III. Making Ships Harder to Capture

Drawing on the diverse experience of the persons assembled at the Kennedy School meeting, the Cambridge Coalition developed a number of practical recommendations to combat pirate attacks at sea. None is novel; nearly all have been employed in recent months to better or lesser effect. Together, the utilization of a combination of the following recommendations should enable all but the slowest or weakest merchant vessels from being taken by pirates. These recommendations draw upon the relatively successful actions to reduce piracy in the Gulf of Aden in 2009. With the important exception of armed security aboard vessels, nearly all of these steps are included in the Best Management Practices formally recommended by the International Maritime Organization.

15 – Merchant vessels other than those that steam at faster than 21 knots should continue to proceed through the Gulf of Aden’s internationally recommended transit corridor (IRCT), where naval support more speedily can be sought.


16 – Merchant vessels should remain in constant communication with Combined Task Force 151 and other counter-piracy operational commands in the Gulf of Aden and beyond.

17 – Merchant vessels of all kinds should optimize their surveillance of the seas by radar, dedicated visual lookouts, long-range CCTV cameras, and the use of night vision aids in order to maximize the warning time available to summon help and act, deter, or avoid pirates. Alert systems should be installed on those ships without them so that entire crews can obtain early warning of potential threats from pirates.

18 – Ships should be discouraged from entering zones of possible piracy if their owners and/or flag states have not adopted and pledged to follow the International Maritime Organization and separate industry codes of best practices. Flag States should discourage and, to the degree possible, prevent sub-standard vessels from transiting such zones of danger.

19 – Ocean carriers and flag states should agree publicly that reasonable force may be used to combat pirate attacks. Indeed, the crews, along with high value and/or highly vulnerable cargo, may merit armed security. Flag states (or, if necessary, the ship owners or operators) should issue rules for the use of force and escalation of force policies. In that context, properly trained sharpshooters, under the direction of the ship’s master and with clear rules for the use of force, should be authorized to shoot when menacing skiffs approach within 300–400 yards of a target vessel and present an imminent threat to a vessel or its crew. Those sharpshooters should be prepared to continue firing, if necessary.

20 – Sheer speed is another deterrent. Although speed costs in fuel, pirates only with great difficulty and at great danger can attack and board a merchant vessel steaming at more than 15 knots. Likewise, slow steaming or “loitering” at sea attracts pirates and should be avoided—even well out into the Indian Ocean. Slow steaming ships (under 12 knots) with low freeboard (under 5 meters) are at very great risk.

21 – Evasive maneuvering serves to create a constantly changing environment for pirates, making their approach difficult and hazardous as well as denying them approaches to lee.

22 – If for insurance purposes or because of company policy, or because of the volatile nature of the cargo, the employment of armed guards is eschewed, ships at risk can use high-pressure water from fire hoses to form a water curtain to swamp approaching skiffs. Such hoses should not be aimed at pirates and can be controlled remotely.

23 – Merchant vessels can be hardened, i.e., their hulls greased or covered with barbed-wire to prevent pirates from boarding. High voltage fencing mounted on decks and extending beyond the hulls also works. Anti-traction foam can be sprayed on decks. Barrels and ropes can swing over the sides of ships to make boarding a steaming vessel hazardous. Anything that costs pirates time and energy may allow larger ships to speed away or otherwise evade pirates.

24 – Dimming or dousing on-board night-time lighting will also make pirate attacks, which often come at dusk or dawn, more risky.

25 – However, bright lights and laser beams can be used at night to dazzle approaching skiffs and repulse pirate attacks. So too can acoustic devices be deployed to impede pirate attacks.

26 – When transiting areas of active piracy (and well out into the Indian Ocean), it also helps to secure all hatches and bar access to control and crew spaces.

27 – The reduction of crew-size has facilitated piracy, especially on large and high-value vessels. Shipowners should be encouraged to add mariners for improved surveillance and safety if their vessels transit anywhere near the areas of known piratical activity. Underpaid and overworked seafarers are not conducive to heightened security.

28 – The Cambridge Coalition encourages the International Maritime Organization to continue to expand its international maritime training regime in order to enhance the capability of merchant vessel personnel to detect, deter, and respond to pirate attacks.

29 – Although Somali pirate mother ships can be hard to identify using visual cues alone, Task Force 151 and air surveillance efforts should be extended, with maritime patrol aircraft, blimps, drones, and other air assets being employed to locate and, if possible, pursue and board the mother ships. Without easy passage by mother ships, piracy far out at sea is impossible.

30 – If pirate groups have established “forward bases” in the Seychelles, which seems probable, UN, AU, and allied forces should assist the Government of Seychelles to close such bases.

31– Task Force 151 and Operation Ocean Shield should consider the feasibility of blockading known piracy bases along the Somali and Yemeni coasts. Systematic surveillance, advanced reconnaissance, and blockades—if they could be enforced— could prevent mother ships from plying their trade far out to sea, or in the Gulf of Aden. Legal authority should flow from new UN resolutions (below).

32 – Task Force 151 and other allied efforts should consider patrolling the sea lanes with light, fast, smaller ships as well as destroyers and frigates.

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