern border of Somalia. Aboard this specific ship I was serving as the vessel security officer.

As vessel security officer I was required to do regular security inspections of the ship and ensure that we took appropriate measures as per our ship security plan. Our security measures actually started prior to ever reaching the waters off the coast of Djibouti and Somalia.

I started the preparations for the vessel in the U.S. as the ship was loading grain. I talked with the captain in the port of Houston about specific measures that we could take and lessons learned and recommendations from different government agencies. This started with purchasing locks to secure outside portions of the ship such as the focsle, the port and starboard dog houses (machine and tool shops on deck), and storage lockers.

We also took the time to weld “locks,” which consisted of a welding a 3” stainless steel nut on all watertight and weather tight doors just above one of the “dogs” (a handle on the door). We then welded a piece of pipe on the door to insert a 3” stainless steel bolt. The idea being that we would screw the bolt into the nut and thus no matter what you did you would not be able to lift the “dog.”

We did the same to the emergency escape scuttles (escape hatches from engine room spaces on to deck). However these hatches had wheel handles so the bolt length had to be extended. We also decided that, once we arrived into the waters off Egypt, we would “lock down the vessel” to have only one entry point.

This point was on the portside of the vessel on A deck, one deck above main deck. This was done so as to minimize the ability of anyone coming aboard as moving up a deck makes it more difficult to come aboard. We also removed any outside ladders so individuals could not climb up the outside of the wheelhouse.

We also ensured that we had “buckler plates” secured to the top of the anchor hawse pipes so that no one could climb up the anchor chain should we anchor.

Underway after our security modifications

Once we completed our assessment and finished our modifications to the vessel, we briefed and started training the crew in security operations once we got underway. The training was done once a week and consisted of hands on and after action discussions.

While underway I received daily security and pirate updates from a private maritime security firm called SecureWest International. These were daily briefs on what was going on in the area. As time went on we entered Egyptian waters and began the transit of the Suez Canal.

After we exited the canal and entered the Red Sea we increased our vessel security level from MARSEC I to MARSEC II. As my discussion with the captain, we locked down the ship and limited movement in and out of the vessel. We increased our bridge watch standing team with an additional member.

The vessel being an ex-oil tanker, we were equipped with fire monitors (aka water cannons). We moved these from the stowed position and alternated them from the port and starboard side to shoot water overboard.

We opened up specific monitors so should something happen all we would have to do is start the fire pump to shoot water over the side. I had the bosun lay out fire hoses on the port and starboard sides and stern of the vessel so should a vessel come at us I could have crew go to these stations and begin shooting water over the side as per our training we did in the Mediterranean Sea.

Now we were never attacked by pirates but we did increase our watch and kept an eye on any and all small fishing vessels. While in the Red Sea we had constant contact with coalition warships relaying any information about possible attacks.

A fishing vessel approaches us about a day out from Djibouti

About a day out from Djibouti I was off watch in my state room. I had just finished lunch and went to the bridge to talk with the second mate. While on the bridge the AB on watch pointed out to the second mate a 20-foot fishing vessel coming up on our starboard side.

The second mate and I looked at the vessel to see what was happening. Once we saw the vessel coming after us, the second mate made a hard to port turn and I called the captain.

As I was calling the captain I started one of the fire pumps to start water shooting over the side. Now on most merchant marine ships the captain’s state room is very close to the bridge, so he was on the bridge within seconds.

We sounded the vessel security alarm and started to muster the crew at their stations. We had everyone mustered, I had security teams break up and ensure that the wheelhouse was locked down, and we took our positions awaiting the orders from the captain.

Luckily we were not attacked and, as we continued to sail away and swing the vessel to make it more difficult to come alongside, while we were doing this the smaller vessel altered course and sailed away.

I will never be sure that it was or wasn’t a pirate vessel. It most likely was not, but while in those waters looking for pirates is a difficult and stressful job.

I just want to point out that pirates not only operate in the waters off Somalia, but they are all over the world. There are pirates off the Straits of Malacca, coast of Brazil, China, Indonesia just to name a few.

My first experience dealing with pirates

My first experience dealing with pirates was as an engine cadet aboard the MV Sea Wolf in the summer of 1993 off the coast of Brazil. Our sister ship had been attacked by Brazilian pirates the trip before and the captain had shot and killed one of the pirates as they were fleeing the vessel with the cash they had stolen. (The Brazilian pirates actually put a price on the captain’s head and the company had to move the captain to a different ship on a different run.)

We went to anchor and actually at the urging of the Brazilian coast guard we had to pick up the anchor and steam in a big square. We had deck patrol and put lights on over the side to discourage anyone from coming alongside.

P.S. I forgot to add that, yes, we were unarmed. The best we had were fire axes and fire hoses! Most companies stopped arming their ships in the '90s. Prior to that, even if there was a gun aboard, it was usually a pistol in the captain's safe.

The only ships that have any kind of military weapons aboard are USNS ships (merchant ships owned by the Navy with Merchant Marine crews). Some government Merchant Marine ships contracted by the government will carry a Navy detachment on them as security.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller is the author of MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL and the co-author of the Jewish holiday book SEASONS FOR CELEBRATION. She also blogs at PZ the Do-Gooder Scrooge and Operation Support Jews in the Military, and she is the co-host of the BlogTalkRadio show Your Military Life. Her company Miller Mosaic LLC builds call-to-action websites for book authors and small businesses.

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