Cruise lines taking steps to keep Somali pirates at bay

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Despite the increasing number of attacks and hijackings by Somali pirates, most cruise ships haven't drastically altered itineraries through the Gulf of Aden, the vital East African route between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, a survey of major cruise lines indicates. But they're beefing up ...


By Si Liberman // 05.22.09
 

Despite the increasing number of attacks and hijackings by Somali pirates, most cruise ships haven't drastically altered itineraries through the Gulf of Aden, the vital East African route between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, a survey of major cruise lines indicates. But they're beefing up piracy deterrence measures.

For ships approaching that area now, pirate-emergency drills for passengers and crew have become as routine as mandatory lifeboat drills.

In the last year, more than 110 vessels have been attacked by pirates, who managed to take possession of 42 of them and their crews and collect about $80 million in ransom, according to maritime authorities.

The most dramatic incident was in April, when U.S. Navy snipers killed three pirates holding the captain of the American-flagged Maersk Alabama cargo ship and rescued him.

Attacks on cruise ships are rare, but two -- the American-owned Oceania Nautica and the Italian-owned, 1,492-passenger MSC Melody -- have been among those targeted by pirates in recent months. The 684-passenger Nautica was fired on in November but evaded capture by outrunning two pirate skiffs, and in April, an Israeli security team aboard the MSC Melody scared off pirates after exchanging gunfire with them. No one was hurt in either incident.

American-flagged cruise ships do not carry armed security personnel.

Some 12 nations, including the U.S., have assigned warships to the area to create a maritime protection zone. This is part of a close support convoy system, established by the European Union, that uses warships and helicopters to protect vessels by coordinating group transit through what's become known as "pirates' alley." About 20,000 vessels a year go through the gulf area. They can make arrangements to join scheduled military-escorted passage by contacting the Maritime Security Centre's Horn of Africa website ( www.mschoa.org).

Among cruise ships scheduled to navigate the pirate-infested waters in the next 12 months are the Legend of the Seas, the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Elizabeth, the Dawn Princess, the Seven Seas Voyager, the Seabourn Pride and four Costa Cruises ships -- the Europa, the Deliziosa, the Luminosa and the Romantica.

"All officers and crew are trained and drilled in piracy evasion and defense, and the anti-piracy measures are reviewed in a guest safety drill," said Tim Rubacky, communications director for Oceania and Regent Seven Seas. "Guests are given explicit instructions on what to do and what not to do if the ship is approached by suspect craft. It's all very low key and thorough."

The Oceania Nautica, which dodged pirate bullets last fall, sailed through the area again May 2, this time following the protection path.

"It was a very dull transit," Rubacky said, "and guests were joking at how dismayed they were with the lack of excitement."

Bruce Good, Seabourn's public relations manager, said: "We've altered our itineraries very slightly in the Gulf of Aden as a response to the availability of group transits."

Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth and Princess' Dawn Princess and Pacific Princess will pass through the gulf while on world cruises in the fall and winter.

Karen Candy, Princess Cruises' public relations manager, said comprehensive procedures and a response plan have been established to protect passengers and crew.

"We're in touch with naval authorities in the region, and they're aware of our ships' route," she explained. "Crews are trained to recognize pirate vessels and tactics as well as trained in evasive maneuvers. There are a number of anti-piracy measures available, such as long-range acoustic devices. We use additional lookouts and other deterrents."

The acoustic devices are designed to deter attackers with ear-shattering sound blasts.

The Legend of the Seas is the only Royal Caribbean ship with an itinerary that will take it through the gulf.

"We have directly coordinated the timing of our sailing with military personnel, so they know where we will be at all times," said Cynthia Martinez, Royal Caribbean's corporate communications manager. "Our ship will be speaking to the military forces in the Gulf of Aden by telephone each day, throughout our time there, and we can reach them at a moment's notice should we encounter any problems."

Dana Dominico, Costa Cruises' North American public relations director, said: "We've made substantial investments in security equipment to keep suspicious boats at a safe distance, and we're constantly in contact with relevant authorities while going through that area. But we've not altered any itineraries."