It's a Risky World


I’ve been thinking about maritime security recently. I wrote about it some time ago with the help of a former commander of a U.S. Navy SEAL Team, an expert on all matters of security, maritime and elsewhere. The article was apparently valued enough to be listed as a reference by the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre, based in Kuala Lumpur. And questions regarding firearms aboard and staying safe while cruising keep popping up in the forums so they will be future topics on FollowingSeas.

BTW, I recently created a FollowingSeas Facebook Group so reasonable dialog and thoughtful conversation can take place on these and many subjects, moderated by me to avoid the Wild West banter so common on social media.

I just heard about two incidents that bring this topic into focus, out of the hypothetical and into the real world. Here they are.

Pirate Attack

Last week I read about an Australian family on the verge of being attacked by pirates off Yemen. Pirate skiffs, perhaps operating from a mothership, approached their sailing catamaran, and maneuvered for awhile to position themselves for a boarding attack. The couple, with their two young children, were completely defenseless.


The wife made a frantic mayday call on their VHF that they were under imminent attack. Luckily, the call for help was heard on the bridge of a commercial ship, who passed the call on to military warships patrolling the area, known as the International Recommended Transit Corridor because of the high number of pirate attacks.

A Japanese warship radioed the couple directly that a helicopter was on its way to their position. Running low on diesel, the family was out of options. The Skyhawk MH-60 soon arrived overhead but that only seemed to quicken the pace of the pirates’ tactics and the helicopter pilot radioed, “Three skiffs on fast approach!”


As I understand the events as reported, there were only a couple of minutes before things would go from bad to worse. Pirates attacking private yachts on the high seas is dangerous stuff, and the results are always unpleasant...or worse.

What apparently saved the family from harm was the almost simultaneous sighting of two large warships on the horizon, moving fast, as the pirates closed in. One was Japanese Navy, the other Pakistani Navy. Knowing their chances of successfully pulling off an attack was now seriously compromised, the pirates at the last moment backed off and sped away without firing a shot.

At first blush, one might question why the skiffs were not immediately pursued and blasted to bits by the many weapons systems of these warships. However, there is this thing called Rules of Engagement (ROE). As no pirate shots were fired from AK-47s, the warships are not allowed to pursue and engage the marauders.

There remains a sticky, international partnership among countries that try to work together in counter-piracy endeavors, although each is bound to follow its country’s own interpretation of law. And what do they do with captured pirates? International law hasn’t settled that one yet.

Here are some relevant statements reported in a Case Western Journal of International Law,

“General international law requires that ‘the use of force must be avoided as far as possible and, where force is unavoidable, it must not go beyond what is reasonable and necessary in the circumstances.’

“In the context of counter-piracy operations, coordination and common understandings of ROE are relevant not only in the use of force arena, but also with regard to detention and prosecutions. However, the lack of such authority or agreements can lead to situations where captured pirates are simply released because there is no mechanism or plan for handling the post-operation process.

“Some even argue that warships should not capture pirates at all, to avoid such problems.”

Unnecessary loss of life is a goal of these operations, but consider another scenario, which somewhat supports the reluctance to add more fire to these Rules of Engagement.

It is not uncommon for the same kind of skiff, common in the area, to appear out of nowhere and approach a private yacht in open water. Most often, the boat is out fishing and the simple fishermen see an opportunity to sell some of their catch to those aboard the yacht. Think of the tragedy it would be if a nervous, trigger-happy yachtsman pulled out a firearm and start shooting under the wrong assumption of intentions.

While it may be hard to accept the fact that the navies of the world are bound to not do anything until the bad guys start being bad, but the alternative is not good either. Protecting innocent lives is the goal.

Scary Situation

Another incident I just heard about last week has a different but no less disturbing twist. A couple from Annapolis were sailing around the world on their J/42 sailboat with two young sons. They were 750 miles west of Australia and 250 miles south of Java, headed to Christmas Island. In other words, they were well offshore in the Indian Ocean.

During a night watch, Heather Wilson noticed a boat behind them on radar, following the sailboat as it continued west. What was odd was she could see no lights, nothing visible at all.

When her husband, Jim, took over the helm, he too kept an eye behind the boat. Around 7am he saw it was a big wood boat of some kind, filled with men. He counted 28 men on the boat. As it got even closer to the sailboat, the men on the mystery vessel started screaming and shouting, waving their arms.

It terrified the family.

The wood boat closed on the sailboat and when it was 20 feet away, it veered to one side to come alongside, and some of the men jumped off the launch and tried to swim and board the sailboat. Jim kept turning away from the wood boat and the men in the water, as the men on the junk-looking vessel continued to scream and wave frantically.

Jim instructed his oldest son to take the wheel with orders to keep their boat away from the launch, now spewing thick black smoke, trying to get close enough to cature the J/42. It was slightly faster than the sailboat, so it was only a matter of time before they would be alongside.

Jim then frantically called the Australian Customs office on his sat phone, as he just happened to have the phone number at his chart table. After a brief conversation, he was soon speaking to a military officer in a combat situation room in Canberra, some 3,000 miles away in Australia. An Australian Navy warship was immediately contacted. The captain of the HMAS Maryborough soon called Jim on the sat phone and told him the ship was proceeding at full speed and that a RAAF AP-3 Orion aircraft had been diverted to their location. The warship would be there in a matter of hours.

Knowing that help was on its way, Jim returned to the helm, and steered his boat closer to the overloaded craft to begin a dialog with a man who did not speak very good English. Jim could now see these were not pirates, but desperate refugees in a leaky wood boat. Bilge pumps, running off the engine, were working at full capacity, and the boat was going to sink when the fuel ran out. The men and women on this boat were beyond desperate.

Jim explained as best he could that he had contacted the Australian Navy and a ship was on its way. When the crazed refugees understood that help was coming, they started screaming whatever phrases of English they knew, such as “I Love America!” and “God Bless You!” The Wilsons continued to circle the unseaworthy refugee boat until the Maryborough arrived on the scene a couple of hours later.

HMAS Maryborough.jpg

The 186-foot, Armidale-class patrol boat quickly launched its small boats and its crew evacuated an amazing 150 people off the leaking tub, including a baby born on the trip. Once the family arrived at Christmas Island, the Wilsons learned the refugees were from Iraq and Iran, and each paid the equivalent of $7,000 for passage to Australia.

These people never would have made it. And had the refugees taken over the sailboat, there is no way all 150 men, women, and children could possibly fit on a J/42. It too would have been a disaster.

So it is safe to say that on this day in the Indian Ocean, an Annapolis family of four probably saved the lives of 150 people, being in the right place and time to make the essential satellite connection with the Australian Navy, who handled the entire affair with superb competence and professionalism. Heather and Jim Wilson have nothing but praise for how outstanding the Australian Customs and Navy reacted to the emergency, whether it was piracy or something else, and took charge of the situation immediately and without an ounce of bureaucracy.

Thanks to them, the story has a happy ending. Bravo Zulu!

The RAAF AP-3 Orion is responsible for maritime surveillance and search and rescue. No. 92 Wing is based at RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia.

The RAAF AP-3 Orion is responsible for maritime surveillance and search and rescue. No. 92 Wing is based at RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia.

(One side note added a positive and personal element to this high seas drama. The pilot of the RAAF reconnaissance aircraft, circling overhead during the operation, later called the sailboat on the VHF radio. He said his crew took some great photos of the sailboat. If they would give him an email address, he would send them along when he landed. How awesome was that?!?)

It’s a dangerous and unsettled world out there, and recent comments by Scott Flanders, an accomplished circumnavigator, are probably right. Perhaps the traditional idea of a circumnavigation has become too risky. Modern technology gives pirates (and terrorists) too many ways to avoid detection while planning successful attacks.

Maybe we no longer need to go all around the world. Perhaps we can create different ways to explore the great places in the world we want to experience. At the very least, we need to find different routes to avoid what have become unsafe waters.

French yacht seized by pirates in 2009. Image: AP Photo/ECPAD-French Defense Ministry

French yacht seized by pirates in 2009. Image: AP Photo/ECPAD-French Defense Ministry