From Pirates To Piraeus, Transiting The Gulf Of Aden: How Risky Was It?

Lookouts on the Gulf of Aden
Lookouts were positioned 24/7 during our transit of the Gulf of Aden.

Last week’s post, Silver Spirit’s Transit Of The Gulf Of Aden: Uneventful? Not Entirely, reported that two ships had been attacked, and one hijacked, at the outset of our five-day sailing on Silver Spirit from Muscat, Oman to Safaga, Egypt.

I am writing this post in Piraeus, Greece, which suggests that we made it across “Pirate Alley” without incident.

How risky was crossing the Gulf of Aden for us?

Somalian Piracy Threat Map 2010
Somalian Piracy Threat Map: CC-by-sa Arun Ganesh, National Institute of Design Bangalore

Not very. While my intention is not to minimize the seriousness of the situation, I do want to explain why cruise ships are less susceptible to attack than other vessels that cross the Gulf of Aden.

I understand that people need some reassurances when thinking about cruising this region, so assess the facts you find here and at the links below and make your decision.

For me, traveling through the Middle East on a cruise ship was a vastly rewarding experience. I’m a risk-taker anyway, so I may be more predisposed than others when it comes to traveling in what some perceive as risky areas.

More often than not, though, I find that news is exaggerated and that many of the so-called dangers on this planet are no more risky to our lives than, say, consuming too many cholesterol-producing foods or sitting for long periods of time day after day (a proven health hazard).

Safety Measures Taken By Silver Spirit When Crossing The Gulf of Aden

1. Safety In Numbers. Silver Spirit followed international guidelines, which included passage through a 400-mile-plus “Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor” that is patrolled by an armada of naval vessels from more than 20 member states. Silver Spirit participated in a group transit, where ships are coordinated to enter and exit the corridor at scheduled times based on ship speeds.

Maintaining 18 knots per hour, Silver Spirit, for example, entered the corridor at 10 a.m. whereas Seabourn Pride, maintaining 16 knots per hour, entered 90 minutes earlier. The times are staggered in order to “optimize coordination of military assets” that provide support in higher risk areas during the most vulnerable parts of the day, at dawn and at dusk.

Silver Spirit also took precautions to protect the most vulnerable parts of the ship, positioning aft a Magnetic Acoustic Device, a so-called “sonic weapon.”

Gulf of Aden Precautions
Magnetic Audio Device on Silver Spirit.

Also, as you might imagine, there was additional protection. Think air marshals, but on a ship, two former British marines who regularly travel through the corridor on cruise and cargo ships, and who, I might add, told me that they had never been on a ship that had been attacked, despite multiple transits.

And in the event of an attack, helicopters from naval vessels were standing by to provide assistance.

Gulf of Aden 1
Lookouts had night-vision optics for spotting suspicious vessels.

2. Silver Spirit is fast. Not superfast, like Queen Mary 2, which can zip along at 29.5 knots (three times the speed of a Blue Whale, according to a Cunard fact sheet). Nor is Silver Spirit fast enough to outrun pirates, as they have skiffs  that can travel up to 25 knots per hour. But Silver Spirit is fast enough to make it almost impossible for pirates to board. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, pirates have “great difficulty boarding a ship” that is maintaining a speed of more than 15 knots per hour. Silver Spirit’s top speed is 21 knots.

3. Silver Spirit has a capable captain and crew. Kudos to Captain Angelo Corsaro, who addressed passengers early on to explain the risk and the transit. With a large image of the region displayed on a screen in the theater, Corsaro used a laser pointer to show that we would be in a high risk area, but he reassured all aboard that for Silver Spirit the high risk area did not constitute a “major risk.” In  a moment of levity, Corsaro pointed out that he may know pirates better than some, as his last name derives from the word corsair.

4. Silver Spirit is neither slow nor low. The ICS says that successful attacks are often carried out on ships with a low freeboard, less than 8 meters from the waterline to the first point of entry. Silver Spirit’s freeboard is tall.

In an interview during our transit, Corsaro said that pirates look for the most vulnerable part of the ship, open and low to the water level, then use ladders with hooks to board. “It’s not like you see in the movies,” Corsaro said, where swashbuckling buccaneers come swinging onto the deck as cannons blaze. “But boarding any ship at 20 knots is not easy,” he added. “We have to drop to 6 knots for the pilots to be able to board.”

Plus, if pirates were to attempt to board, Silver Spirit was prepared to zig-zap to create a wake. Avid cruisers know how difficult it is to step onto a tender when the ship is at anchor, no less, with waves sloshing. Imagine following a ship zig-zagging along at 21 knots and trying to board.

Because cruise ships pose a difficult target, cargo ships have been the primary target for pirates. Moving at speeds often not exceeding 10 knots and with open areas low to the water level, cargo ships are much easier to board – and to manage, as there are fewer human souls to hold hostage.

Vigilance Required

Of course, cruise ships aren’t immune to piracy attempts. The most publicized pirate attack, and indeed the closest call, was in 2005, when pirates attacked Seabourn Spirit, carrying 151 passengers. The pirates came close but were unsuccessful. Still, that incident did not stop Seabourn Pride from transiting the Gulf of Aden along with us last week. It’s not conceivable that a cruise line would risk the lives of its passengers to fulfill an itinerary. I think it’s fair to put some trust in the company’s whose reputations for safety are at stake.

There is a flip side to piracy. Perhaps piracy would not exist had Somalis not been set afloat in such dire straits. This is not a statement intended to defend the pirate’s actions but rather to illustrate the root of the problem.

A United Nations report has suggested that piracy off the coast of Somalia is caused in part by illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters by foreign vessels that have, according to Somali fishermen, severely constrained the ability of locals to earn a living and forced many to turn to piracy instead.

Precise data on the current economic situation in Somalia is scarce but with an estimated per capita GDP of $600 per year, Somalia remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Millions of Somalis depend on food aid and in 2008, according to the World Bank, as much as 73% of the population lived on a daily income below $2.

There are at least two approaches to ending piracy in the Gulf of Aden: 1) Continue to blow pirates out of the water and risk lives. 2) Or find a way to address some of the problems that some say have driven Somalis to their unlikely profession.

For further reading:


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  • Watch this video from  Brilliance of the Seas Gulf of Aden Transit – Brilliance of the Seas, January 22, 2011, January 22, 2011 –


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