Engineering News

Pirates Snatch Supertanker, Crew, $100M In Oil
November 18, 2008

The U.S. Navy said pirates commandeered a Saudi-owned supertanker bearing more than $100 million worth of crude a few hundred miles off the Kenyan coast, an attack that sharply increases the stakes in an effort by governments and militaries to protect the world's energy-supply lines.

U.S. Navy officials said the hijacking was unprecedented for its distance from shore and the size of its target -- a ship about the length of a U.S. aircraft carrier. The attack appears also to be the first significant disruption of crude shipments in the region by pirates.

Highly organized seaborne gangs, boarding huge ships by flinging grappling hooks from tiny, high-speed motor boats, have significantly stepped up attacks against merchant shipping along the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden in recent months. The surge has turned the area into one of the most dangerous passages in the world for sea captains.

In Washington, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he was "stunned" at the circumstances of the latest seizure. "Certainly we've seen an extraordinary rise" in attacks, he said. "I am extremely concerned by the overall number."

Pirates off the Somalia coast have attacked 26 vessels and taken hostage 537 crew members in the three months ended Sept. 30, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a maritime-crimes watchdog. They have raked in an estimated $18 million to $30 million in ransom so far this year, according to a report last month by Chatham House, a London-based think tank -- a figure that may be driving the upsurge in attacks.

To try to clamp down, this summer the United Nations authorized international naval vessels to enter the sovereign waters of Somalia -- where the government is all but defunct -- in pursuit of pirates. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet set up a special patrol area, monitored by American and other naval vessels and aircraft. But the area under threat is vast, estimated by the Navy at 1.1 million square miles, or four times the size of Texas.

As world oil prices soared in recent years, Western policy makers and military strategists have grappled with how best to ensure the flow of oil from places where it's pumped to places where it's used.

Russia has in the past shown a willingness to brandish its natural-gas reserves as a weapon, shutting off its spigot from time to time, and new threats have emerged amid the energy-price spike of recent years. Rebels in Nigeria have shut a large swath of that country's oil fields. Terrorists have targeted oil installations in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Until now, few energy analysts worried much about pirates on the high seas. But as much as half of the world's daily crude consumption is transported to market aboard ships, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The oil industry relies heavily on shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden, which lies between Yemen and Somalia and connects the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean. It is an important energy corridor, especially for Persian Gulf oil heading west through the Suez Canal. Ships laden with some 3.3 million barrels of crude -- almost 4% of daily global demand -- move through the waters each day, according to Department of Energy estimates.

Still, sharply falling oil prices have provided some cushion. News of the attack against the Saudi tanker -- capable of carrying 2 million barrels of crude, or some 2.3% of daily global consumption -- didn't rattle markets appreciably. U.S. benchmark crude settled at $54.95 a barrel, a 22-month low, on the New York Mercantile Exchange, down $2.09 or 3.7%. In recent weeks, prices have fallen from record highs above $140 a barrel this summer.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet said Monday in a release that pirates attacked the Sirius Star, a Liberian-flagged crude tanker owned by Saudi Aramco, the kingdom's state oil company, and operated by Vela International, an Aramco subsidiary. It said the ship had a crew of 25, including citizens of Croatia, the U.K., the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia. The British foreign office confirmed to reporters Monday that two British nationals were aboard the ship.

Vela said in a statement posted late Monday on its Web site that the vessel was fully laden and all crew members were believed to be safe. Aramco representatives weren't available for comment. The Saudi ship -- at more than 300,000 gross tons -- is three times the tonnage of a U.S. aircraft carrier.

The Navy said the attack took place Saturday, more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya. That is significantly farther south in the Indian Ocean than the majority of recent attacks.

The Navy said it isn't pursuing the tanker, but has a number of means to track it. Cmdr. Jane Campbell, the public affairs officer for the Fifth Fleet, said all indications are that the vessel was heading to the port of Eyl, in the northern Puntland region of Somalia and a well-known pirate's haven. Cmdr. Campbell said it wasn't the Navy's policy to intervene at this stage because the seizure is "now a hostage situation."

In a warning to mariners in late August, the IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre described three large "mother ships" -- two Russian-made stern trawlers and a tugboat -- that officials suspected were coordinating at least some of the recent attacks. Pirates based on such "mother ships" have typically targeted slow-moving vessels, which are difficult to maneuver. Working in small, fast boats, they typically speed up alongside target ships, fire on them with small arms and then board them with simple ladders and grappling hooks.

Most big merchant ships don't carry large security details, if any. And most captains don't put up much of a fight when fired upon.

But some do. According to one situation report posted by the IMB, a chemical tanker earlier this month came under attack from pirates and successfully fought them off. While under way, the ship sighted what it thought was a fishing boat. But a second boat, hidden behind the fishing boat, came into view and approached the tanker at high speed.

The ship's crew reported seeing five men armed with automatic weapons in the boat, according to the report. The pirates opened fire on the tanker, but the tanker's crew released foam through fire hoses. The foam covered the water on both sides of the tanker, prohibiting the boat from closing in. The pirates stopped firing and returned to the fishing boat.

Many ships aren't so lucky. A handful of ships remain in pirates' hands along the Somalia coast. They are typically taken to port or anchorages near shoreline controlled by pirate gangs. In late September, pirates made a splash by commandeering the Faina, a cargo ship laden with Ukrainian tanks and other arms. That ship remains at anchor as pirates negotiate with the ship's owner over a ransom.

Pirates and officials involved in various skirmishes over recent months have reported some deaths of pirates and of crew members of targeted ships in pirates' initial attacks, though it's difficult to confirm fatalities. The British military told reporters last week that two suspected pirates had been killed when British and Russian sailors thwarted an attempted attack on a Danish vessel.

Pirates have long plied the waters along the southeastern coast of Somalia, which for years has lacked a functioning central government. But this spring and summer, bands of well-trained Somali pirates moved north into the Gulf of Aden and farther from shore into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, and have gone after bigger ships.

The U.S. Navy said despite the Saudi attack, stepped-up maritime patrols have helped bring down the incidence of successful pirate attacks. But insurance rates for ships passing through the Gulf of Aden have increased because of the attacks. Some ship owners have abandoned voyages or rerouted ships.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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