Insurance companies say it makes sense for ships to have armed guards
Shipping firms in the modern era have resisted packing heat even in areas where attacks are common. Their reasoning: A firefight leading to lawsuits, damaged goods or a sunken ship could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, a sum far exceeding the few million dollars in ransom that pirates usually demand.
But some shipping companies and fishing vessels are tacking away from a longstanding tradition of unarmed sailing amid escalating violence on the high seas. And pirates, who once used small arms as their weapon of choice, now resort to heavier armaments such as grenade launchers, shipping and security firms say. Besides, they note, recent armed conflicts have had some success repelling pirates.
Still, the majority of the international maritime community resists using lethal force because it "poses incredible logistical challenges, potentially violates many national and international laws, and is contrary to maritime conventions," says James Christodoulou, chief executive of Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp. . . .
Piracy -- and mustering the arms to thwart it -- stretches back to the dawn of ocean trading. In the 16th century, commercial sailing ships "could be as well armed as warships," says Brian Lavery, author of "Ship: 5000 Years of Maritime History."
But in the 19th century, the end of monopolies like the East India Company meant greater competition, and amid the industrial revolution, there was a new emphasis on speed. Fast sailing vessels like the clipper, rushing to transact business, couldn't afford to be weighed down by ammo. And they could outrun pirates. . . .
Today, most fast ships, which cruise at speeds of 25 knots, can still outrun pirates. But oil tankers and bulk carriers, which typically cruise at 12 knots, aren't so nimble. Recent risk assessments by insurance companies and others have concluded that "sometimes the only way of keeping the ship safe is an armed guard," says Peter Hinchcliffe of the International Chamber of Shipping, another London-based trade group. . . .
Rates for a team of armed guards vary greatly, between $25,000 and over $100,000 for crossing the Gulf of Aden. They board ships at ports in Yemen, Djibouti or Oman. They hire local fishermen to take them out to the freighter that needs protection. After reaching the Suez canal, the men are flown back to the Gulf, or put on board a ship heading southward toward the Gulf of Aden.
The guards carry handguns, but the risk of a catastrophic escalation is minimal, says Maritime Asset Security & Training co-director Philip Cable. Pirates "are there to take the ship, not kill people." So far, MAST guards have helped fend off seven attacks, none involving weapons. . . .