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What Are The Stages of Pirate Attack?

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

Pirates want to kidnap crew, steal cargo or ship stores and fuel.

Here's what to expect in the build-up and during an attack.

The Pirate Approach

Pirates attempt to board ships from small vessels called skiffs, which can be launched from land or a larger vessel called a mothership.

Multiple skiffs are launched from the mothership, hoping that one will slip past defences undetected or with less resistance in an attempt to board.

If the sea is rougher than sea state code 3, boarding is considered more complex

The latter allows pirates to extend their hunting range by hundreds of nautical miles and stay out at sea longer, meaning that no ship is safe from an attempted boarding no matter how far from shore they may be.

The Pirate Boarding

Most boardings occur at the lowest point of the freeboard on a ship. The ship's freeboard is the area which extends from the waterline up to the deck.

Skiffs will lay alongside port or starboard and use ladders or grappling hooks in an attempt to get aboard.

The Crime

The business models used by pirates will affect what will happen during boarding and if the crew will even be aware of it.

Piracy in Southeast Asia and South America usually takes place right underneath the crew's noses. They do not spot the pirates until doing routine checks and notice things such as grappling hook marks on the deck or the pirates themselves!

The purpose of this is to steal cargo without being detected. In areas like the Gulf of Guinea and previously the Gulf of Aden, skiffs will attack in heavily armed assaults to intimidate and take the crews hostage for ransom.

Crews Preparedness

To prevent boarding, crews should assess the high-risk area and undertake manoeuvres to delay boarding as long as possible.

If the sea is rougher than sea state code 3, defined by the Beaufort Sea State Code as seas with waves higher than 2ft with a wind speed of 7-10 knots, boarding is considered more complex.

Time to Target

When pirates first identify a target, it can take 15-30 minutes for them to close with the vessel.

The actual time to climb aboard can be as little as 30 seconds. Therefore, it is essential that a crew is alert and drilled in the event of a piracy attack. Crews should therefore be extra vigilant in calm seas in high-risk areas.

Ships with smaller freeboards, poor surveillance and a small undisciplined crew are at risk. Still, as stated earlier, no ship is safe from attempted boarding due to the range of pirates and the attractive nature of lucrative contraband.

Evasive Maneuvers

If a pirate attack is underway, ships should move fast and perform evasive manoeuvres to help make boarding more difficult.

Small 5 degree turns to port and starboard can create a wake that makes pirate skiffs less stable, therefore, more challenging to handle and hook on ladders. If any onboard anti-piracy technology, such as water cannons, should be activated.

It is argued that a ship sailing faster than 18 knots has never been boarded with freeboard considerations taken into account.

Actions of Boarding

If the ship is boarded, the crew must not resist if they encounter their assailants. Ideally, by this point, all personnel are locked down in the citadel. Crews have reported that they know everything about the ship once pirates are on board, indicating the links they have to identify targets.

The ship should have its SSAS (Ship Security Alarm System) and AIS (Automatic Identification System). As soon as it is safe to do so, the attack should also be reported to the regional reporting centre, ideally before the pirates reach the bridge.

If Possible, the Master should steer the ship clear of other maritime traffic before disabling engine power and moving to the citadel.

All crew must be locked down in the citadel together before pirates take control of the vessel. Any person left outside leaves the whole group exposed, as pirates would likely use that person as leverage to open the door.

How to Stop Pirates Boarding the Vessel

Palaemon Maritime offers a vessel hardening subscription and rental service. Our PRO-tect anti-piracy safety barriers can be supplied via OPL for spot market vessels. On average, this saves our clients 64% compared to the cost of buying razor wire.

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