See more photos of Somali pirates here.
In October of last year, I set sail from Dubai on an aging 160-meter cargo ship laden with supplies for Somalia. For me, as publisher of Somalia Report, it was a chance to experience pirate waters up close. I had met pirates on land and in prison, and had counted their captured ships neatly lined up from the air -- but I had never visited them at their 3.2 million-square-mile workplace.
For the multinational crew, it was yet another nerve-wracking voyage for minimal pay. The Indian shipowner was forced to pay an additional $20,000 insurance premium for the short transit, even though he intended to sell the vessel for scrap after the journey to Bosaso, Puntland. It was a hefty fee. But, to put it in perspective, the owner's dirty ship -- which reeked of fish sauce and grease -- was making $40,000 a day for the duration of its journey -- even the time in port. He was making money even as the loading crews muscled cargo into the hold and massive cranes methodically slammed each container into place.
In the Dubai port, the shipowner paced back and forth on the sweltering dock, shouting over his cell phone that the cost of $10,000 to string barbed wire around the ship was too much. In the end, he managed to whittle down his anti-piracy costs to just three security contractors and one rifle. Defensive measures be damned -- despite the fact that the 27-year-old RoRo, flagged under St. Kitts and Nevis,was being loaded with millions of dollars of new vehicles and humanitarian supplies. The customer: an ambitious land, sea, and air brigade funded by the United Arab Emirates. The mission: wipe out piracy from inside Somalia.
Pirates have attacked ships an average of 215 times a year since 2008, but their success rate has slipped from 50 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2010 to almost zero this year. That doesn't mean they're gone. The number of hostages Somali pirates have held for ransom has ranged from a high of over 1,000 to 200 today. That's still enough to fill a Boeing 757.
Somalia is unique in that the pirates have a clearly defined business model: They violently grab ships, sail them to the Somali coast, and then hold the crew and cargo for months while insurance companies negotiate over the release. The amount of the settlement ransom differs, but it's a lucrative business: Over the past few years, pirates have been paid an average of $4.5 million per ship -- in giant bundles of $100 bills.
As we set to sea, I comforted myself with statistics: Although pirate attacks on commercial ships have been a major maritime threat since 2008, the actual risk of being attacked is less than 1 percent. The vast majority of the 25,000 or so ships that transit the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean never see a single pirate. Still, I was wary. The rusting ship shuddered and groaned as we steamed toward the glassy Gulf of Aden, struggling to maintain a meager 11 knots -- a perfect slow-moving target for pirates. The crew of 12 kept busy, but constantly cocked a sidelong glance toward the tiny skiffs that would cut across our path or zoom alongside to stare up at us.
My cocktail companions at sunset were the diminutive Burmese captain and a grizzled 20-year veteran of the South African Special Forces who was along to keep an eye on the cargo. The 52-year-old captain had the delightful name of Tint Lwin Oo and was thrilled I had the foresight to bring along good liquor. He was perplexed by the chain-smoking, scarred commando who had brought along a hunting bow "just for the pirates." The crew breathed a sigh of relief when the British three-man team in blue shirts from the private Maritime Asset Security and Training boarded at Muscat. Still, with only two men on duty at any time to cover the massive ship, everyone was expected to keep a lookout.