Anarchy at Sea: A Voyage through Pirate-Infested Waters


At 7:36 p.m., the ship passes 16° 20' north latitude. It has now entered the high-risk zone. The instrument lighting on the bridge is dimmed as much as possible and the ship continues through the night as a dark shadow. The teleprinter chatters.

Warning! 2252 UTC, Latitude 09 32N, Longitude 058 07E, pirate mother ship Orna traveling with course 076, speed 8.2 knots.

"If the navy knows it's a mother ship, why aren't they doing anything?" Köhler asks, frustrated. It's a question that comes up again and again: Why doesn't anyone do anything? "They can see how a couple of men riding in tiny boats hijack the largest merchant ships and get rich."

Köhler has doubts about the point of the naval mission at the Horn of Africa. Germany is represented by the frigate Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), along with Naval Air Wing 3, known as "Graf Zeppelin", out of Nordholz near the North Sea and about 300 soldiers. Yet even on the high seas, German law doesn't allow the German Navy to fight pirates, even if international law does. In Germany's case, the BKA would be the body responsible for such action, and they aren't deployed to the Horn of Africa.

On Sunday, the wind dies down and the water is as smooth as glass. This is pirate weather. The GasChem Antarctic passes the Haycock Islands, between the Yemeni mainland and Eritrea, at 5:00 a.m. "No-go area -- piracy" is handwritten on the chart.

'They All Carry Weapons Here'

The Hanish Islands appear out of the morning haze and a sailor observes them anxiously through a telescope. "You can't tell fishermen and pirates apart," he says. "They all carry weapons here."

At 8:30 a.m., Captain Köhler turns off the ship's Automatic Identification System, which broadcasts ship data and can be picked up by pirates.

At 9:18 a.m., the portside lookout reports two skiffs across the ship's path, about two nautical miles away. Roles grabs a telescope. For a while, the skiffs travel parallel to the GasChem Antarctic, then they fall back.

At 9:31 a.m., an alarm comes in on channel 16, the emergency channel.

Pirate activity. A mother ship and several skiffs at latitude 12 35N. Bab el-Mandeb.

The Gate of Tears. The GasChem Antarctic will be there in two hours.

Skiffs Appearing Out of the Haze

At 9:44 a.m., two skiffs appear to the port side. They're traveling faster than the tanker, which is unusual. Suddenly, it's not two but five boats, appearing out of the haze. They set course for the ship, but then veer off.

At 9:45 a.m., a warship makes contact on channel 16 and requests a report on any conspicuous activity. The sailors gaze tensely through their telescopes at the hazy horizon.

Around 10 a.m., the third mate orders a fresh supply of coffee. Two French warships and a submarine are waiting ahead to the starboard side, but still five skiffs approach the merchant ship from port, each carrying five or six men. One of the skiffs turns and approaches the GasChem Antarctic at high speed. Roles reaches for his telescope. McGregor reaches for his gun, cocks it and takes aim. Captain Köhler sends water surging through the fire hoses. The boat slows and the man operating the outboard engine hesitates, and then veers off.

The UBC Limas, a cargo ship also operated by the Hartmann shipping company, isn't as lucky and is attacked a few hours later at the same position. Köhler receives word of the attack over his teleprinter.

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