Anarchy at Sea: A Voyage through Pirate-Infested Waters


Bab el-Mandeb, the "Gate of Tears," is the strait that separates Yemen from Djibouti and connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean. When monsoons bring high waves to the open sea, pirates retreat here, where the water is calmer and more suited to their skiffs, narrow wooden boats with outboard motors.

Ships traveling south from the Suez Canal must pass through the Gate of Tears, and this includes Captain Köhler and his tanker. The GasChem Antarctic operates under the Liberian flag, as do nearly all Hartmann ships. Germany prohibits the carrying of automatic weapons onboard, but Liberia allows it under certain conditions. This provides an enormous competitive advantage, since some sailors refuse to work this route without the presence of armed security forces. Köhler sets the engine controls to "Full power." It takes half an hour for the ship to reach its traveling speed, at which the tanker uses 40 tons of fuel a day, making it far more efficient to travel through the Suez Canal than around the southern tip of Africa, a detour of more than 5,000 nautical miles.

A Safe Room in the Ship's Belly

The GasChem Antarctic is nearing pirate territory. The captain reports his route and schedule to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) in Dubai, which coordinates the deployment of warships meant to guarantee security along the route.

Roles inspects the safety equipment. He tests radios and telephones as well as windows and hatches, and tours the citadel, a safe room in the belly of the ship where the crew will retreat in the event of an attack. Roles is satisfied. Reinforced steel doors secure the room, which contains controls to stop the ship, as well as a satellite telephone.

Shortly before midnight, the GasChem Antarctic receives another warning concerning the transit corridor in the Gulf of Aden, which is guarded by warships belonging to the EU naval mission Atalanta.

2118 UTC, Latitude 12 44N, Longitude 047 54E, Gulf of Aden . Suspicious boat approaches the vessel (a merchant ship) on the port side. Captain sounds alarm, performs evasive maneuver, security forces take position on deck.

Barbed Wire and Fire Hoses

It's Friday morning. The Filipino bosun, the first mate and the security team consider where to place barbed wire and discuss when to close which hatches and secure them from inside. The teleprinter spits out another telex message.

0830 UTC, Latitude 07 09N, Longitude 053 20E. The hijacked ship Orna has been identified off the Somali coast as a possible pirate mother ship. It is traveling at 7.5 knots with course 078 degrees, toward the Indian Ocean .

The GasChem Antarctic is currently traveling on a course of 160 degrees, heading south. The temperature rises to over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). Sweating as they work, the crew fastens barbed wire around the ship and to all the ladders and stairs. Then they attach fire hoses to the railings at a downward slant. Streams of water impair the pirates' vision and make it harder for them to climb aboard the ship.

That evening, Captain Köhler invites the crew to a buffet on the deck behind the bridge. Dinner includes beer, a rare treat, because he wants to the crew to relax.

On Saturday, the GasChem Antarctic is traveling on a slightly more easterly heading, with a course of 145 degrees. The captain has the sprinkler system tested that morning. If an attack does occur, the sprinklers can help by obscuring the ship in a fine mist.

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