Piracy: How boardrooms battle marauders

2009-04-17 00:00

Graeme Gibbon-Brooks knows a thing or two about boarding ships.

During 16 years with Britain’s Royal Navy, he served in the Middle East and East Africa as a deep-sea diver, gunnery officer, underwater saboteur, and counter-sabotage specialist.

These days, he offers his knowledge of piracy and terrorism as part of a thriving industry in London, where dozens of maritime law firms and insurers provide services from security and legal advice to negotiations and handling of ransom situations.

“More often now, we are being asked by shipping companies to provide analyses of private security companies,” says Gibbon-Brooks, whose firm, Dryad Maritime Intelligence, consults on security for shippers.

Two high-profile rescues in the past week — one by U.S. forces of the captain of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama, and one of hostages held on a French yacht — have underscored the increasing threat from pirates. Already this year, pirates have attacked at least 80 vessels.

Many companies opt to employ unarmed guards on ships navigating the Gulf of Aden. But taking more assertive measures is complicated by laws governing the use of force and the carrying of weapons.

Ships are governed by a variety of regulations — those of the ship’s owners, for example, as well as the laws of the country whose flag the ship flies.

Dryad Intelligence sells non-lethal equipment like the long-range acoustic device (LRAD), which emits an almost ear-splitting noise when fired at targets. A device of this type was used unsuccessfully in February by former British Royal Marines working as guards on a U.S.-owned tanker.

But Gibbon-Brooks explains that its noise is largely intended to let the pirates know that they have been spotted at an early stage.

Once a ship has been taken, a lengthy process of negotiation begins.

Here’s where companies such as Holman Fenwick Willan, which has been representing clients in shipwrecks and collisions since it was founded in 1883, come in.

The firm has had approximately 30 cases involving piracy since July last year.

In many cases, companies want to know first if it is even legal to pay a ransom. British law permits this, although it is not quite so straightforward everywhere.

Ransom demands are commonly in the range of $1 million to $2 million, although pirates demanded as much as $25 million in the case of the Sirius Star, a Saudi oil tanker taken earlier this year with a cargo estimated to be worth more than $100 million. They eventually settled for about $3,5 million.

Maritime firms are quick to deny that they are exploiting the situation off the coast of Somalia.

But Simon Beale, a marine underwriter, admitted to the BBC that fees for firms whose vessels have been hijacked can cost just as much as the ransom itself.

Despite its obvious dangers, the trade continues to be a tempting one for Somali pirates, who are estimated to have made $50 million last year.

But have the stakes now been raised by the recent rescues?

Stephen Askins, a former Royal Marine now working at another London maritime law firm, says this is not necessarily so.

“Certainly, it has raised the tension, but we have been through periods of tension before, and we will not really know for another two, three, or four weeks,” says Askins, who argues that having armed guards on board ships raises the risk to the crew.

The Christian Science Monitor.

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