It was 2013 when I first set foot on one of the infamous floating armories on the Indian Ocean, and my experience on it was something to remember. It was around that time that maritime security companies started to rely more on floating armories to sidestep local laws and costs that land-based armories and hotels present. They started using these ships/armories to store weapons and as a place for guards to wait for the next transit.

In the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and in Fujairah, the waters are filled with various kinds of ships—from former Coast Guard vessels to tow boats—all packed with semi-auto rifles, level-4 vests, night-vision optics, and a bunch of maritime security guards.

When piracy was at its most prominent, the fears of such a vessel being captured by pirates, thus giving them access to modern weaponry and materials, were not groundless. Despite the presence of many guards on board, they weren’t armed; weapons are stored in containers, and you rely on the presence of one armed person on the bridge to keep you safe and to give early warning.

Sometimes they fail to do so, as was the case one night in Fujairah. A former Brit commando and I watched a small speedboat pass mere meters from our bow. I am sure the Indian guard and captain still remember the Brit reading them the riot act for their sloppiness in letting the boat get so close.

Today, with the all-out civil war in Yemen, the floating armories are threatened once again, as they present a lucrative target for the AQAP-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia that is in control of the Al Mukalla port—the smuggling hub between Yemen and Somalia. The capture of such a ship would mean access to weapons, armor, and hostages. The danger is real, as there are many levels of competence among the security teams aboard those ships, ranging from no experience at all and complete lack of training to U.S. and British veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Living aboard a floating armory

Life aboard the lower class of those ships is difficult. These are old ships that were simply repurposed. Any medical emergency can put your life in danger, given the distance to the shore and the fact that, unfortunately, there are companies that are reluctant to pay the fee to get you ashore.

I kid you not: A personal acquaintance of mine almost died. His error? Working for one of the worst Greek security companies. There are also other creatures living with you, from cockroaches to rats. One unlucky Brit was bitten in the balls and had to be airlifted out.

The food gives another meaning to the word exotic. In one case, the cook was dropping spices into the food by the bucket. With each bite, I felt like a fire-breathing dragon was waking up in my esophagus. I lost 10 kilos in 20 days there, simply because I couldn’t eat. Every time, my eyes would tear up—either from the heat of the food or from laughter as I watched the other guys trying to eat that firebomb and choking on it. The cook’s desserts were excellent, though!

Time goes by slowly on floating armories, waiting for the next transit to come along. Most people train—TRX bands are a hit in the Indian ocean—read, or simply sunbathe or surf the Internet, as the newest vessels have WiFi. If you end up on a ship that doesn’t, you’d better invest in a satellite phone. Of course, doing so is a risky investment; some countries nearby forbid their use, and you can easily lose it to an overzealous customs officer.

The weapons are divided into sets by the maritime companies, and each set usually has four or five large Pelican cases: two with weapons, two with gear, and one small one with the ammo. The number of weapons aboard floating armories vary depending on how many guards are on board, but there are also weapons for rent that belong to the company that owns the boat. Renting one’s kit is a common practice in the maritime security industry for various reasons. The company might be new and might not have yet bought what it needs, which is rare, or, usually, the company’s kits are simply elsewhere.

In my latest voyage on the Indian ocean, we stayed on one armory for a couple of hours because our contract was ending and we were bound for home. We stumbled upon three Americans counting inventory. They were members of the armory’s security team. In the open cases we glimpsed at least 50 almost-new S&W AR-15 variants; always a welcome sight, though I’ve never had the chance to use one in my contracting work. We were usually given AK variants or the FN-FAL’s semi-auto version, the L1A1.

Floating armories are on the fringe of the word ‘legality’, as they stay in international waters to avoid local gun laws. There is speculation that some might be used for weapon smuggling, and I can tell you that given the right (wrong) people on board and a vessel that is operating at the lowest standards, that could be a very possible scenario. India has the most concerns regarding such a scenario.

In a document submitted on 19 August, 2014, India said it stood “exposed and seriously threatened due to the presence of largely unregulated floating armories with large amounts of undeclared weapons and ammunition” and had seized floating armories that had drifted into their territorial waters and jailed the personnel on board, as in the case of MV Seaman Guard Ohio in 2013.

As long as the maritime security industry thrives, the presence of the floating armories will continue, as they offer an economic solution for the storage of weapons and equipment and the accommodation of guards. As is usually the case with human nature, the dangers they face will be considered more seriously in the unlucky event of the capture of one of those ships.

The lives of the guards on them will continue their monotonous rhythm until the maritime security industry gets expunged from East Africa. With Somalia not yet stabilized and Yemen in full-out war, that may take quite a few years.

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