Swedish Club advises on piracy precautions, response

In a just published focus on piracy, Swedish Club has noted that a product tanker outside a West African port was attacked by pirates while awaiting berth. The laden product tanker was drifting 20 miles outside a West African port where they would discharge their cargo. Preventive measures had been ordered by the Master as per the Ship Security Plan because this was a known high-risk region.

The preparations

Two ABs were assigned to the poop deck and forecastle, with the additional requirement to monitor the main deck. The crew prepared the deck and attached a single coil of barbed wire on the poop deck, forecastle and on the railing around the vessel; they locked all doors and turned on all the outside lights. The Chief Officer noticed that a couple of lights were broken amidships and told the Bosun to repair them the next day.

The agent had called the Master and informed him that the berth would be occupied for another two days and would be in contact when the berth was ready. After midnight the Second Officer was on watch and was monitoring a dedicated VHF channel used by the local navy. The main engine was kept running so the vessel could manoeuvre instantly, and two ABs carried out regular patrols on deck.

The attack

Shortly after midnight a small boat slowly approached the vessel. It stopped amidships by the broken lights where the freeboard was only 2 metres. They put a ladder on the railing which had a carpet attached to protect them from the barbed wire and climbed on board. None of the ABs saw the small boat approaching. The boat did not give a stable echo reading on the radar as it was made of wood and the choppy sea interfered.

The five pirates who boarded were armed with machine guns. They made their way to the poop deck and surprised the AB on watch. The pirates demanded that the AB should take them to the bridge or they would kill him. The AB unlocked the door into the accommodation and led the pirates to the bridge. When the pirates had secured the bridge they asked for the Chief Engineer to be brought to the bridge. He was beaten when he arrived and told that he would be killed if he tried to sabotage the engine. The pirates said that any engineer would be killed if they tampered with the engines.

The Second Officer was told to show two of the pirates to the Master’s cabin and the other three remained on the bridge with an AB and the Chief Engineer.

The Master was woken, beaten and forced to open the safe and give all the money to the pirates. The Master was then taken to the bridge, by which time 10 more pirates had arrived.

A larger vessel was drifting alongside which looked like a fishing boat. One of the pirates identified himself as the leader and explained to the Master that all the crew should be summoned to the mess room. He said that if anyone resisted or tried to sabotage anything on the vessel, he would be killed.

All of the crew, except the Master, were placed in the mess room and their hands were tied. The Master remained on the bridge.

Although one of the Ship Security Alert System (SSAS) buttons was under a radar console, the Master was not close to it and was too scared to push it.

The pirates took control of the vessel and sailed it for 10 hours. They then stopped beside another smaller tanker. A ship-to-ship operation began. When the other tanker had been loaded it sailed off.

The pirates took the Master to the mess room and tied him to a chair. He finally freed himself and when he got to the bridge he realised that the pirates had left, because both pirate boats were gone. He called the office and informed them what had happened.

Advised preparations and responses

Swedish Club said that ships operating in the Gulf of Guinea area were strongly urged to plan according to the following

• Arrive at the Pilot Station, Port, Anchorage or STS Area ‘just in time’. Plan transit times with consideration to safe speed and maintaining distance offshore or use an offshore waiting area. Consider higher transit speeds where the risk/ threat assessment is high.

• Rendezvous – where possible, avoid waiting and slow steaming. Consider offering several alternative rendezvous points and advise rendezvous points at the last minute. If waiting, keep well off the coast (up to 200M). Do not give away waiting positions. Do not drift and keep engines ready for immediate manoeuvres

  • Vessels should proceed within the 200M range at full speed
  • Anchoring – where practicable, a prolonged stay at anchorage is to be avoided.
  • Minimize use of VHF and use e-mail or secure satellite telephone instead. Where possible, answer only known or legitimate callers on the VHF, bearing in mind that imposters are likely and may even appear in uniform.
  • The greatest risks of piracy are at night and these need to be factored into all planning. Where possible, operations should start and end during daylight hours.
  • The use of privately contracted armed guards on board is banned in Nigerian waters.
  • If using an armed escort, due diligence on the company providing this service must be conducted to ensure strict adherence to the MOU issued by the Nigerian Navy and Nigerian Maritime Administration & Safety Agency (NIMASA).
  • Shipowners and managers must have a means of verification that hardening measures are available and in place on vessels prior to entering the GoG area.
  • Spot checks for verification at ports within the GoG area are an additional option to consider.
  • Nigerian naval armed guards can protect merchant ships utilising patrol boats to escort ships in the region. • Maintain all-round visual lookouts & good radar watch.
  • Report to MDAT-GoG (the Maritime Domain Awareness for Trade – Gulf of Guinea, operated jointly by French and UK Navies); watchkeepers@mdat-gog.org and Emergency Tel: +33(0) 298 22 88 88.
  • The MDAT-GoG will liaise directly with the navies in the region in the event of an attack. If a ship does not report to the centre then there is likely to be a delay in the response from the regional navy. Alerts and warnings will be issued by MDAT GoG and they will also contact vessels in the immediate vicinity of an incident.

Dealing with journalists

Swedish Club noted that, if news of the incident found its way to journalists (the Club did not advise any pro-active release of the information to journalists), media interest was likely to be high. The Club said that the news might have been sourced from the Nigerian Navy, local agents, other vessels, the pirate gang themselves, or via loose talk from the crew – “not least on social media”.

Swedish Club said that any incident would add to the pattern of tanker product theft in the region. If and attack brings the total number of attacks to a numerical milestone (10, 50, 100) this would add to the interest from editors.

The Club recommended that the insured should:

  • Carry out immediate monitoring for social media chatter
  • Draft a holding statement
  • Establish close communications with the families of those on board and provide reassurance as to the steps that are being taken. “They must trust the company and not try to raise awareness of the incident by speaking to the media or politicians”.
  • Identify and prepare a company spokesperson
  • Consider internal communication to back office staff
  • When possible, the Master of the vessel should be briefed to deal with any media interest. The Club said that, as a publicity stunt, the Nigerian Navy had sometimes forcibly brought journalists on board merchant vessels to talk to the Captain.