Is it possible to pirate-proof a yacht?

  • Published

Despite the growing plague of Somali piracy, scores of sailors have taken yachts into the dangerous waters off the Horn of Africa this year, and at least three have been attacked. The BBC's Daniel Nasaw in Washington talks to sailors who have faced the voyage and those offering ways of protecting them.

It was high morning in the middle of the Arabian sea, more than 600 miles (960km) from land, when the pirates struck the Capricorn.

The Somali marauders opened fire on the 22m (72ft) yacht, then clambered aboard as the Dutch captain and engineer took refuge in the engine room.

Meanwhile, a team of armed Ukrainian guards on a 42m former naval vessel hired as an escort returned fire, then came alongside the Capricorn. A guard jumped aboard and raised his weapon, and the pirates fled aboard their skiff.

The boats suffered only minor damage and the crew were uninjured.

"They were, of course, in a bit of shock," said Thomas Jakobsson, chief of operations for Naval Guards, the Cardiff-based company that supplied the escort ship.

"If you're not used to having people shoot at you - and I guess even if you are - it's always an unpleasant experience."

War zone

The Capricorn was one of at least 133 yachts that have sailed the region this year, according to the Maritime Security Centre - Horn of Africa, a European Union agency.

Image caption,
Marc Adams took a 1,000-mile detour to avoid pirates, but came within eight miles of an attack

While most pirates aim at commercial vessels, at least three yachts have been struck this year and the attack on the Capricorn was the only story with a happy ending.

In February, four Americans were killed after pirates hijacked their yacht, the Quest, off Oman. That same month pirates seized seven Danes, including three teenagers, from their yacht ING.

"My advice is pretty consistent: Don't come if you don't have to," said Capt Michael Lodge of the US Maritime Liaison Office in Bahrain, which advises ships travelling in the region.

"If you decide to come anyway you need to carefully consider the risks associated with the trip. Plan accordingly, be aware of the dangers."

Mr Jakobsson, a former special forces soldier from Sweden, was more blunt.

"Go bicycle camping in Afghanistan," he said. "I'm sure it's the same experience."

Change of plans

This year, dozens of yachters found themselves portside in the Maldives, Sri Lanka or India with a difficult decision ahead of them.

Sailors told the BBC they had been aware of the growing piracy threat, but after arriving in the Indian Ocean after lengthy sails from Asia, they discovered the sheer number of pirate attacks had exceeded their expectations, and changed their plans.

Turning back east can mean a long sail against the prevailing winds or a voyage across the treacherous north Pacific from Japan to Alaska. A trip south around South Africa can add months to the journey and still carries risks.

Marc and Jane Adams, Americans who set out to circle the globe in 2008 with their children, opted to sail north from the Maldives, hugging the Indian and Pakistani coasts, burning fuel and adding 1,000 miles to their journey, until they reached Oman.

Mr Adams and two crew members continued into the Gulf of Aden. On 1 March, a vessel eight miles from them was attacked by pirates - so close they saw the distress flares shoot into the sky.

"We tried to bug out as quick as we could," Mr Adams said in a telephone interview from Suez, Egypt. "We're unarmed, we're sitting ducks, it's dark out, we're a sailboat. It's about as scared as you'd ever want to be."

Security kit

Securing a yacht is far more difficult than a cargo ship, because it is slower, lower on the water, and unable to throw up a high wake to toss advancing pirate skiffs.

Image caption,
The Rouses, shown in Tonga with a young friend, paid to transport their yacht rather than risk sailing

But a number of US, UK and European companies have come to market with products and services they say can reduce the risks for sailors courageous - or foolhardy - enough to sail pirate-plagued waters.

Firms will supply armed guards who berth on the client boat or aboard a high-powered escort vessel, train yacht owners and crews on how to identify and respond to a pirate threat, and provide a range of kit to keep the pirates at bay once they have neared the yacht.

US-based International Maritime Security Network is developing a system for yachts that will shower approaching pirates with slick, foul-smelling green liquid.

"The last thing they want to do now is shoot anything," said chief executive officer Tim Nease. "They want to jump in the water, and hopefully sharks are hungry. You just have to get away from it. You can't breathe in, you can't breathe out. It burns, it stinks. It's nasty."

'Killed or captured'

Americans Bill and Judy Rouse last month cancelled their plans to sail their 16m yacht across the Indian Ocean - and instead paid about $30,000 (£18,240) to load the boat onto a cargo ship.

The couple left St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands five years ago with plans to sail around the world. But when they reached Cochin, India in February, Mr Rouse plotted the previous three months' pirate attacks in the region.

"It was definitely a game changer," he said in a Skype interview from Male in the Maldives. And, "when you talk about armed security guards you have to talk about killing people. It's just not a solution."

So the disappointed couple spent weeks finding other yacht owners to join in hiring a transport ship, which departed Male in April with more than a dozen other yachts loaded onboard.

Mr Rouse had a warning for anyone seeking to sail the Indian Ocean.

"There really are not any alternatives for yachts such as ours, there are just not," he said. "A combination of a yacht and pirates will only end one way, and that is the people on the yacht will either be killed or captured."

Image caption,
If you must go: Security experts have a range of advice on how to mitigate the risk of attack, and companies are offering or developing products and services they say can help