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How to Survive a Pirate Attack

Jolly Roger

Pirates hijacked 53 ships and held a total of 1,181 hostages for ransom last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Forty nine of those ships and 1,016 of those hostages – from commercial and private vessels -- were seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia, a statistic that was brought into sharp relief last month when Somali pirates hijacked a yacht and on Feb. 22 murdered the four Americans aboard. Two days later, a Danish family, including three children, was taken from their yacht by Somali pirates and as of this writing had been moved to a larger pirate vessel off the Somali Coast.

These very unfortunate events and statistics are renewing and raising awareness about Somali piracy, and many piracy experts echo the advice of Amb. David H. Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, who notes that “leisure travelers have no business going into the Western Indian Ocean until the crisis caused by Somali pirates has ended.”

The International Maritime Bureau also reports that there were 445 pirate attacks worldwide last year, underscoring that piracy is not just a Somali problem. “Hostile boardings happen all over the world,” especially in South Asia, the Caribbean, and even off the coast of Florida,” says Charles Clifton, founder and director of non-profit security company Humanitarian Defense. “If you are not prepared to fight, or have people with you that are, risky voyages should not be attempted.”

However, “some pirates come on board just to steal things,” says Capt. James K. Staples, a Master Mariner and U.S. Merchant Marine. “They’re basically thieves, not holding people for ransom, but if you a catch a thief in the act, don’t resist him. Given the fact that he is a desperate person to begin with, if he wants something that’s replaceable, let him take it. Everything on that boat is replaceable, including the boat.” Here now, more advice from maritime and survival experts about surviving a pirate attack.

Be a harder target

Prior to sailing anywhere you must “understand the situation you are facing,” says Clifton. “Research trends and hotspots where piracy and other criminal activity may be occurring. Then avoid them. The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) piracy map is a good resource for this.” Adds safety expert Randy Spivey, who ran hostage survival training programs for the Department of Defense, “the best way to survive a hostage situation or act of piracy is never to get into it. People need to understand the risk factors of the locations that they’re going to travel to,” noting that the Overseas Security Advisory Counsel (OSAC) can yield “real-time information on risk factors.”

When you’re in port, it pays to “get all local knowledge you can from local captains, the port captains office, [and] from marina staff” about potential piracy problems along your route and the port itself, says former Navy SEAL Team officer Matt Bracken, noting that protecting yourself “starts with local awareness, talking to other skippers, and always listening for reports of things being stolen or pilfered.”

While many travelers associate piracy with being boarded on the open sea, Bracken says the “biggest danger is being attacked at anchor,” noting that since marinas may cost upwards of $50 a night for docking, many seafarers will “anchor out” up to a half mile from shore. And even if you don’t consider yourself wealthy, Bracken says, the very fact that you have a boat may make you come across that way to a pirate. “When people anchor out they think, ‘I’m not rich,’ [but to] people watching me from shore, I’m Bill Gates.” Make your boat a harder target, he says. Secure your boat’s dinghy with a steel cable as “someone coming from shore won’t necessarily bring a bolt cutter.” Also, he suggests, cruise in groups or with at least one other boat so you can take turns having a person on watch at all times.

If pirates approach you

While piloting his 48-foot steel sailing cutter between Panama and Hawaii, Bracken had a 150-foot steel ship fall in behind him, which he knew felt all wrong. While he had real weapons on board, he broke out a black spray-painted plywood M-16, which he constructed at 1.2 times scale so that “it looks bigger and more threatening than a real one.” He adds that at 400 to 500 yards if pirates are “binocularing you and they see someone producing a weapon at that range, they know there is a risk of getting shot.” The vessel trailing Bracken “finally turned away and went somewhere else.”

Naval officer turned professor Harold J. Kearsley had a similar experience in the mid-80s while sailing from the UK on a route that among other locales took him to the Canary Islands, Antigua, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the coast guard warned him that it was not prudent to stop at various islands within the Bahamas. Kearsley complied, but while off one of the central islands he was “approached by a speed boat. It looked pretty aggressive. I can’t tell you categorically they were pirates” but he soon broke out a Mini-14 semi automatic assault rifle and a muzzle-loading powder rifle, making sure they "were prominently displayed on deck.” There was no confrontation.

If you’re not trained or inclined to use guns, you should still be armed with situational awareness, says Air Force veteran and SERE (Search, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school instructor Cameron Gamble.”If you see a small white boat coming toward [your boat] with three skinny objects in it, “whether it’s a threat or not I have to treat it as such. I’m putting out a radio call,” adding that “before these guys actually reach me, the most lifesaving thing that’s going to take place is not necessarily a radio call or securing [valuables] on board, but being mentally prepared for what’s about to happen.”

If you’re boarded by pirates

Part of your mental preparation upon first contact with pirates is avoiding “capture shock,” Gamble says, taking yourself through three steps: “who has me, what do they want, and how far are they willing to go to get it? If my assessment is that these guys are coming on board and killing every single person they’re coming in contact with, I need to flee,” but “if all these guys want is to take the ship and need a mode of transportation, I’m just going to ride it out.”

Spivey likewise has a three-step strategy: the three C’s -- calm, connect, and capitalize. “You want to be a calming influence, maintain your composure, and don’t do anything to escalate the tension. If they say don’t look at them, don’t look at them,” which may stop you from getting to the next two steps at first, though Spivey suggests that even if the first hours of captivity are hostile, your captors may become bored and thus receptive enough for you to try the next two steps. By connecting, “you want to make yourself appear as a person, not an object. Find a common interest. A lot of times people will talk about family. What you’re trying to do is reverse the Stockholm Syndrome – it is easier to kill an object than a person.” During the capitalization stage, Spivey says, encourage your captors “to seek and find a peaceful resolution. Even if things look like they are not going well, make statements like ‘I’m sure it’s going to work out’ or ‘I’m sure it’s going to be okay.” And unless you’re certain you can discuss politics, religion, and economics to useful conversational ends, most sources say, pick other topics.

If you’re on a cruise

Staples says that many cruise ships nowadays “have good security aboard -- there is armed security aboard most cruise ships that’s not advertised.” However, cruise ship passengers are still susceptible to risk and “it’s a whole different scenario if the pirates physically have control of you versus their being on board and you being [locked] in your stateroom,” says board-certified travel security expert Philip Farina, CPP, as your chances of being harmed diminish, particularly if there is crossfire during a rescue.

“If you come face to face with a pirate, don’t resist,” Farina says, though he adds that that might not be your first instinct. “It’s tough to tell someone that they need to make a life-threatening or life -changing action at that moment because it’s different for each person. One person may decide to put their hands up, some people might freeze, or they may not be cognizant or able to respond. And on the other side are the people who want to fight – and as humans we have all three pieces within us --fight, flight, or freeze.”

Farina posits more scenarios. “If I’m walking down a gangplank and a pirate comes around the corner, what am I going to do? If a pirate doesn’t have a firearm and is just speaking to me loudly, what do I do? If they have a firearm and are walking in the opposite direction from where I came, and I look and see they are distracted, do I retreat to the stairwell or try to take the gun?

There is no right answer, particularly for that last one. “If you have the opportunity to be proactive, meaning taking a moment to think and the situation is bad, you will make whatever decision is the best for you at that moment. Your best choice might be to turn around and wrestle with that pirate and be injured, but the fact that you’ve done that may permit other passengers to escape. So that’s a tough call. So much of that comes down to the individual and who they are personally and depends on the situations.”

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