Once I got over the shock from my encounter in the South China Sea,
I became intrigued. This was the twenty-first century. Pirates?
Having been an investigative reporter, I started to nose around.
I was surprised to discover that supertankers, cargo vessels, passenger
ferries, and cruise ships are attacked regularly. Blackbeard is
long gone but a new and violent breed of pirate is taking his place,
plundering ships in most oceans of the world. Piracy, the scourge
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has emerged from the
history books and has returned with deadly, terrifying results.
I had lived through absolute proof of its existence. I was one of
the lucky ones; I escaped with my life.
was hard to believe that today masked pirates in speedboats chase
after a large cargo ship in the dead of night and, using grappling
hooks and bamboo poles, scale the side, overwhelm the crew, and
steal the cash from the ship’s safe. Minutes later they are
back in their boats counting their blessings, leaving many of the
ship’s crew dead or injured.
discovered that organized crime syndicates with bases in Asia, the
United States, and Europe employ pirates to hijack ships on the
high seas; like the fabled ghost ships of legend an entire vessel,
together with its cargo and crew, simply disappears. Years later
a hijacked ship may reappear as what is known as a Phantom Ship
with a new name and a new paint job, running drugs or carting illegal
modern-day pirates have little in common with the romantic rum-swilling
rogues of Hollywood or of our imagination; they are not the cutlass-swinging
marauders with an occasional trigger temper, an eye for a skirt,
and a quest for gold. Many of today’s pirates are organized
gangs of poverty-stricken young men living alongside busy shipping
lanes who attack slow-moving ships that lumber by, rich pickings
and perfect targets of opportunity. There are others who are far
more brutal, ruthless, and cold blooded, who kill. They pack grenade
launchers, antitank missiles, and assault rifles and, instead of
drinking rum, often are chewing khat, a leafy narcotic. Many are
employed by warlords, corrupt government officials, transnational
crime organizations, and terrorist cells.
of piracy no longer walk the plank, if in fact they ever did; yet
the violence is just as shocking. In a scene evoking the worst of
the ancient crime, pirates in 1998 hijacked a ship, lined the crew
against the railing, slipped hoods over their heads, clubbed them
to death, and kicked them overboard.
is a wreakless crime that is increasing at an alarming rate in all
oceans, off the coasts of nearly all continents. In 2001 seven American
ships were attacked, fifteen from the United Kingdom, just some
of the 335 assaults worldwide; 241 seafarers were killed, held hostage,
or wounded—civilians just doing their jobs. These statistics
are issued by the International Maritime Bureau of the International
Chamber of Commerce, the organization that investigates maritime
fraud and piracy. The statistics reflect known incidents directed
at commercial shipping. They do not include attacks on all vessels
nor do they include those innocent tourists, commercial fishermen,
ferry passengers, or yachtsmen whose mysterious disappearances are
unofficially attributed to piracy. Most acts of piracy go unreported
because shipowners and captains do not want to tie up a vessel for
lengthy investigations. Thus, the attacks by pirates worldwide actually
number as many as several thousand each year. I reported the attack
on the Unicorn to the Singapore Marine Police, who told me that
because the incident occurred outside their territorial waters there
was nothing they could do. It probably did not even rate a mention
in their files.
is not, however, just the statistics that are causing alarm. It
is that one attack on the wrong ship at the wrong time, an attack
that would result in the closure of one of the strategic international
waterways upon which so much of the world economy depends that has
industry and Navies trying to find answers.
ninety-five percent of world commerce is transported by ship. The
most essential of all commodities shipped in bulk is oil. Sixty
percent of the world’s crude oil is carried on supertankers
and even larger Very Large Crude Carriers.
are only so many ways to get from one continent to the next, from
the oils fields in the Middle East, West Africa, South America or
Alaska to the rest of the world. Most of these routes pass through
congested shipping lanes, narrow channels and straits, busy international
canals, winding rivers, and heavily trafficked harbors. These include
such vital links as the Panama and Suez Canals, the Straits of Hormuz
at the exit of the Persian Gulf, the Bab el Mandab, the bottleneck
at the southern end of the Red Sea leading to the Suez and Europe,
and the Malacca Straits that connects Asia to much of the rest of
the world. It is in many of these tightly confined stretches that
modern-day pirates lie in wait and attack ships at will. Indeed,
there is not a shipping lane, a navigable strait, an important canal,
that is safe from those determined to take over a ship. Pirates
have attacked vessels on all these waterways—not something
that is well known outside the maritime community.
Malacca Straits, on the east side of the Indian Ocean, is one of
those corridors. This five-hundred-mile passage is the commercial
umbilical between Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent
to Asia and the Pacific. Eighty percent of Japan’s crude oil
comes from the Persian Gulf, and it is shipped through these waters.
A third of world commerce passes down these narrow shipping lanes.
They are some of the most pirated waters in the world.
I not been attacked, had a tanker nearby not been hijacked the same
night, I might have dismissed piracy in this new century as a product
of a rich imagination. I decided to return to those pirate-infested
waters and investigate the security of the high-risk, high-stakes
transport of crude oil from the wellhead to the refinery to the
August 2001 I joined the British-registered Montrose—a Very
Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) built to transport oil from the Middle
East oil fields to refineries in North America, Europe, and Asia—on
a passage that would take us through the Malacca Straits. At 300,000
tons the Montrose is a monster of a ship. Three football fields
can fit on the deck of this vessel and there is still room to kick
a long distance field goal. On one voyage she carries in excess
of two million barrels of crude. When refined that single payload
is more than all the cars and sport utility vehicles in the United
States burn in a day.
experts warn that one of these giant crude carriers like the Montrose—one
of the largest moving man-made objects on earth—will be attacked
either by pirates or terrorists in the Malacca Straits. Armed pirates
at night scamper up the sides, creep aboard, take over the ship,
tie up the crew; the VLCC will steam out of control down the narrow,
heavily trafficked channel and collide with another ship or break
up on the rocks, closing this vital commercial conduit and creating
an economic and environmental catastrophe of global proportions.
pirates take over a ship this huge, this important? On a Very Large
Crude Carrier you are above the world; the idea of being boarded
and attacked by pirates seems improbable and on the Montrose I shared
with the captain his sense of invincibility. Yet all vessels, I
was to discover, no matter how big, how fast, how modern, are vulnerable
to attack. Also at risk are the highly protected ships that carry
recycled radioactive waste—cargo that can be turned into nuclear
weapons—as well as warships. Few could have anticipated that
one of the world’s most secure naval vessels, the USS Cole,
could be attacked in the middle of a harbor in broad daylight.
also joined the Petro Concord, a smaller tanker that delivers products
refined from Middle East crude oil—jet fuel and diesel oil—to
Ho Chi Minh City. This passage crossed the South China Sea, a lawless,
disputed no-man’s-land where ships are frequently hijacked
by pirates in the employ of organized crime syndicates for the precious
cargoes they carry. It was on this route that the Petro Concord’s
sister ship had been hijacked. We, too, were a perfect soft target
and the voyage turned out to be a hair-raising experience.
get an industry perspective I attended the darkly named Fourth International
Meeting of Piracy and Phantom Ships. There were few expectations
that this conference would have much effect on the alarming number
of attacks. However, to the surprise of the delegates, the meeting
concluded with a dramatic real-time high-seas chase after pirates
and the rescue of a tanker hijacked in the South China Sea.
have woven throughout this personal investigation some chilling
events that cannot help but touch all of us.
firebombing of the Valiant Carrier, a fully laden tanker, and the
assault on its captain and his young family is so unimaginably cruel
that it beggars the imagination. Yet it is representative of the
horrors that occur at sea today. I have written the story of the
Valiant Carrier as it was related to me by the captain, his wife
and children. I have taken a few liberties only in some descriptions
but never with the events or with emotions themselves. Their tale
of terror needs no embellishment.
are many who are on the knife’s edge in the fight against
piracy; those who infiltrate organized crime to stop hijackings
and live with a price on their heads, those who battle pirates in
hand-to-hand combat, and those who have running gun battles while
protecting lives and ships from thieves and pirates. Their stories
are not hyperbolic fantasy. One of them may be in a gunfight as
this is being read. If such a battle is not occurring at this moment
in the Malacca Straits, it is happening in the Philippines, or off
the African Coast, in the Red Sea, or off Brazil, in the Caribbean
or the Mediterranean.
the men, women and children who have been victims of pirates, to
those who fight them and those who live and work at sea today, this
book is dedicated.