As exciting as ‘anti-piracy operations’ may sound, or as adventurous as the film “Captain Phillips” may make it seem, the reality of the maritime-security industry is a bit more monotonous. Since the real Maersk Alabama incident, virtually every ship approaching the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor carries armed guards, and the Somali ‘Jack Sparrows’ have become less bold.

Although being a maritime security officer is still no holiday cruise, most of the time onboard is rather uneventful. The precise reasons that led the Somalis to piracy are still unclear. Somalia is a country that has been continuously ravaged by civil war since the 1980s and has an immensely poor population where practically no one has running water or electricity. The alleged toxic-waste dumping in its waters may have been the last straw. Or it may have been just a drop in the ocean.

Whatever prompted the Somalis to take to the seas, it’s clear what keeps them going: profit. At first they would raid ships’ coffers—the typical reserves and crew salaries are no minor amounts. Then they discovered they could make much more by taking ships and crews as hostage.

In response to all this, shipping companies have expanded their security standards, hiring armed teams for the vessels that cross the high-risk area of the Indian Ocean, which extends from the 18th parallel on the Red Sea to the shores of Tanzania, and from the Hormuz Straits to the east of the Maldives island complex. The maritime security used for these passages usually provide teams of three to four guards per vessel. They normally get to travel between ports such as Suez in Egypt, Galle of Sri Lanka, Durban in South Africa, and more in that region.

As for me, after five years spent in the Greek Army SOF, I was out and I was looking for a line of work where what I had learned could be of use. The fact that many maritime security companies are of Greek ownership and are based in Greece or Cyprus definitely helped to narrow my choices down.

The life of the maritime security guard

As part of one of these security teams, you and your team arrive at the port city a couple of days before the ship arrives, and you wait. Then, when it approaches, you board a service boat and head for the open waters to the RV point. Time is money in the shipping world, and no vessel will ever stop for you. The best it can do is slow down a little and drop the ladders for you to climb. That is a fun experience when the waters are calm, but it can be downright terrifying in bad weather. In fact, this procedure alone has claimed the life of one officer and the health of many more in the six years of the maritime industry in the Indian Ocean.

After successfully boarding the ship, you are rewarded with 7-12 days of dullness. Your main task during the transit is to take on guard shifts, where you alternate using your eyes to watch the ocean and watching the radar. Despite the monotony, there is a lot to take in from the voyage. You can see a night sky as you’ve never seen it before: In the middle of nowhere, away from the light pollution of the large cities, the stars present themselves in all their glory, offering an astonishing sight. The constellations of the southern hemisphere glimmer as clearly as if on an astronomy textbook page.

There are vast arrays of aquatic life that will accompany the ship, too, from large pods of dolphins to the occasional sea turtle. You also get to see a whole lot of sharks, especially in the Red Sea, where you might even encounter the gigantic whale shark.

But it is not all fun, games, and sightseeing. I cannot stress enough how this is nothing like a cruise. For starters, ships come in all shapes and sizes, which means you might win the lottery and land on a brand-new or one-year-old vessel, or you might win Murphy’s Law prize and be stuck on a 30-year-old piece of floating junk. And this is not only about the mechanics. The age of the ship plays a major role in everything, from living conditions and how clean the cabins are to the quality of the food provided. If the ship you’re on is new, the transit becomes slightly easier.

Besides watch-keeping, duties onboard include the fortification of the ship, which usually involves emplacing rows of razor wire around the vessel that act as a physical barrier and deterrent. If the ship looks like a fortress, pirates will have second thoughts. One must also make sure that any and all entry points are secured, which may even require the installation of bars and other obstacles for doors and portholes.

From a tactical point of view, you are in one of the most advantageous positions a man can be. You are located on the bridge wings of a huge ship that is not easily moved by the sea unless there is severe bad weather. The wings are often 20 or more meters above sea level, depending on the type of ship and whether it is loaded with cargo or or not, and are covered on three sides by metal plates and any additional protection the team adds—usually barrels of water or sandbags.

You are facing small crafts that will bounce up and down when facing the slightest ripple or wave, which doesn’t exactly enhance the pirates’ accuracy. This is pretty much why successful hijackings have dropped to zero since the implementation of armed guards became widespread. Somali pirates are not enemy soldiers. They are not trying to conquer the hill and they are not there to fight. They are the sea equivalent of a mugger. Their goal is to capture the ship in the easiest way possible and take the money. The presence of armed opponents upon one ship will make them give that one up and look for an easier target, usually after hearing the first couple of warning shots.

This does not mean they are not dangerous. There have been cases when, although the armed guards have fended off the pirates’ attempt to board in powerful ‘fuck you and your ship’ fashion, the Somalis unleashed their fury at their failure from a distance. Their fury comes in the form of 7.62x39mm rounds and RPGs.

Following the rules of engagement

Despite what you may have heard about international waters being the Wild West, maritime security teams have a very strict set of ROE that any wise team leader will stick to like it’s the word of God. After all, it is what keeps him and his team from ending up in a prison in places of the world where forced man-to-man love is the least of your worries.

This outcome is more likely than you may think. Imagine that you have an incoming skiff, and through your binoculars you see it carries ladders, weapons, the whole nine yards of piracy. To make things more interesting, they begin firing in the air. “Well, let’s shoot them!” one might rush to say. If you follow that impulse and wound one of them, what they’ll do next is drop anything that could brand them as pirates and hold on to the nets and the other fishing paraphernalia; they are mere fishermen, after all. Then they’ll wait for the warship patrolling the area, which will inevitably respond to your ship’s distress signal. If there are no visible signs of intent to commit piracy on their boat, you will have a hard time proving that they are pirates. Many teams bring cameras with them and mount Go-Pros on their helmets to have proof in questionable cases.

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There are minor exceptions to these rules, but for the most part, there is an ironclad process to address potential problems. First, you use the ship’s horns and you pump up the water hoses to let them know that they have being spotted. At the same time, the ship is making evasive maneuvers to move away from the coming skiff. Then come the flares. If everything to this point has failed and they continue their approach, then comes the warning shots. The only way you can skip all this process is if your life and the lives of your crew are in immediate danger, which is not normally the case; the pirates know you cannot fire unless you are fired upon and so they hold their fire.

Yours truly has never come face to face with the scourge of the high seas. Luck? Slow season? Who knows. Most of what I’ve shared here comes from doing the job and working with old timers in the business. That does not mean that I don’t have my share of stories of whiskey tango foxtrot moments or strange encounters.

One such moment came when we had just cleared off of the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea. At the starboard side of the ship was Eritrea, at the port side Yemen, and we were heading south towards Bab-el-Mandeb to enter the Gulf of Aden. I was up on the bridge, going through my normal routine: made coffee, took a look at the radar screen, and headed out to the starboard-side wing to glance through the binoculars.

A small black object that seemed out of place caught my attention. I returned to the radar to see if it was showing anything, but that side was clear. I went back outside to keep an eye on the spot, and within two minutes, it became evident that the object was the nose of a fast-moving, small boat. And by fast, I mean really fast. And it was headed directly toward our vessel. So I picked up my radio and called the rest of the team. In seconds, all three of us were on the bridge, vested, and holding our L1A1s—the semi-auto version of the ‘right-arm of the free world,’ the FN FAL.

At a distance of about 500 meters, we could make out that the vessel was a rigid-hulled inflatable boat with three people onboard, still coming fast toward us. No weapons were visible, so the only thing to do was observe and be ready for anything. At 200 meters, they slightly altered their course and passed at 30 meters from our bow. I stayed put and the TL went to the other side. After a while the whole thing was over. Who were these guys? Probably smugglers or spotters for pirates. A few moments of distress, and then everything went back to normal. But for the security team onboard, it is events like that one that justify their presence. Even if there is no attack, having security onboard acts as a deterrent and gives the crew the peace of mind to continue their daily work.

What does the future hold for the maritime-security industry? Well, the attacks have died down.  As a result, wages in the industry have diminished, forcing people with expertise to leave it in search of more profitable gigs in the private security sector. More likely than not, armed guards will continue their presence until Somalia is stabilized. That is the way of things in East Africa. Meanwhile, a new anti-piracy chapter is being written in the west, along the shores and rivers of Nigeria.

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