In the debate regarding protection of vessels, it is very seldom mentioned that onboard a majority of ships, crew fend for themselves, even in such hot spots as Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Guinea.

Old strategies and tactics

Since modern piracy started around 30 years ago(1), crew have applied non-lethal defenses, like locking down the ship, fire hoses, high speed, as well as increasing vigilance by posting more look-outs.

The concept has been, to give from a distance, an impression of a prepared ship, with a crew being on highest alert. Hence, fire hoses rigged with water spraying and crew members patrolling the deck. Also, at least in South East Asia waters, where piracy attacks usually occurred a few hours before dawn, to let search lights sweep the surrounding waters in order to enhance an impression of preparedness. Further, commonly a few homemade dummies were placed on the poop deck, as stand-ins for crew members. However, barbed wires were not often used, and some ship owners considered such a protection to be an offensive act which could provoke the pirates to escalate the violence during the attack. In short, the modus operandi was; do not be taken by surprise; if there is an attack, muster and defend the ship with available means; and if boarded, retreat and do not be a hero by physical engaging the pirates. The South East Asia pirates were only interested in cash, not prolonged hijackings. It was important for them to get onboard quickly, locate the master, and force him to open the safe and then retreat. Attacks happened where the majority of a ship´s crew did not know even that they had been boarded.

New strategies and tactics

With the introduction of Somali piracy, a more violent form of attacks appeared, with dire consequences, both from a human perspective as well as economically. However, in the beginning the same defense methods were used; confront the pirates to stop them from boarding, which in some cases were effective.(2) Nevertheless, after some time such an approach was considered to be too dangerous for the crew.

Instead a new concept started to develop, the use of citadels. Since the piracy happened in open waters, and not in narrow straits like in Malacca or Singapore, the bridge could be abounded and the Captain with the rest of the crew could retreat to a safe place. This should be a place that, hopefully, the pirates should have hard to find, but more important, very hard to break in to. In the citadel, the crew could, with enough supply of food and water, bid their time and wait for the cavalry, in the shape of a warship, to rescue them. If the citadel was in the engine room, which is a common location, theoretically, the ship could be navigated from there. The concept worked for many, whereas for others the pirates could break in to the safe room before naval forces arrived. Needless to say, the concept will be compromised if not all crew members can muster in the citadel before pirates take control.

There were also other novelties when it comes to protection against Somali pirates. Apart from that concertina wire to dress rails and ladders leading up to the bridge, trailing ropes were another invention used by some ships. And for personal protection, exposed personnel started to wear Kevlar helmets and bullet proof vests.

With the presence of naval forces establishing control over the maritime domain; reporting and tracking systems, group transits and convoys were other means to safeguard the merchant marine. Just to have naval forces present, were something that shipping industry only could have dreamt about some years before.

Although guidelines had been issued years back by different actors such as IMO, flag states and ship owners organizations(3), the whole shipping industry cooperated and published, as well as distributed, a very informative document, Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy.(4)

In spite of presence of naval forces and improvement of the non-lethal defense, vessels were still being hijacked. To a certain extent this could be explained with that many vessels due to ignorance or complacency did not implement Best Management Practices at all, or only partly. However, the continuation of hijacking caused many ship owners to further harden their ships by hiring armed guards. This practice was also fueled by an economic incentive since ship owners would receive a discount on insurance premiums. Also, with high fuel prices, to transit the High Risk Area on economic speed with armed security onboard, could balance the cost for a maximum speed without armed guards onboard. However, not all flag states allow armed guards and those that do have strict rules. (5)

Future strategies and tactics

Unfortunately, the complete concentration on armed guards led to the fact that the shipping industry lost focus on the non-lethal defense. As an example, the guidelines “Best Management Practices” have not been updated since August 2011. There are still very much ad hoc solutions onboard vessels, using what is available. Naval architects, seafarers, ship operators, classification societies and other stakeholders need to thoroughly study vessel design from a security standpoint, as well as keeping in mind the safety aspects. (6)

A certain security design standard should be developed, for implementation on new buildings and for modifications on existing ships.

To start with, the maritime domain awareness should be enhanced by installing of equipment like CCTVs and night vision devices. Further, water under pressure is an excellent weapon of defense. With improved pump capacities and remote controlled high pressure water jets, mounted for coverage of both sides of the ships, a wall of water can be establish.

If pirates have penetrated the first line of defense, the next obstacle should be the superstructure. There are numerous of ways to get access to the superstructure, through the obvious ones like doors, but also by breaking into portholes or hatches. All the accesses of entrance should be fortified in order to stop potential intruders.

The locking down of the superstructure/accommodation should be remotely controlled. Presently, doors are locked from inside, you can get out but you can´t get in from outside. That is sufficient from a security point, but can be disastrous in case of a fire when fire fighters need to access from outside.

The nerve central of all operations onboard, the bridge, should be extra fortified with strong doors, bullet proof and tainted windows. Further, the ventilation of the bridge should be self-contained, there should be no opportunity for the pirates to “smoke out” the crew. Briefly, the bridge itself should be a citadel.

Ships are being built, and being market, as fulfilling many different standards, like environmentally friendly green ships or ice strengthen artic ships. About time there will be vessels fulfilling an anti-piracy standard.


1. IMO was concerned already in 1983 and issued Resolution A.545(13), “Measures to prevent acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships.”

2. M/S Boularibank successfully fought off armed Somali pirates with fire hoses and wooden blocks.

3. International Shipping Federation/International Chamber of Shipping published in 1986 the first edition of “Pirates and Armed Robbers: A Master’s Guide.”

4. 50,000 copies were printed and distributed to the world merchant fleet.

5. According to regulations issued by United Kingdom, armed guards can only be used in exceptional circumstances;

6. An topic highlighted in the latest issue of The Bridge.