Squeaking Through the Piracy Red Zone: Sailing the Gulf of Aden

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Cruising the Gulf of Aden, an area prone to piracy. The gunboat delivered the security team's luggage after we entered international waters. Photo by Carol L. Bowman
The gunboat delivered the security team’s luggage after we entered international waters. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

These no-nonsense sentries, posted starboard, port, aft and bow, never took their eyes from high-powered field glasses, scanning the horizon for any signs of fast moving skiffs with outboard motors.

The head of the security force, in a general briefing, described an attempted pirate attack on this vessel two years ago. The presence of armed defenders deterred the bandits’ pursuit with one warning shot. Pirates have little interest in kidnapping 600 people on cruise liners. Their goal has been to board, take temporary control of the bridge, strip well-heeled guests of valuables and cash, then leave.

The attempted Somalian pirate attack on the Seaborne Spirit in November 2005 had prompted the use of PPTs aboard passenger ships. The Quest cruise director, who had been working on the Spirit, recalled the incident.

The ship took incoming bullets and a rocket propelled grenade, fired directly into an outside stateroom. The captain maneuvered the ship to safety, but the Horn of Africa had earned the reputation of being one of the most precarious sea lanes in the world.

Our last port before heading into the troubled waters of the Gulf of Aden, Salalah, Oman, we stopped to buy some Frankincense. Photo by Carol L. Bowman Piracy Red Zone
Our last port before heading into the troubled waters of the Gulf of Aden, Salalah, Oman, we stopped to buy some Frankincense. Photo by Carol L. Bowman

After hearing these accounts, everyone on board understood that despite a 2016 low maritime threat assessment, piracy, although unlikely, persisted as a possibility. Guests participated in the drill instructions with respectful attention.

This was no joke. In the event of an imminent attack, the captain’s alert of code words, “Safe Haven” three times, would order all passengers and crew to proceed to the interior halls of the ship, and lay or sit on the floor. Throughout the Red Zone passage, black-out curtains in all ocean view staterooms had to remain closed and the ship “ran dark” at night with all exterior lights off, except for emergency exits.

Maritime officials had vented initial opposition of using armed security on commercial and passenger vessels sailing through the Gulf of Aden. But after payment of millions of dollars in ransom to release hijacked ships and crew and the knowledge that no navy military could provide 100 percent protection in these waters, resistance subsided.

Most shipping companies realized that since every single craft passing through this sea lane did so at risk, hiring PPTs far outweighed the financial and human loss of a pirate kidnapping gone bad. Ex-military, highly trained squads from the UK, the U.S., and Australia have reduced the commandeering of vessels in the Gulf of Aden.

The Quest, danger averted, sailed into the Red Sea. I sighed relief that we had the same Captain leaving the Red Zone as we had entering it.

Author’s Bio: After a life-long profession of treating the mentally ill at a PA psychiatric hospital for 33 years and also serving as its Director of Admissions, Carol retired to Lake Chapala, Mexico in 2006 with her husband, to pursue more positive passions. Her family thought that she, too, had ‘gone mad.’ She’s been teaching English to Mexican adults for ten years, in a program operated by volunteer expatriates and writing for local on-line and print publications. Using her adventures experienced during visits to over 80 countries to capture a niche in travel writing, Carol also dabbles in ‘memoir.’  A frequent contributor to Lake Chapala English magazine, “El Ojo del Lago,” she’s won several literary awards from that publication, including Best Feature in 2010 and Best Fiction in 2014. She also netted a story regarding her psychiatric field work in the published anthology, “Tales from the Couch.”