Paul and Rachel Chandler of Lynn Rival were blissfully dozing under autopilot in the Indian Ocean—when awakened by a group of Somali pirates creeping around inside their vessel. It must have been a horrible, disorienting moment. They were forcibly removed from their beloved sailboat (which was abandoned offshore), ferried to a nearby pirate vessel, taken to Somalia, and held for 388 days while being subjected to continuous, unrelenting terror and repeated unspeakable crimes.
Modern day piracy exists. There is no denying it.
At the same time, the general public’s view of piracy is clouded with myth, rumor, and innuendo. Reality is illusive, even for its piratical practitioners. Pirates in one section of the world tend to think piracy in a different section of the world is a far more horrific variety than their own. Local pirates prefer to think of themselves more as wealth-redistributors engaged in progressive taxation than actual criminals.
Currently I’m cruising the Malacca Straits, a body of water that is reputed to be congested with pirates and pirate craft; whose waters reportedly run red with savage acts of piracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve sailed this area dozens of time with my wife, daughter, and granddaughter aboard—and you’re far more likely to get hit by lightning or a falling meteor then attacked by pirates.
Why this world-wide reputation for piracy, then?
The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) has set up a well-funded International Marine Bureau (IMB) in Kuala Lumpur (KL) which is located right here in nearby Malaysia. They’ve been very effective at locally getting the word out that all shipboard crime should be reported.
Because of Singapore’s central location and the fact that commercial freighters can be mothballed in their waters indefinitely for free—more vessels are lying idle with a skeleton crew here than anywhere else in the world.
Sailors from neighboring Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, and the Nicobars are dirt-poor. Thus, these ultra-poor, fairly unimaginative pirates often steal from these lightly guarded commercial vessels lying at anchor. Their M.O. is simple: a swimmer climbs aboard via the chain or ladder, silently trots to the ship’s store’s locker (often unlocked on deck, forward at the bow), and tosses overboard anything valuable that floats to the waiting craft below.
This might be cases of Coke, sacks of rice, bags of candy, bottles of Scotch, and/or tubs of potatoes, etc. Ditto 5 gallon buckets of paint, excess cordage, and various drums of lube oil, etc.
If anyone hears or stumbles upon the light-fingered teenage pirate—he merely jumps over the side. His buddies below pluck him aboard their high-speed outboard—and roar off unlit into the pitch black night.
Each of these petty thefts is listed as an act of piracy.
There are four generally accepted ‘hot spot’ areas for piracy internationally: the Caribbean Sea, the Sulu Sea in the Philippines, the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia.
I’ve not only transited all these areas (many of them repeatedly), I’ve also resided in them most of my adult life, along with my wife, daughter and (now), my precious granddaughter.
One thing I can assure you is that pirates in one area believe the pirates in the other areas are blood-thirsty kooks—and that they would never go anywhere near any place so dangerous.
I’m not kidding—the worst, most violent, most blood-thirsty Moro pirates from Mindanao (in the Philippines) aren’t about to live in L.A. while Suge Knight is out-on-bail.
It’s crazy but true; when I tell a Somali sailor I live in the Virgin Islands, his jaw drops and he says in astonishment, “Man, you got balls!”
Why do New Yorkers, Chicagoans, and folks from L.A.—who are slaughtered by the dozen every evening—think cruising in areas where one sailor might die once a decade or two from piracy is so very dangerous?
One factor is vulnerability. The hardened New Yorker instinctively feels safety in numbers—even as violence blooms all around him. (So do, I suspect, cows being led to slaughter.)
Another factor might be ancient pirate P.R. that has filtered down to us through the ages. Blackbeard, in particular, used the media of his day quite effectively. He knew that many British ships were crewed by ‘press gangs’ of sailormen who were virtually enslaved aboard—and had absolutely no desire to die defending their wealthy torturers.
Thus, he decided to exploit this class discontent when he came upon two fat (loaded) treasure ships heading back to London. The crew of the first vessel fought bravely against him—but were, of course, vastly outnumbered. (Pirates only attacked with a 4 to 1 superiority and a faster, more maneuverable vessel.)
Once Blackbeard subdued them, he left a skeleton crew of pirates on board, and went in search of the sister vessel. They gave up without a fight. It was a calm day. Blackbeard rafted both vessels alongside, and invited the crew of the surrendering vessel aboard for drinks and entertainment. The entertainment mostly consisted of the brutal slaughtering of the resisting crew—save for one old eyewitness fellow too weak to fight (but strong enough to spread the word).
Thus, the clear message went out around the world—those who resisted Blackbeard were tortured and slowly killed for pleasure and sport, and those who surrendered were feted and left alive.
Once this became common knowledge around the waterfront, Blackbeard would make sure the vessel he was attacking knew it was Queen Anne’s Revenge coming to get them by standing on the tip of the bowsprit and blowing off firecrackers tied to his dread-locked beard.
Oh, he was true glutton for punishment, Blackbeard was—and he made sure everyone knew it. His body bore 25 major wounds upon burial—many of them musket balls, and the rest cutlass swipes.
Often, once the crew being attacked realized they were facing Blackbeard, they turned their weapons on their oppressive officers—and prayed the grog aboard Queen Anne’s Revenge was as tasty as rumored.
Currently, the Somali pirates are doing the same via the Internet. Once they take over a ship, they post pictures of themselves proudly guarding their hostages with AK-47s. This not only bolsters their ‘street cred’ at home but also intimidates the freighter shipping company to pay the large ransom to retrieve their crew.
No self-respecting Somali pirate today ignores such P.R. bonanzas.
They are as skillful at using the cyber media as, say, Paris Hilton.
If a captured crewmember needs to be disciplined—the pirates make sure they’ve got fresh batteries in their camcorders before killing him as an example to the others. (These ‘surprise’ videos tend to rattle the negotiating teams. And the Somalis are well aware that the more the West thinks of them as violent, illogical savages, the sooner the large ransom will be paid.)
The Somali pirates are masters of spin.
Thus, the ‘chief’ of the pirate crew that captured the sailing yacht ING not only threatened to kill the father and mother of the children captured, but to ‘marry’ the 13 year old girl as well. (Defiling an innocent young white girl being a more effective threat than death.)
Of course, as stated, piracy does actually exist. Just last month a sailboat named Moonlight in Honduras was attacked by three armed pirates who robbed and terrorized the crew with guns to the temple and knives to the throat. Not only did the pirates spend days robbing the boat, they also cut its halyards and ran it aground on a reef at the end—just to spite their captives.
My friends Jurgen and Sabine Kantner (as recounted in my book Somali Pirates and Cruising Sailors) were attacked off the coast of Yemen and towed to Somalia aboard their 53-foot steel Rockall. They were held and terrorized for months ashore.
Of course, the worse pirate story involving a yacht was the Quest incident—when 19 teenage Somali pirates attacked and killed the four Americans aboard, despite a large U.S. naval vessel hovering nearby. (Both women were still alive when the navy boarded—but died before they could be transferred to the medical facilities aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise.)
The bottom line—while piracy is regularly blown out of proportion by the media—there is a clear and present danger. Piracy is a major problem in the Gulf of Aden, off Brazil, in Honduran waters, and in the Venezuela area. While 99 percent of a people inhabiting these areas are as honest as you and I—not all are. There are bad apples in every barrel, and some of them own boats and find it easier to prey upon the defenseless at sea rather than the guarded ashore.
Piracy is a growing reality—especially in ‘failed States’ such as Somalia and Yemen—and will only get worse as the gap between rich and poor widens.
The conclusion for many landlubbers is obvious: sailing offshore is too dangerous—and the people who do so are naïve, uninformed, and in denial of the facts.
But let’s take a look at the reality—not the media-enhanced fear.
Jurgen and Sabine are, once again, living aboard their rebuilt Rockall and cruising the Indian Ocean. Ditto, Paul and Rachel Chandler. A British warship brought their abandoned Lynn Rival under tow and a sympathetic shipping company transported it back to England free of charge. Once the Chandlers recovered from their 388 day Somalia ordeal—they asked themselves where the highest possible quality of life was—and returned to their beloved Lynn Rival. They are currently cruising Brazil, heading for the Caribbean.
You may call both these two couples crazy relative to piracy—but you cannot call them misinformed.
Bio note: Fatty and Carolyn just released their latest book CREATIVE ANCHORING and are currently chilling out by sailing the Malacca Straits.