The Red Sea has been closed to sailors for almost a decade, but is it getting any safer, and what about piracy closer to home? Theo Stocker investigates
Is piracy still a threat to ocean cruisers?
Where the word ‘pirates’ once conjured images of Long John Silver, we now think of high-speed skiffs and armed gangs. Piracy is as real today as it has ever been, spurred on by war, failed states, and countries unable to police their seas. Most of us try to stay clear of trouble, but popular sailing locations are increasingly affected, as well as more remote bluewater sailing routes.
Yachting Monthly spoke to Gerry Northwood OBE, retired Royal Navy captain, founder of the Indian Ocean counter-piracy naval force and security consultant with Maritime Asset Security and Training Ltd, to find out what this means for sailors.
Are the seas around the world getting safer or more dangerous?
The world’s seas are getting more dangerous. We live in a post-Cold War era in which numerous national powers are jockeying for position, as well as non-state organisations and terrorist groups looking to take advantage wherever they can.
The bi-polar world of the Cold War has disintegrated and there has been a huge shift towards globalisation. Things are much more complex now, fuelled by the stark contrast between rich and poor, living in close proximity. There is a larger incentive to criminality, particularly if law and order is not in place to control it.
In some parts of the world, the seas are largely unpoliced and unregulated.
Where are the hotspots for maritime crime and piracy at the moment?
Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and West Africa are ‘red-light’ areas at the moment – places to avoid completely. The Caribbean is ‘amber’, requiring caution.
Isn’t the situation in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean improving?
In some ways, the Indian Ocean is now one of the safest areas in the world for commercial shipping at sea. This is due to the immense efforts to put a security system in place that is effectively stopping pirates.
The Indian Ocean High Risk Area was also recently reduced in size, reflecting the fact that Somali pirates are unlikely to stray as far offshore as they once did. That said, compared to commercial shipping, yachts are soft targets and pirates may be tempted by the opportunity they present. Further afield, the Seychelles are totally safe within the archipelago, though routes to the islands could involve risk.
Will the Red Sea be open to yacht sailors again any time soon?
For the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to be safe for yachts without additional security measures, we would need to see Somalia becoming a normally-governed, peaceful state with rule of law ashore and with some sort of coastguard capability at sea. There is now also a knowledge base on how to conduct piracy in Somalia, and this is likely to persist for some time. There would also need to be a conclusion to the Yemeni civil war.
What is the security situation in the Atlantic?
The Gulf of Guinea in West Africa is dangerous. The region is dominated by Nigeria, but there is poor coordination between states and countries, and no single authority is willing or able to deal with distress calls in international waters. Political divisions within Nigeria don’t help. In territorial waters, countries’ abilities to manage their seas are extremely variable.
A vessel was attacked off Liberia, but there have been no incidents to the north of this and Senegal and the Cape Verde islands remain relatively safe.
There have been reports of criminal activity against yachts in the Caribbean. How can sailors avoid problems?
Yacht sailors need to be very cautious in the Caribbean. Some parts are safe as houses. In others, people could come to serious harm, as we saw with the murder of two German sailors in St Vincent in March 2016.
The same goes for southeast Asia. It is a large, complex and diverse area and some places are safe while others are very dangerous. Anyone planning to sail there needs to do thorough research before their trip and to follow advice carefully, as there have been a number of incidents involving yachts in recent years.
The Mediterranean has been in the headlines a lot recently, with migration, terrorism and the Syrian civil war. Does any of this concern sailors?
I recently heard the account of an Italian sailor who had been at sea on his yacht with a couple of friends. Early one morning they came coming across a sinking migrant boat. Deciding it was better to help rescue as
many as possible rather than let them all drown, he rescued 42 people from the water. He was worried for the safety of own boat and couldn’t rescue any more and was faced with watching as many of them drowned. It weighed heavily on his
conscience that he couldn’t do more.
The story brought home the fact that it is easy to assume ‘it won’t happen to me’ but it is important to consider what you would do if you came across migrants in the water, and to have a plan. The advice may be to steer clear and report it to the authorities, but as sailors, we also know there is an obligation to save human life at sea. We are not a community that sits back and ignores those in trouble.
It is probably better to avoid places where you could end up in that situation in the first place. Once you are there, however, you should feel compelled to something about it, but doing it badly could put your own lives in jeopardy. You need a plan.
Is there any sign of terrorist or pirate activity in the Mediterranean?
There has been little sign of terrorism spreading to the sea so far, but there is a real risk that migrant boats could have on board someone who means harm.
There was a report in the last couple of months of a raft found at sea with two dead bodies on board. A Turkish Coastguard vessel went to investigate and the raft blew up, killing one crewman, and injuring the crew of a fishing boat that originally found the raft.
This was a isolated incident, and it’s not clear who was behind it, or what the target was, but it adds another layer of complexity to the humanitarian work being done in the Mediterranean. You certainly don’t want a gun turning on you if you go to help a stricken vessel.
Where should sailors be particularly cautious in the Mediterranean?
The crossing between Turkey and Greece has been a major route into Europe, although there have been concerted attempts to stop this. Consequently the route from Libya to Italy is becoming more popular again, and sailors should take extra care here. Search online for ‘European Naval Force Mediterranean’ for current advice.
Finally, some sailors decide to carry guns on board. What’s your view on this?
Yachts are fundamentally soft targets, compared to fully-crewed commercial vessels with armed guards on board. Yachtsmen are also highly attractive targets, as they are perceived as being wealthy and able to pay a ransom. Most small yachts are not in a position to afford or carry additional security personnel for long cruises, but they could be worth it for short passages.
Before carrying a gun on board, you need to be very clear about your competence, and in what scenarios you might use it. This would dictate what kind of weapon you would want. If you are not confident in using a weapon, it could go badly wrong for you.
You also need to think about the legal ramifications if you do use the weapon and kill someone. There are so many variables that it is impossible to give general advice, so think through the complexities.
Gerry Northwood OBE
Gerry is the chief operating officer at MAST Ltd (Maritime Asset Security and Training). Gerry reached the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy and played a key role in creating the British-led European Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) in the Indian Ocean, for which he was awarded an OBE. He commanded a UK counter-piracy task group, counter-narcotics patrols in the Caribbean and the UK presence in the Falkland Islands. He also served in the First Iraq War, the Iran-Iraq war and Northern Ireland.
Gerry learned to sail at school and began yacht sailing at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.