After two months in captivity, 18 Indian sailors were on Sunday freed when Somali pirates released MT Stolt after a ransom amount of up to $2.5 million was paid. In an e-mail interview to Rahul Singh, a young Indian marine engineer, who has crossed the Gulf of Aden twice in the last two months and witnessed hijacking each time, exposes the vulnerability of merchant vessels and how shipping firms are driven only by profit. Excerpts:
What’s a day like for you while sailing through pirate-infested waters?
All entrance to accommodation is locked and additional lookouts are placed on the bridge to keep track of all passing or approaching boats. But if pirates attack, we can only send distress calls. Once they are aboard, the game is over.
How do pirates take over a ship on the high seas?
Pirates usually approach from the stern (rear end) with two or more skiffs (small boats). They also attack from the port quarter as staff on the watch tend to concentrate on the starboard side for crossing traffic. The skiffs move at 20-25 knots. They are faster than most merchant ships that move at 13-14 knots.
Do merchant vessels have a security drill in place?
All vessels have a contingency plan and security systems. But what can unarmed crew do against armed pirates. Merchant ships do not carry any weapons except some Israeli vessels, which have guns on board.
Is there any standard operating procedure that merchant vessels follow?
Vessels normally take action by evasive maneouvres such as creating a large wake to reduce maneouvrability of approaching speedboats. It is suggested that high-pressure jets of water be used to drive away pirates. But that’s not realistic. If pirates board the vessel, then there is no option but to surrender.
Do seafarers feel secure with different navies, including the Indian Navy, patrolling the waters?
No, it is not adequate. chemical tanker Stolt Strength was hijacked on November 10. It was just 24 miles behind our ship. It was desperately calling for assistance but no warship responded. We were safe due to high speed.
How do shipping companies respond?
Hopes are pinned on merchant shipping companies whose only interest is the profit. Despite the Stolt Valour getting hijacked in September, the shipping company continued to send its vessels without any protection.