Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Question: Why Do Cruise Lines Still Send Ships through the Gulf of Aden?

Over the last few weeks, much of the general news media has suddenly discovered the story of piracy of ships in the Gulf of Aden, a story which has been developing and covered by the trade press for several years. In their coverage, and especially with the recent encounter between Nautica and some pirates, they want to bring in the cruise ship angle. They are asking questions like what tools cruise ships have to defend themselves, or, with the rising number of ships being taken, why do cruise lines continue to send their ships through the Gulf.

They have been asking the wrong questions, however. After covering cruise lines for a lot of years, we've come to know cruise lines aren't about to send their ships anywhere they believe there is a significant risk of harm to them and the people aboard. Therefore that means cruise lines are believing there is little risk associated with their passing through the Gulf of Aden. With that in mind, a few weeks ago we started to ask the question why they believe they are safe when the number of ships being taken is steadily increasing. Yesterday, CND had that important question answered during a wide_ranging discussion when we sat down for an exclusive interview with the top security officer of one of the cruise lines that had a ship sailing in the area recently.

While most of the interview was on the record, we agreed to one big condition. We agreed not to reveal the person's name or the cruise line. He agreed to the interview because it is important for the public to know the cruise lines are not putting their ships or passengers at risk. He was speaking only for his own cruise line, but since all major lines share information on this matter, it's safe to assume the industry shares the same thinking. The reason we agreed not to identify the line is that we don't want the other side to construe what was being said as a challenge to them, a challenge to try to take a cruise ship, especially of this particular line. This person was simply answering our questions and explaining why the pirates aren't interested in taking a cruise ship.

Yes, that's right. At this point in time, pirates really aren't interested in cruise ships.

Something that doesn't come across in most of the general news media reports is the pirates in this area are not just a bunch of rogues with boats roaming around out at sea trying to stop any ship they come across. The pirates off the Somali coast are part of larger operations run from ashore by smart business people. They are only interested in making money. They capture a ship, hold it for ransom, get paid and let it go.

The people in charge follow what ships are coming toward the area, decide what would be the easiest (and presumably profitable) to take, and then send the guys in the boats out to get the ship.

Cruise ships don't really fit into that business model. They are quite different from cargo vessels, and wouldn't be nearly as easy of a target. The pirates are looking for the easiest targets, and even within commercial vessels, he said different types of vessels have different rates of being targeted.

Cruise ships are actually quite different from the cargo vessels the pirates have been taking, and would be perhaps the hardest to take. First of all cruise ships generally move much faster than the pirates' small boats. And you should believe when they pass through that area, they are moving fast. Just like when you drive through the bad part of town, you want to be through it as quickly as possible, so you increase your speed and don't stop.

Cruise ships are also built differently than most of the cargo vessels and tankers, and therefore, if the pirates can get alongside, they are not nearly as easy to board.

Staffing is another difference. Cargo vessels generally don't have the numbers of people cruise ships do to watch in all directions around the clock, so a cruise ship will probably have more warning of a potential attack by pirates than a cargo vessel. Along those same lines, cruise ships carry a much larger security force to defend the vessel should there be an attempt to board. It probably will far outnumber the pirates.

Of course, something we did not talk about in any detail is that cruise ships generally have a better arsenal of ways at their disposal to defend themselves than most cargo vessels will.

So with all these things making it more difficult to take a cruise ship, why would the pirates want to go to all the extra trouble to take a cruise ship? It's vastly easier to take a cargo vessel, especially some types.

But there's more. If the pirates did somehow manage to capture a cruise ship, then what? They would face much bigger challenges holding a vessel with several thousand people aboard than they do holding a cargo vessel with a couple dozen people. Again, these pirate groups are smart business people, who have thought this all out. There wouldn't be an overnight solution to the hijacking. The captors don't call the CEO of the company that owns the vessel, agree on a price and funds are wired to the pirates. Instead to protect themselves, the pirates work through several layers of intermediaries, and the process would take several weeks, at best, to be resolved and have the ship released. During that time the pirates would have to provide food probably for a couple thousand people, a large amount of fuel to keep powering the ship even minimally, and it would be almost impossible to keep control of that many people. "It's a very different equation to take on a ship with that number of people than it is to take on a ship with 25 people," he said.

The law of averages says among the passengers there would be ex_military people, off_duty law enforcement officers and people who just wouldn't stand for being held captive. It would also be impossible for the captors to know all the faces, so they would be vulnerable to rescue forces slipping aboard and being among the people waiting for the right time to neutralize the pirates.
It would be an almost impossible situation for the pirates to deal with. Again, there are smart business people behind these operations. They have thought this out, and why would they want to change a successful business model which is working so well for them and add all this extra risk and expense to their operation? There are about 60 cargo vessels per day passing through the area; all of them would offer easier opportunities for success and profit than a cruise ship.

What about the two instances where cruise ships have been attacked, including Sunday's incident with Nautica? He said he has seen no information about either that would lead him to believe that there was any serious attempt to board either ship. He said those may have simply been targets of opportunity, where the guys in the boats were sent out to get a particular ship and didn't see it or failed to get it. The cruise ships then came by and the guys on their own decided that since they were there, they may as well try to see how far they could get with the ship. ("Just messing with them," as he put it.) We'll never know, but they didn't get very far into either attempt before they called them off.

Another surprise in cruise lines' thinking came when I asked about risk levels increasing. About a dozen cruise ships a year move through the Gulf a couple times a year each either as they reposition between seasonal deployments or as part of an already_lengthy cruise, such as a world cruise. It would certainly have a big impact on the company if he decided for some reason the risk was too great for the ship to go through the area. What types of things, I asked, could cause the risk to increase enough that it wouldn't be safe for a ship to transit the area? I was surprised when he said that for almost any increased risk he could think of, there was something he could do to lessen it or counterbalance it. Some of them, of course would be expensive, but they would lessen the risk to a point where the ship could pass though the area safely.
In closing the interview, he said that he feels that it is safe for his line's ships to transit the Gulf. There is a tremendous amount of thought and planning put into how every one of the line's vessels transits the Gulf, and he would be completely comfortable with his grandmother or daughter sailing on them. That says a lot.

I came away from that discussion having a much better understanding of why the cruise ships keep going through the Gulf of Aden, and I feel our readers now should too.

Orginally published in Cruise News Daily December 2, 2008 edition. Copyright CND, all rights reserved. This may not be legally posted elsewhere.