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Piracy 101: Technology Makes it Cheap and Easy

Thanks to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention, all, as in every one in the World, cargo ships over 300 tons engaged in international voyages and all passenger ships of any size engaged in international voyages must be equipped with an Automatic Identification System (AIS) tranceiver.  An AIS system continually broadcasts the identification, position, and course and speed of any ship so equipped.  Choke points around the world and the entrances to major ports all have Vessel Traffic Separation Schemes and VTS controllers who monitor and control traffic using AIS data.  All that data is on the open airwaves in the marine VHF spectrum.

So, if I’m an aspiring pirate, I have to locate ships worth pirating and it’s a big ocean.  So, I sit down at my computer and log on to West Marine or any one of the many marine “superstores” online.  I can get a very servicable GPS/chartplotter with comprehensive cartography for under US$1500.  I can get an AIS receiver for under US$1000.  The AIS talks to the chartplotter and right there in color on my screen is the icon for every AIS equipped ship in the area, its identification, and its course and speed.  All I have to do is move the cursor on my chartplotter over my target ship and the chartplotter will give me the course and time to interception at my current speed.  If I’ve spent another US$2000 or so for a decent marine radar, it will project the target’s course and calculate my interception course for me and allow me to see that big cargo or passenger vessel long before he can see me in a very low fiberglass skiff.  The radar does have the disadvantage of broadcasting and its signals can be picked up and identified by bad guys like the US Navy or overflying aircraft, so I’d want to make very sparing use of it, but I could safely figure that my radar would just get lost in the clutter of all the other marine radars in use in a crowded shipping lane.

So, here’s the business plan for Pirates ‘r Us: buy a thirty to forty foot open fiberglass skiff with big outboards for US$30K or so if new, much less if used or stolen; buy or steal some AK-47s which are a dime a dozen in the Third World, at most a few hundred dollars; rig up some boarding ladders and grappling hooks, open my UPS shipment from West Marine and install all my electronic goodies that I put on my Visa for at most US$3-4K; find some unemployed teenagers preferably high on kat and promise them fame and fortune; turn on all my electronic goodies and pick a ship.  Then I board the unarmed an unresisting ship and ransom it for millions of dollars.  I pay for all my stuff, pay my boys money the likes of which they’ve never seen before and put most of the ransom in my numbered Swiss bank account.  Beats working for a living!

Now the only thing wrong with that business model is it keeps me close to shore, say under 50 miles and certainly under 100.  It doesn’t  take the big ships long to figure out that they should stay well out to sea so I’m limited to targeting them only as they approach a port, but that makes me vulnerable to interception as well.  So, I hook up with some other pirates or with some “Big Man” and start working from a mother ship that can accomodate me, my crew, and my skiff well out to sea where the big, rich ships are.  Downside is, a ship that can do that is big enough and slow enough to be easily located by the navies or other law enforcement.  So, I have to hide in plain sight by using a fishing boat as the mother ship and make my pirate skiffs look like they’re net tending skiffs.  Unless I’m actually carrying hostages or contraband on my mother ship, it can be boarded and won’t be readily distinguishable from an honest fishing boat, especially if I take the trouble to put some fish and ice in the hold. 

So, that lays out the problem for navies and law enforcement.  Taking out the mother ships is the most effective and less belicose way of dealing with piracy and for that reason is preferable to attacking the home ports.  However, you have to catch them in the act or you’ll be accused, and may be guilty, of taking out innocent fishermen.

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