The Danica White and The Pirates – All That Was Missing Was A Welcome Mat

December 12, 2007

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.

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Danica White

August 29, 2007

As this is being written, the Danish cargo ship Danica White is on her way home under the watchful eye of a United States warship. Some might say better late than never.

She and her crew have been held in an unknown location in Somalia for more than 40 days. They’ve been released for a reported $1m in a deal certainly brokered by a specialist in K&R, kidnap and ransom.

But the Danica White incident isn’t over for the men who endured the daily threat and terror of being hostages. Some will be able to put the experience behind them, for others it will affect their relationships with their families and friends, their ability to work and their self-respect. Even those who appear at first to put the experience behind them may find it coming back to haunt them in unexpected and psychologically devastating ways.

 At this moment, the formal infrastructure does not exist to help these men. They will need counselling.

The Danica White incident will not fade from the headlines. It was never there in the first place. An English newspaperman, in the days of empire, said that one Englishman is news, six Frenchmen are news, one hundred Indians is news, but nothing ever happens in Chile. Today, every seafarer is Chilean.

However, it will be long, long day before piracy is featured on Fox News or CNN. In a sense, the news organisations, and I hate to say it, are complicit in piracy by forgetting to tell their viewers and listeners how much it costs them.

One cannot blame the media, after all, the media is reactive, not pro-active. If the industry itself stopped treating piracy as a dirty little secret, like an illegitimate son, then the rest of the world might take more interest.

When the Danica White was seized in international waters by a number of well-armed pirates operating three fast boats from a mother ship, the US navy gave chase. It gave up the chase when the pirates drove the vessel into Somali territorial waters. The warship’s terms of engagement were such that unless American lives or interests were at stake it could not continue.

Yet American interests were, and are at stake in the waters around the Somali coast. Indeed, the oil supplies of every OECD country are at stake. Yet every one lacks the political will, the courage, the cojones, to insist forcefully that the piracy be ended.

And there’s little point on making that insistence known to the Somali authorities. Somalia is a non-country with a central government that has no military force and little control beyond the doormat to its presidential palace. There are no sanctions that can be applied that could do any more damage to Somalia than its already sad history has done to its people for many years.

It has been suggested that some form of aid can be applied to wean Somali pirates away from their iniquity. But it is the warlords who rule Somalia who operate the well funded and well-organised piracy system, men with such power in their hands over the Somali people that any aid funding would go into their own pockets, and their greed is such they would still retain the power to send their subalterns to sea to terrorise ships.

One maritime website has suggested that ship’s officers should go around armed. It’s hard to conceive of any weaponry a ship’s officer could use against missiles with a range of 3,000 yards or 50 calibre cannon that can put a hole through the hull from a mile off. Rambo does not belong on a ship’s bridge.

There is certainly a need for anti-piracy training for seafarers, to identify threat before it becomes a threat and take appropriate action. Sadly, there should also be training and preparation for what to do, how to act, and how to stay alive once the pirates have control of the vessel.

And it has to be said that if a tiny fraction of the technology used in Iraq was applied to the Somali coastline and the adjacent waters the interests of America, the developed world and, more importantly, the seafarer would be better served.

Recently, and much belatedly, but not unexpectedly in an organisation not known for being fast on its feet, the IMO, supported by other maritime organisations,  has expressed to the United Nations an immediate need to resolve the piracy problem around Somalia.

As it happens, having been born in a Europe just out of a devastating conflict, and having lived under the constant threat of nuclear war between two countries, neither of which was mine and in neither of which did I have any representation, I’m a supporter of the United Nations. Yes, it has made great mistakes born of lax backbone, not least in the Rwanda conflict, yet it has also supported, for instance, the allied incursion into Afghanistan following 9/11. As history has shown, its caution over incursion into Iraq was sadly well-founded.

Somalia is incapable of reigning in the pirates ruled by its warlords, as Afghanistan was incapable of reigning in Al Queida.

Piracy will not be resolved, and seafarers will not be defended, by packing six-guns on the bridge. It will be resolved when the UN has the cojones.  It has shown such political courage before, and it’s time to show it again.