Robin Copeland

Pirates add another dimension to the inherent dangers of ocean racing

It used to be only the elements that yachtsmen feared when ocean racing but now pirates have entered the equation.
The threat of piracy in the Indian Ocean off the East Coast of Africa has become so severe that organisers of the Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12 have had to redraw the route for this leg which started on 11 December and the boats will now make their way to a safe haven.
Ostensibly the fleet is heading to Abu Dhabi, however the yachts will now sail to an undisclosed destination, where they will be transferred to an armed ship to be then transported to a safe port a day’s sail from Abu Dhabi at which point the sailors will resume the race as normal. Crews will not travel with the ship and public access to the tracking system on the racing vessels will be turned off.
Piracy is a well-organised and highly lucrative business and it has expanded into a vast area off the coast of Somalia. In 2010, according to Dryad Maritime Intelligence Services, a record 1,181 seafarers were kidnapped by pirates.
So far this year, the International Maritime Bureau has recorded 409 pirate attacks with 230 happening off the coast of Somalia. Pirates currently hold 10 vessels and 172 hostages. With the yachts used in the Volvo Race being worth at least $10 million each, they would be considered a prime target.
Once they have attacked a vessel the pirates will usually board the vessel, hijack the crew and take the vessel back to the Somali anchorages while they await responses to their requests for ransom. Ransoms have been increasing and they are known to have reached in excess of $10 million. The most recent vessels released endured hijackings lasting an average of 213 days and it has been estimated that last year $150 million was paid to pirate gangs in ransoms for ships, cargoes and crews.
Pirates typically sail from the beaches of Somalia as a Pirate Action Group in previously hijacked dhows or commercial vessels known as Mother Ships and usually with a number of skiffs which are used to make the final approach carrying teams of pirates and their weapons at speed towards the target vessel. Naval forces have been able to patrol the waters of the Gulf of Aden with some success, but due to the vast nature of the Indian Ocean it is very difficult to patrol effectively particularly as pirates have extended their reach and now have the ability to operate up to 700nm from the Somalia Coast in areas such as the Indian Coast and Arabian Sea.
“This has been an incredibly difficult decision,” said Volvo Ocean Race Chief Executive Knut Frostad. “We have consulted leading naval and commercial intelligence experts and their advice could not have been clearer: ‘Do not risk it.’”
There should have been no decision to make. Piracy off the Somali coast is not a recent occurrence. One has to question why the organisers, in full knowledge of the potential risks, endorsed a route so fraught with danger.

Robin Copeland