The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Piracy—Trouble In Paradise

For most cruising yachtsmen there are few more beautiful, peaceful or congenial places to down a cold Tusker beer, than on the Kenyan shore of the Indian Ocean. Such places form the backbone of the dream for so many, and it’s not hard to see why.

But outside in open waters things are less idyllic, due to the presence of Somali pirates patrolling the sea, looking for vessels to hijack.

Generally their interest lies in bigger cargo vessels, but fishing vessels and yachts have also been taken. And the payoffs can be enormous – a record ransom of $9.5m was recently paid for a South Korean supertanker and her crew (plus $170m of crude oil cargo). As a result, despite a much-increased military presence from the navies of the world, the problem is growing fast. By late 2010 NAVFOR (the EU anti-piracy task force) had intercepted over 120 pirate attacks in the area, up from 21 in 2009. At the current moment the pirates are holding 31 vessels and over 700 hostages. And it’s reported that around $238m in ransoms was paid to Somali pirates during 2010 – it’s a huge business.

An Expanding Problem

Largely as a result of the increased naval activity, the problem has spread contagiously throughout the region; the pirates, using captured fishing vessels and motor vessels as motherships, have expanded their range to evade capture. The Maritime Security Centre/ISAF guidance for yachts for the region (Gulf of Aden, northern Indian Ocean and southern Red Sea) suggests that the area affected goes down to 15S and 78E, but one of the most recent attacks was at 21 38S and another was close to the South coast of India. This is a colossal problem over an immense area, and almost impossible to control through force, as a senior NAVFOR officer recently admitted.

Yachts, of course, are small beer for the pirates, and with only one attack on a yacht recorded in the region during 2010, it’s worth keeping some sense of perspective about the scale of the problem. But the ransom paid for a UK couple last year was reported to be in excess of $750K – hardly a pittance, although far less than the $7m originally demanded. And it has recently been reported that a ransom of £10m is being sought for the release of a South African couple captured aboard a yacht in the 2010 attack.  Big ships might be worth far more, and the yachts themselves may be worth nothing to the pirates, but the crews certainly have a potential value.

Is There Any Defense?

So what can be done if you have to travel in this region? Some local sailors suggested that day sailing close to the coast is relatively safe, and that may be one option for part of this huge area. Others transiting the area to and from Suez are often opting to travel in convoys, seeking security in numbers, although with the current unrest in Yemen and Egypt to face along the way it’s no sinecure. And whilst the multinational naval presence will provide surveillance and security for yachts where possible, understandably the force prioritizes big ships. Yachts coming from the East now face the long voyage down to the Cape of Good Hope via Mauritius to stay out of the expanded pirate zone.

Ship your yacht by freighter? Well, this January Somali pirates seized the M/V Beluga Nomination carrying a cargo of yachts from Malta to the Seychelles, with the tragic loss of three crewmembers’ lives. As it stands, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that before too long this whole vast area might become a no go zone for yachts.

A Global Problem

And it’s not only the Indian Ocean – 445 pirate attacks were reported in 2010 globally, and included such cruising areas as the Caribbean, Central America, Papua New Guinea and the South China Sea.

We hope to visit West Africa in Pelerin, our Ovni 435,  this coming autumn, but increasingly there are disturbing reports of terrorist activity targeting westerners in the Sahel countries. Ultimately we don’t have to go there, and we may simply decide, with great regret, that it’s a risk too far – a pity for us, and a loss of legitimate revenue for the countries concerned.

In this internet age, keeping news of such lucrative piracy under wraps is impossible. So, with poverty rife in many ‘pristine’ parts of the world, maybe others in those places are also weighing up the possibilities for conducting their own local wealth redistribution policies. And, although we, like many readers of this website, love higher latitudes, we still have to get there in the first place, and hope to enjoy many tropical places along the way. But that seems to be becoming more complicated by the day, and it seems our cruising world may be rapidly shrinking, and not just in small increments, either.

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Paul Mills


This article has got me thinking, chiefly around two aspects:

Firstly, the concept of real versus perceived danger. For example, statistically one of the most dangerous things that each of us do is to drive our cars; and if we drive in a ‘creative road rules’ country the danger can become twenty times that in the UK or similar – however those of us forced to be on dry land do this several times a week. I wonder what the comparative stats are for sailing in troubled areas of the world?

Secondly, and associated to the above, is what is the ‘tipping point’ between potential danger versus life in cotton wool? I guess this varies for each of us…A good example for myself is that the experientially best expedition I have ever been on was in Libya and Algeria, where the people were friendly and helpful and despite the level of guns etc I was more comfortable walking alone through the Souk at night than in my home town!

Finally I am also left thinking about the simple beauties on home ground, for example the Norfolk coast that we visited for a couple of weeks last year – and long to return to….

Happy sailing

Colin Speedie

Hi Paul

Yes, it’s very much a question of objective versus subjective risk, and your point is a fair one. Travelling by matatu (the ubiquitous minibuses in Africa) would really be taking your life into your hands in my view!

My thought is that all of us who go long term cruising are used to evaluating risk objectively- weather, seasons, security etc. The fact that we’re already out there means that we would probably be judged by onlookers as ‘bold’ in a subjective sense (although we wouldn’t necessarily agree), and would be more inclined than the average person to accept the threat of piracy as just one more risk to be weighed up and factored in. But equally, it might well be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ – just one major risk too far. And whilst we all love our home waters (we miss Scotland all the time), it’s the thought of new horizons that drives us on, and it would be tragic for us all if those horizons were to keep shrinking through piracy.

Best wishes



Nothing below is intended to be political. It is simply my perspective. It seems to me we have four things at work here.

First, Nature, whether human or otherwise, abhors a vacuum. Piracy fills the vacuums created by the retraction of imposed power. Whether it was the end of large scale imperialism or the Cold War or you name it, our power imposers are focused elsewhere, and until piracy is a problem for those in power, it will exist, and in purely piratical terms, prosper and flourish. In the piracy regions, clearly local power has contracted if it ever existed in some.

Second, To have fire one needs a triangle of heat, fuel and oxygen. The heat of poverty/greed, the fuel of unsecured wealth, and the oxygen of freedom of action will keep piracy burning until at least one is removed by an entity with sufficient power, reach and desire to apply it.

Third, small beer depends on the keg. Most of the off-the-beach, independent pirates can live very high on the warthog for ransom amounts that would buy a cruising boat or two. The ransoms being demanded by the more organized, aggressive, heavily armed and farther ranging are still small beer when one considers the global economic context. $10 million is way down in the balance sheet round-off error of the shipping industry writ large. Until sufficient merchant seamen decide to take up farming rather than endure the piracy risk such that ships cannot be crewed, the ransoms will remain a fee passed on to the consumer.

Fourth, so what to do about it? For better or worse, my wife and I have lived in large cities since 1980. We know there are neighborhoods one does not transit under any circumstances (Rule one, if the restaurants have heavily armed guards either side of the door, facing inside and out, you are in pirate territory.). Both cities’ pirate territories have required very significant detours. And some of those detours have their own risks, and all add expense. It simply is part of the fabric of life. There is so much to see and do in all the places remaining, we give it little thought. We just don’t go where we are on the menu. It’s a, “here there be dragons,” thing.

Is this passive? Yes it is. I had a full military career, and I know I cannot possibly travel well enough armed to ensure the odds are as much in my favor as they are taking a costly and time consuming detour. I know I cannot join a convoy of sufficient scope and scale to defeat a determined and well armed adversary. I know I cannot depend on my government to help. Not because they are feckless, but because governments need governments to work with, unless they declare war on pirates. I don’t expect anything from them even close to this.

The pirates of the Spanish Main, the Barbary Coast, the Sulu Sea all threatened the core interests of nations under political or economic stress. Piracy today, for the most part, threatens large multi-nationals that can suck up the costs and take care of themselves. Or it threatens “genteel adventurers” who don’t have any reason to go anywhere near pirate waters other than self indulgence. Yes there have been instances where oil or weapons cargos have prompted action. In each of those cases, the action drove pirates in the direction of less lucrative, softer targets less likely to generate more than a negotiation (care to guess who)?

Leaving one’s territorial waters means accepting accountability for nearly the totality of one’s own safety, whether the threats to it are human or otherwise. While I would very much like to live in a detourless world, no human ever has. I don’t care to see the world return to massive, treasury draining power projection. I do believe the only part of the piracy “fire triangle” I can reasonably and personally affect is to keep me and mine outside of their fuel and firearms range. As to ransom, I pay one annually called taxes.


If we were to review case-by-case all of the incidents of attack involving yachts in the past decade, the vast majority would prove to be the burglary-gone-wrong type where a boat is boarded at anchor. The level of violence can range from intimidation to assault with firearms, but again the majority are crimes of opportunity. Reducing that opportunity by not anchoring in isolation in suspicious harbors, not flashing money in town, being rude to boat boys or locals, and generally employing street smarts is the first step to avoiding problems.

As Chris and other commentators point out, the only way to avoid the threat of an attack by well armed “professional” pirates is to not go in the areas where they are operating. The world is large, and there are many lifetimes of exploration available on seacoasts that pose only natural dangers.

However, the luck of the draw still may find a desperate or drug-addled scavenger in your cockpit- I’m thinking of the recent attack on singlehander Mike Harper in the crowded and civilized harbor of Simpson Bay, St. Martin.

There is a simple and inexpensive way to rid your cockpit of dangerous pests. When not sailing, I live in the Wyoming mountains. We have one alpha predator that commands respect— the grizzly bear. When hiking in the mountains I carry a canister of bear spray that will stop a charging grizzly if he gets it full in the face. I have literally seen it drop a moose in its tracks as well. My boat has two such canisters plumbed into the cockpit, with provision to trigger them from inside the boat by a Morse cable. Whenever I’m anchored in a place where I feel insecure, the companionway is sealed and bolted from the inside. I guarantee that nobody will remain in the cockpit if my bear spray is triggered!

Would I use such a defense against bandits armed with automatic weapons? I think I’d rather try to talk my way out of the situation. Like any other means of self defense, hard decisions have to be made on the spur of the moment to fit the developing situation.


Give me a storm any day over pirates. I for one feel the risk is too high, or at least have too real a fear of them, to consider risking it. Mind you I have been through the Suez 7 times, and have no interest in the Red Sea or Mediterranean so for me it’s definitely the southern ocean.

The point about driving a car being the biggest risk we ever take is very true, and recently I spent some time in Mexico, and despite all the bad press I felt safer there than in USA. So all things are relative. I guess that I just wouldn’t enjoy being at sea knowing pirates may be in the area, and I go to sea for enjoyment (except if I’m on a ship and then I want money…).

John Harries

Hi All,

Thanks to all for the well reasoned and thought provoking comments. I agree with pretty much everything that has been said.

For Phyllis and I, we find the natural risks in the high latitudes, such as storms and ice, less frightening than the thought of having to deal with nature’s most dangerous and unpredictable animal. Therefore we have always avoided areas known for violence and piracy.

Having said that, we all pick the risks we can live with and I have tremendous admiration for those travelers who manage to visit tough areas and, through a combination of luck, good people skills, and understanding of the issues, manage the risks well.

Colin Speedie

Hi All

When I conceived and wrote this article, I could never have known just how soon the situation I outlined for cruising yacht crews would escalate, and with such a tragic outcome.

Today’s news of the killing of the crew of the US flagged S/V Quest is a chilling reminder that pirates pose a very serious threat, and that their deadly aim includes us.

I’m sure that all readers of Attainable Adventure Cruising will join me in thinking of the crew’s friends and family at this time.

Kind regards



Colin, it was only a matter of time, and if not Quest, another boat. You did us well by raising the issue.