The lure of the sea is a powerful one for commercial sailors. You get to see the world and the pay is relatively generous, especially if you're from a developing country. But then there are the pirates who see ships and the sailors on them as a means toward their own big payday.
"It's no more difficult than boarding a moving bus," says Vikas Kapoor, a former chief officer on a Hong Kongregistered container ship, of the frequent hijackings he witnessed and heard of in the Gulf of Aden during his stint onboard last year. "The pirates come at you firing rocket launchers. You can outpace them if you're a fast, high-decked container. Otherwise you'll have to slow down or risk being blown up. Then they'll bring out their ladders, climb onto your deck, guns in hand, and it's all over in seven to eight minutes." Describing the passage through pirate-infested waters, he adds, "Every few minutes there's a false alarm, and the stress levels are stratospheric. The 37 hours it took to transit the critical 10- to 12-mile stretch was the longest time of my life." (See pictures of Somali pirates.)
Despite the successful operation to free the captain of the Maersk Alabama last weekend, Somali pirates continue to hold 16 ships with a total of 282 crew members, according to the International Maritime Bureau's piracy-reporting center, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Filipinos comprise nearly half the captives; a majority of the rest are from India, with smaller numbers from other South and Southeast Asian countries. In all these countries, sailing is seen as a tough but lucrative profession that fetches handsome dollar incomes relative to the amount of education required. Even amid the present economic gloom, officers' salaries have not plunged due to a shortage of qualified people. Indians and Filipinos are most in demand on international vessels because they speak English. But many Indian seafarers are now refusing to do the Gulf of Aden run. "Sailors are very apprehensive, very jerky," says Sunil Nair, spokesman for the Mumbai-based National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI), which has some 80,000 members. He says that since the spate of hijackings last year when there were 72 attacks and 52 hijackings more sailors who switch companies are trying to "join ones that don't do that run." (See pictures of dramatic rescues of pirate-hostages.)
India sends out more than 120,000 seafarers and Indian industry has $250 billion worth of merchandise going back and forth through the Suez Canal every year. The route is also critical to India for its energy security. Though no Indian-flagged vessel has been taken hostage lately, India has been on the forefront in dealing with hostage situations off the Somali coast, particularly after the Hong Kongregistered MT Stolt Valor was hijacked in September of last year along with its crew of 22, including 18 Indians. The wife of the ship's Indian captain, Seema Goyal, waged a high-profile battle with the help of the media and the NUSI until the hostages were freed two months later. "I knew I would have to create pressure to get the government to act," says Goyal. "Otherwise, who cares about sailors from Asian countries?" (See more pictures of the brazen pirates of Somalia.)
The approach worked. The Indian authorities "facilitated" negotiations between the pirates and the ship's owners, and the crew was released for an undisclosed ransom, believed to be much lower than the $6 million the pirates had initially demanded. At the same time, the Indian navy sent a warship, the INS Tabar, to the Gulf of Aden for the first time deploying a warship in an offensive role in international waters. For close to 20 days, the INS Tabar escorted some 35 ships to safety, including non-Indian-flagged vessels, but it accidentally shot down a hijacked Thai trawler that it mistook for a pirate mother ship. The INS Tabar was replaced by the INS Mysore, which went on to repulse two pirate attacks and arrest 23 suspected pirates, including 11 Yemenis, who were handed over to Yemeni authorities. (See the top 10 audacious acts of piracy.)
India has been able to benefit from its large and well-armed navy, but not all Asian countries have such military capability. Though nearly half the hostages held by Somali pirates are Filipino, the Philippine government has been unable to influence ship owners to negotiate ransoms or take military action. The International Seafarers Action Center (ISAC) in the Philippines says 122 Filipino seafarers are currently being held captive, which includes the 23 onboard the MV Stolt Strength, a Japanese-owned chemical tanker that was hijacked on Nov. 10 last year. ISAC secretary-general Joseph Entero says the ship's owner is unwilling to pay ransom, the hostages' families are being given little information, and the government is not doing enough. "[The government calls] our overseas workers the modern-day heroes of the Philippines because of the remittances they send home," he says. "But the help the seafarers are getting from the government is not adequate." Entero says the government should take more action on a multinational level. "Why, if the seafarers involved whites Americans or Europeans they are easily released in a few days' or weeks' time? But when it involves Filipinos, it takes them a long time," he says, referring to the dramatic rescue of the Danish-operated Maersk Alabama and its American captain, Richard Phillips, by the U.S.S. Bainbridge on Sunday.
But with the Obama Administration's newfound determination to tackle piracy in the Gulf of Aden, many people expect things to improve. "This is definitely good news," says Goyal. "Hopefully someone will come to the rescue of poor countries' sailors." On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced steps including tracking and freezing assets of pirate gangs, and pressing Somali authorities to shut down pirate land bases, while also calling for a greater global response to secure the release of ships still held in the region. So far, there is little coordination between the various navies patrolling the area, which now include NATO, French, British, U.S., Chinese, South Korean, Singaporean and Russian navies. "Collaboration among countries takes time; it doesn't happen overnight. It takes time to build up the relationship, the trust," says Toong Kaleong, senior manager of operations and programs with the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia.
While international attention was riveted on the Gulf of Aden, a Singapore-registered tugboat in the South China Sea was attacked by pirates on April 7, a reminder that piracy is happening elsewhere in the world as well, underlining the need for a global response. "An American captain freed is a good example," says Nair of NUSI. "But if it remains an isolated, incidental event, it will mean nothing. Now the Somali pirates have threatened revenge; they may become more active."
That kind of terrorism may be turning many would-be sailors away from a lucrative career. After 13 years and three trips back and forth across the notorious Gulf of Aden during his last stint onboard, Vikas Kapoor quit the merchant navy last year. "It's anyway a hazardous profession, what with rough seas and accidents and homicide. Now this piracy and criminalization of sea lanes ..." he says, adding, "It's crazy out there. There'll be hundreds of big and small boats, and it's impossible to tell who's a pirate and who isn't."
With reporting by Kayla Webley / Hong Kong