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.

It 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.

I 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 immigrants.

These 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.

Victims 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.

Piracy 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.

It 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.

Nearly 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.

There 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.

The 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.

Had 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 gasoline pump.

In 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.

Maritime 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.

Can 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.

I 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.

To 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.

* * *

I have woven throughout this personal investigation some chilling events that cannot help but touch all of us.

The 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.

There 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.

To 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.

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—Reprinted from Dangerous Waters by John S. Burnett by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © John S. Burnett, 2002. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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