Friday, April 22, 2011

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What technologies, tactics should shipowners use against piracy?

Piracy on the high seas has hit an all time high, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and Somali pirates, in particular, are using firearms with greater frequency, leaving ship owners and their insurers with a multitude of ideas on how best to fight back, but with no clear cut answers.

Last year, the IMB said pirates bore arms in at least 243 attacks that resulted in 1,181 hostages, according to a Bloomberg BusinessWeek report.

Weapons used by the pirates have reportedly included AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Insurers have been pressuring ship owners to fight back with a hodge-podge of methods deployed so far, such as using fire hoses, lasers, sound waves, razor wire and armed guards.

The International Chamber of Shipping and the Baltic and International Maritime Council have issued Best Management Practices (BMP) for ships in high-risk areas including what a vessel's speed is and the amount of "freeboard" distance there is between the deck and the sea level.

The BMP says no ships traveling 18 knots have been boarded, and few have been successfully attacked when the freeboard distance is over 25 feet from the water.

Very Large Crude Carriers have been targets due to maximum speed of 14 knots and a 12-foot freeboard when fully loaded.

Establishing a "citadel" is another practice endorsed by the BMP, which can be as simple as putting a lock on the engine room door, provided there are no crew left outside in harm's way such as was the case with Captain Richard Phillips, skipper of the Maersk Alabama who was taken prisoner by Somali pirates in 2009.

There are various security technologies abounding now, including sonic cannons, which can be deterred if pirates wear headphones.

Other technologies include laser dazzlers that throw blinding light, chemical sprays that turn ship decks into ice rinks, draglines that catch pirate skiffs, unmanned patrol vehicles and lasers that can catch skiffs on fire.

Armed guards can cost $30,000, although insurers are reportedly willing to lower premiums by up to $20,000 per ship if they are used.

One security firm reportedly said that after 1,000 voyages through pirate-infested waters there were 90 encounters with pirates, of which 72 stepped down by a show of arms and warning shots deterred the other 18.

However, there are concerns over the escalation of firefights.

"There aren't enough of these guys to protect the ships," said Michael Frodl, risk consultant with a group of underwriters associated with Lloyds of London.

"And by the time you start hiring guys to fill in the void, you're going to get guys who really aren't qualified for the job."

For the full Bloomberg Business Week story:



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