About the only thing the master and crew of the Danica White did right 205 miles off the Somali coast on the morning of 1st June, 2007, was to do what the pirates told them, according to the just-released English version of the official Danish Maritime Authority report . That might seem unremarkable since they were faced with fifteen pirates armed with machineguns, but it’s difficult to know how an individual will react under threat.
The report itself is remarkable. It’s the first time to my knowledge that such a report has been made public. Usually they remain confidential, presumably in the hope that pirates won’t get information that they clearly already know. The DMA took the wiser course.
The report makes for sad reading. The Danica White was a sitting duck largely because it chose to be.
It hardly matters that the master was apparently unaware of the MARLO Bahrain recommendation to stay more than 200 miles off the Somali Coast, or that he was unaware that the charterer had insisted that the ship keep more than 200 miles off the coast when he drew up his original passage plan, which would have kept the ship 150 miles off the coast. The company did eventually tell him to keep the 200 miles limit, but there were no specific instructions regarding piracy this time around.
All the same, the master was confident that the vessel was safe from pirates that far out. It wasn’t.
An intriguing detail is that at 1800 the previous day a vessel appeared on the Danica White’s AIS screen as a 220 metre long Pilot ship with a fishing licence suposed called Nautica something. It was sailing in the opposite direction at about 2 nm. The master saw the ship and estimated its length at less than 100 metres. The master thought it ‘looked odd’, it was odd enough to cause comment among the crew.
It doesn’t take rocket science to configure an AIS with false information and one is tempted to speculate that it might, in fact, have been the mothership which is known to tow the smaller, faster pirate boats into position.
With hindsight, the Danica White’s officers may wish they’d sent a query to the IMB’s piracy reporting centre. With foresight, the next officers to see a vessel whose appearance doesn’t match its AIS desription will do so.
The Danica White’s stern freeboard was just half a metre to a metre. As far as the pirates were concerned all that was missing was a welcome mat. They hardly needed the hooked ladder with which they boarded the unsuspecting vessel from their three fibreglass boats.
Had there been a lookout or two posted, the approaching pirates would have been seen around a half hour before they boarded. The navigator was the sole lookout because the crew had decided that they didn’t want to carry out lookout duties and the master wasn’t inclined to argue with them.
That lack of discipline handed the Danica White to the pirates and earned its crew a lengthy stay as guests of the Mogadishu Mafia at a room rate of $1.5 million.
At the time, the Danica White was making about 5 knots. Had the pirates been spotted she could not have outrun them. All the same, pirates have been consistently reluctant to attempt to board ships which exhibit an alert crew and it would have given more time to send an alert for assistance. With that extra time, forces like those of the US Navy coul;d possibly have intervened earlier and more effectively.
Once the master realised the ship had been boarded he set of the ship’s Ship Security Alert System. SSAS. He believed it had worked, but no signal was sent. He wasn’t familiar with the system operation and its unclear what went wrong. The system had been successfully tested the previous March, and was found working after the ship’s release in August.
The SSAS system is activated from the bridge and at least one other place within the ship, and every crewmember should know where and how it is activated. Two of the crew locked themselves in the engine room but didn’t think about activating the SSAS and one of them didn’t even know where it was.
So it was that the situation wasn’t known until the next day when an American warship queried the shipping company whether the Danica White was actually supposed to be heading for Mogadishu. Getting a negative, it set off in pursuit but called it off after sinking the three pirate boats because the Danica White had entered Somali waters.
Piracy isn’t going to go away anytime this century so when near pirate waters keep a lookout, especially at the pirate’s favourite boarding point, the stern. If unknown vessels approach or behave suspiciously get the crew on deck, show they’re alert, lay out high pressure hoses, and alert the appropriate folk, including the IMB’s piracy centre immediately. Make sure every member of crew, including you, knows how and where to activate the SSAS and when and activate it when necessary – you’ll have time to cancel it if it proves to be a false alarm.
You can read the Danica White report, in English and Danish, here.