In pirate territory

Castlegar News bi-weekly columnist shares insights gained in recent excursion

Pirates? In this day and age? I thought pirates existed in the mystical past of sailing ships, jeweled sabres, and raw Jamaican rum. Surely, pirates belong to a long-gone era.

I can picture a swashbuckling pirate with a full beard and a patch over one eye. He is leaping from one ship to another, sword slicing ahead of him. “Shiver me timbers,” I seem to hear him growl.

That was the image I carried until I watched the movie “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks as the captain of a freighter ship in the Indian Ocean. His task is to take his container ship “The Alabama” from Salalah in Oman across the Arabian Sea. He is to stop in at Djibouti and then proceed south along the African Coast.

At the time of this voyage—early 21st Century—he and his crew have been briefed about possible pirates from Somalia seeking to take over vessels sailing in those waters. These pirates are poor African tribesmen, possibly fishermen, who are after money and merchandise. They operate from small speed boats and use ladders to get up onto the larger ships. Instead of cutlasses, they use machine guns.

Captain Phillips has also been briefed on the procedures to follow when a pirate attack occurs. Keep all the lower gates locked, have the hoses ready to spray the interlopers, and seek evasive maneuvring of the ship itself.

If the pirates get on board, the directive is to shut down the ship and get the crew contained in an area of the ship where they can’t be got at. In the movie, that happens to be the ship’s engine room.

In “Captain Phillips,” all these procedures are followed, but because the pirates have automatic weapons, the ship is easily boarded. The ship’s crew is hidden away deep within the ship, but the pirates take the officers at the helm into captivity. For them—especially the Captain—the terror begins.

Recently, we were on a cruise ship that sailed directly through these same waters.  As soon as our ship entered the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, we noticed the crew fastening sirens and large hoses along the promenade deck with the nozzles pointed out to sea.

As we walked onto the deck in the morning, we noticed extra security personnel patrolling with guns and binoculars. At night, the ship picked up speed as our Captain felt his ship could outrun any nearby pirate boats. We were warned that if an attack did occur, we were all to move into the centre of the ship.

During the time we sailed from the outlet of the Red Sea at Aden, into the ports of Oman, and then along the western coast of India, we sailed without lights. Our dark ship was moving across the Arabian Sea under the guidance of radar. I was reminded of the images of darkened supply ships moving across the Atlantic during World War II.

It was quite disconcerting, but when others spoke about the possibilities of pirate attacks, I played down the whole thing.  My attitude was that no pirates would ever appear. When we left Colombo in Sri Lanka and entered the Bay of Bengal heading for Malaysia, a relieved Captain told us the pirate danger was past.

Later, as we neared Thailand, the movie on board our ship was the “Captain Phillips” piracy episode. As I watched the movie, I began to realize what the cruise ship personnel had been afraid of. Scary!

It was a good thing the movie was shown long after we departed from the pirate zone.

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