Shipowners struggle to find safe haven from pirates

18th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Ships travelling on the key route between Asia and Europe can either sail through the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden or take the much longer and still somewhat-risky route around South Africa's southern tip, the Cape of Good Hope.

Oslo -- As pirates shift their attacks further from the Somali coast, shipowners, already hit by the global economic crisis, are seeking safer alternative routes that keep costs down.

Ships travelling on the key route between Asia and Europe can either sail through the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden or take the much longer and still somewhat-risky route around South Africa's southern tip, the Cape of Good Hope.

Neither option particularly appeals to shipowners.

"There's an economic or commercial balance," Gavin Simmonds, a maritime safety expert at the British Chamber of Shipping, told AFP.

Vessels can transit "the Gulf of Aden, which has a very high threat of piracy and includes paying Suez canal charges and additional insurance for that area ... (or) the longer Cape route, which was being used predominantly by smaller vessels which were more vulnerable and prone to pirate attacks," he said.

Either way, ships are never entirely safe, experts insist.

The pirates have extended their attack zone further away from the coast using mother ships, now that European warships are deployed near the mouth of the Red Sea and with coffers filled with money paid from ransoms.

"We've seen a shift of piracy attacks towards the far seas in the east of Somalia," Cyrus Mody, manager of the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB), said.

"Attacks in the range of 300 to 500 (nautical) miles from the coast are quite frequent there," he said.

According to the IMB, more than 80 percent of pirate attacks in the region took place in the Gulf of Aden last year and fewer than 20 percent east of Somalia.

But since the start of this year, more than a third of attacks have been reported off the eastern coast, which have a much higher success rate.

"If a commercial ship is attacked in these waters, there are only very few navy ships capable of sending assistance," Mody said.

Few shipowners have followed in the footsteps of Denmark's A.P. Moller-Maersk.

The company, whose ship Maersk Alabama was recently attacked, has since November 2008 rerouted part of its fleet around the Cape of Good Hope.

The detour extends sailing routes by five to 15 days and can lead to extra costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on various factors.

And that's a heavy price to pay, especially in the throes of the worst economic crisis in more than 70 years.

"We have not decided to make any changes to our route due to Somali pirate attacks," a senior official from the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation said on condition of anonymity.

"Such risks are part of the business," he added.

US shipowner United Maritime Group echoed that sentiment.

"We haven't really changed our plans, just raising awareness with our crews to make sure that they're keeping a good lookout and maintaining a safe distance from the coast," a legal advisor for the company, Gerald Baca, said.

Meanwhile Norwegian shipping group Odfjell, which in November announced it was rerouting its vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, has since then reversed its decision.

"The security conditions have improved significantly with the deployment of international warships," spokeswoman Margrethe Gudbrandsen explained.

Experts say vessels should maintain a distance of at least 600 nautical miles from the Somali coast, if possible.

"Distance remains a key element, even though the pirates have lately demonstrated that they are operating in an amazingly wide attack zone," said Arild Wegener, head of security at the Norwegian Shipowners Association.

But it is impossible to be completely risk-free. According to the IMB, the boldest piracy attack occurred some 900 nautical miles from the Somali coast.

AFP/Expatica

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