Only months before, on the other side of the world, armed men stormed the 4,595-tonne tanker Suci when she was six hours out of Singapore, bound for Sandakan, on the island of Borneo, with a cargo of diesel oil. In a smooth operation, the gang took over the bridge, tied up the crew, painted out the ship's name and daubed the funnel in new colors. The next morning, the crew was forced into a lifeboat and the renamed Glory II sailed off. The crew was soon rescued, but the tanker vanished.
Piracy, the scourge of shipping in the 17th and 18th centuries, has re-emerged from the history books and is flourishing, from the Far East to Brazil. "People tend to think of pirates as being dead and buried for the past 200 years or so, but that's not the case," says George Sloss, of the Salvage Association in Singapore. But the romance of those swashbuckling days--if there ever was any--is long gone. Cutlasses have been replaced by automatic rifles and in place of parrots, rocket-propelled grenade launchers rest on pirates' shoulders.
According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau, which runs the Piracy Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and is itself a division of the International Chamber of Commerce, there were 224 incidents of piracy and armed robbery of ships--the latter being attacks in port or coastal waters, as compared with the high seas--last year, up from 187 in l995 and 90 in 1994; 79 were reported in the first six months of this year. But the I.M.B.'s Commercial Crime Services executive director Eric Ellen thinks these figures tell only half the story. Attacks are under-reported by crews and owners wishing to avoid long delays in port for police investigations. With a ship's operating costs running around $10,000 a day, investigations can cost the owner more than the piracy.
As of old, pirates loot anything from cash to entire cargoes, but their modus operandi varies around the world. Arabian Sea buccaneers might bear anti-tank missiles, while West Africans carry knives, often raiding ships anchored miles offshore using dugout canoes launched from fishing boats. They take anything not bolted down, even lifebuoys.
Brazilian buccaneers also take whatever is going, but prefer high-tech loot for the black market. The precision with which they hit the most valuable cargoes suggests involvement of shipping agents or port officials with access to manifestos. In Brazil, ships in port or vessels anchored in the long line-ups awaiting scarce berths are equally vulnerable. The notorious 18th century French pirate Jean Francois Duclerc found easy pickings around Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay, and his successors, using fast boats, also thrive. Explains Elmar Brown, president of Sindamar, the association of Sao Paulo shipping agents: "Brazil can't fight ship piracy because it has no coast guard and because the federal police have no boats."
In the Far East, piracy is suspected of being controlled by crime syndicates who apparently pay to quash investigations. Entire cargoes, ranging from costly alloys to sugar, can disappear along with the ships carrying them. These vessels then reappear as "phantom" ships with fake documents and new names, taking on fresh cargoes from unsuspecting shippers and vanishing again.
Of all the world's waters, the most dangerous are the island-studded seas off Indonesia and the Philippines. Merchant navy crews have been alert to these hot spots for some time, and British tanker master Captain Allan McDowall, 59, was prepared for the pirates who attacked his vessel five years ago off Sumatra. He was somewhat surprised, however, that the armed, hooded men arrived in inflatable rafts and wore the dark, camouflaged battle dress of Indonesian marines. "I knew there was an Indonesian warship in the area, because we could hear them talking on radios," he says. Although others reported similar experiences, McDowall could never prove his suspicions and the Indonesian authorities have denied the existence of any such rogue military units. McDowall's attackers left empty-handed, outfoxed by doors that would not open from the outside and a steam whistle so loud "it scrambled the brain and prevented talking."
Captains would do well to improvise such defenses. Civilian cargo ships make soft targets for pirates who have upgraded their weapons while their victims have gradually been disarmed. "In the old days, pirates carried cutlasses, but you did, too," says McDowall. "Now we are forbidden to carry weapons on board."
Pirates are also gaining confidence because they so often get away with it. When Blackbeard terrorized the North Carolina coast of the U.S. in the early 1700s, navies were powerful and justice summary. Blackbeard's career ended when his head was sliced off by a Royal Naval broadsword. These days, concerns over sovereignty and territorial waters foster caution. Laments Ellen, "There is no law enforcement at sea by anyone--today's navies are reluctant to intervene in the act of piracy."
Some countries have gotten tough. The tourist-conscious Greek government recently sent gunboats to discourage Albanian pirates from crossing the 3-km Corfu Channel to prey on yachts around the island. On the other hand, there was no help for the Singapore freighter Hye Mieko when it was stopped before it reached its Cambodian destination two years ago by what appeared to be a Chinese customs cutter. The owner, William Tay, spotted his 1,606-tonne ship from a small plane as the vessel and its cargo of cigarettes was forced to sail more than 1,600 km through international waters to Shanwei, in south China. The Chinese authorities denied any knowledge of the cutter, and so it was assumed that it was manned by pirates. But although the Hye Mieko's plight was broadcast worldwide, not a single vessel came to its aid. On arrival in China, the ship was impounded, the cargo sold and owner Tay charged with intending to smuggle cigarettes into China, where contraband is a problem. "Navies were reluctant to intervene because of the power of China," says Ellen.
Since then, south China ports like Beihai have become notorious as havens for pirates who rely on the complicity of local officials. The I.M.B. is still at the case of the Anna Sierra, a freighter carrying a $5-million cargo of sugar to the Philippines in 1995 when it was attacked by pirates and sailed to Beihai. Offers of a large reward brought a sighting, and I.M.B. officials who flew to Beihai found the ship, together with its cargo and the pirates. They were jubilant, but now, two years later, the pirates are free. They were released from prison without charges, and the slowly deteriorating Anna Sierra remains in Beihai. The Chinese refuse to release the ship to her owners, who have rejected the dock charges demanded, and the ship's flag state of Cyprus has taken no action.
Ships at sea have the protection of the flag under which they are flying, but many owners save money and avoid regulation by registering their vessels under flags of convenience in states such as Panama or Honduras which haven't the capability to respond to pirates. Combined with the reluctance of navies to interfere and the general confusion since countries have begun extending their territorial waters to 200 nautical miles, this has left the seas wide open. "Piracy is going to get worse, because it's so easy," says Ellen.
Yet it needn't be. Several years ago Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore decided that piracy in the Malacca Straits was out of hand, particularly after a fully laden tanker was left by pirates to steam for 20 minutes down a narrow channel with no one in control. When the states coordinated and toughened their policing, the attacks dropped sharply. Says I.M.B. director Pottengal Mukundan: "Historically, it's when governments decide to step in that piracy has been brought under control." That time seems to have come again.