In Straits of Mallaca

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 2, 2009

John Nelson at the controls of “Marie.”

(Publisher’s note: As a merchant seaman from 1961 until 1999, John Nelson sailed the world’s seas as a marine engineer. More recently, he has worked as a shipyard superintendent in a Boston shipyard, commuting from his Chapeltown home in Panola County. In his spare time, he is, among other pursuits, building a railroad.)

By John Nelson

Until recently, it was only those earning their living on the high seas that were aware of the fact that piracy was still one of the perils of their profession. Most landsmen assumed that the practice had died out with Long John Silver and was only the stuff of historical books and movies.

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The enterprising lads off the coast of Somalia have put the old profession back on the front pages, and now everyone knows that piracy is alive and well in the 21st Century. You know these modern buccaneers have gone big time when their ransom demands are relayed through a “spokesman for the pirates.”  

Though very successful in his day, I don’t think Blackbeard ever had a press secretary.

It’s certainly significant that this month’s issue of the “Naval Institute Proceedings” features articles about piracy and of course focuses on the present state of affairs off Somalia. Will conditions off East Africa pull our Navy into its most concentrated effort against piracy since our young nation went to war against the Barbary Pirates of North Africa? If the details of that 1801-05 conflict have been forgotten, most Americans are at least aware of the reference to “the shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Corps hymn.

Piracy has never been eradicated because the conditions that make it profitable always exist in some part of the world. A key condition is a poor local economy that offers few job opportunities and thus provides willing recruits with maritime skills. Piracy also requires secure bases and some outside support such as the cooperation of local authorities and the complicity of merchants in marketing stolen goods. Such conditions readily exist in failed states or in nations with remote regions outside central control.

For piracy to really thrive, these conditions have to exist in locations where world shipping routes come together in choke points that provide a constant supply of unarmed merchant ships. Before the Somali freeboaters stole the spotlight, the Straight of Malacca, that narrow channel between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, held the distinction of being the most pirate-infested waterway of modern times. It was there that some years ago friends of mine had a brush with pirates.

At the time of the First Gulf War, I was chief engineer on a ship based in Diego Garcia as part of a five-ship squadron loaded with all the necessary military equipment to support a Marine Expeditionary Force for 30 days. After unloading that equipment during the military buildup called Desert Shield as the U.S. prepared to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, our ships spent the next months shuttling materials to keep the invasion force supplied. When the conflict ended, the five ships were reloaded, and we made our way individually back to our little island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

One of our sister ships stopped in Singapore for supplies and some minor repairs before continuing through the Straight of Malacca into the Indian Ocean. The captain was well aware of the pirate threat and posted watches as the ship transited the channel. The crew had a reason to feel secure since a contingent of marines happened to be on board for the passage back to Diego Garcia. The ship made an uneventful passage through the straight, and then 30 miles from land the watches were terminated as all agreed they were out of pirate reach. All agreed, that is, except for the pirates.

After a long day, most crewmen were in their bunks except watch standers on the bridge and in the engine room when pirates climbed on board around 2 a.m.

Barefooted men armed with knives and machetes happened upon my friend Tommy, the chief mate, as he was returning to his stateroom. They forced him to take them up one deck to gain access to the captain’s room where they had no doubt believed valuable booty could be found. His passkey could not open the captain’s door, and he explained to them that it was bolted from the inside.

They then took Tommy back down to his room, bound him to his office chair, and ransacked his room for any valuables before moving on in search of other victims. Though tied to his chair with his hands behind his back, he had the presence of mind to bounce his chair over to the desk where his radio was secured in a belt clip. Somehow, he was able to get it positioned so that he could press the transmit key with his chin and alert the bridge to the danger.

No one was ever certain whether the pirates were already making their way back to their boat when the general alarm sounded, or whether the ensuing commotion forced their hasty exit.

The men first on scene reported a small boat rapidly disappearing astern as others untied the shaken mate.

As pirate incidents go, it was a rather minor one. Though quite resolute in their determination to strike so far offshore, the perpetrators were too few in number and too poorly armed to really threaten the takeover of the ship. Before it was all but forgotten, some of us would occasionally have a laugh as we pictured our securely-bound friend operating his radio with his face. But Tommy has never forgotten it and has never seen the humor in it.