Sea change for piracy

Pictures:Bill Johnson. Blackpool and the Fylde College Fleetwood Nautical Campus.
Pictures:Bill Johnson. Blackpool and the Fylde College Fleetwood Nautical Campus.
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The only vessels within the exclusion zone – about half a nautical mile away – is Knott End ferry... and the highly polished posh yachts berthed at the nearby marina.

No pirates to be seen, unless you count Pirates of the Caribbean costumes on sale for Christmas parties.

But pirates are closing fast in a reconstruction of what happens out in the Indian Ocean on a frighteningly frequent basis.

It’s action stations on the bridge of a simulated vessel under attack at Fleetwood Nautical College. We’re a long way from Somalia’s coast where the threat is relentless, ruthless and rising, with British vessels individual sea farers and even tourists held to ransom.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, attacks by Somali pirates reached a record 199 in the first nine months of this year, compared to 126 for the same period last year.

British vessels are seen as sitting ducks by some – in spite of UK armed forces action in the Indian Ocean. Some already carry unauthorised armed protection.

The local college had put piracy on the curriculum ahead of David Cameron’s announcement this week that British-flagged vessels will be able to carry armed guards to protect them.

The breakthrough has been cautiously welcomed by mariners union Nautilus International, which represents 22,000 ship masters, officers and other staff. The Chamber of Shipping also says that armed security is a “last resort” forced “out of necessity, not principle or by choice.”

Many believe the use of arms runs counter to civilian shipping traditions and may lead to further violence in piracy high-risk areas.

Blackpool and The Fylde College’s nautical campus, which delivers specialist Merchant Navy training, has been training ex-military personnel in weapons management and other areas for the past two months.

John Matthews, head of the nautical college, explains: “British ships were at serious risk as many other nations were allowed to carry protection officers. There are dozens being held captive right now in poor conditions and it’s about time something firm was done about it.

“Our specialist courses incorporate knowledge and tactics for protecting ships and deterring attack – we train our protection officers to use lethal answers as a last resort.”

The next course starts in December. Recruits are hand-picked by private security specialists working for shipping lines.

One such sea marshal, Lea Balmforth, asked the college to help bridge gaps in training of ship security and protection officers.

Young cadets funded by commercial shipping lines, embarking on the first stage of a career at sea, or older timers, ships masters brushing up their skills, say it’s easy to spot the would-be protection officers.

They are the ones you would allow to queue jump you for coffee at the college refectory and want on your side in any showdown at sea.

Former ship’s master Tony Dumbell started out as a cadet here in 1972, returned as a lecturer 18 years ago, and now heads maritime operations.

He says students are aged from 16 to 60 plus, but would be protection officers stand out. “Mostly ex-military, Marines, men you would want protecting our vessels.

The college has morphed beyond recognition when it comes to offering courses to meet modern needs.”

Protection officer courses don’t feature firearms training but offer basic training, first aid, survival, communications, along with risk assessment and counter measures within a six-mile exclusion zone, from closing hatches, raising the alarm, removing inessential personnel to a safe zone, deploying electric fences, acoustics, lights, visual deterrents, and issuing weaponry. One key component is the establishment of a “citadel,” a safe haven, deep within the ship, from where the engines can be shut down, and the security operation planned.

They also learn to second guess elements which predispose pirates to strike, a ship fully laden is low in the water and therefore easier to board. Pirates, many of them former fishermen fallen on harder times, once favoured short hit and run raids close to the coast around the Horn of Africa, targeting private yachts, smaller vessels as soft targets for valuables and ransom. Ex-military have since teamed up with insurers to offer specialist advice and action in the event of tourists being taken hostage.

But richer pickings come with bigger ships, worth £5m to £10m.

Extremist factions finance some of the more organised rather than opportunistic pirates, using captured ships as Trojan horses or to carry skiffs out to attack vulnerable vessels with rocket propelled grenades.

Tony concludes: “It’s extended the pirates range to 1,500 nautical miles off the coast covering much of the Indian Ocean.”

Forty nine of the world’s 53 hijackings took place there last year. Up to 200 vessels flying the British merchant navy flag regularly sail close to Somalia. No ship carrying armed security has yet been hijacked, the Government claims.