Avast, Ye Scurvy Tourist!
Modern piracy on the high seas

If it seems like the romance and excitement have gone from life, never fear -- there's always the chance that your next pleasure cruise will be attacked by pirates. Yes, piracy's back, but its brutal new form makes a mockery of sheltered Westerners' notions of adventure on the high seas.

See also...
... by Etelka Lehoczky
... in the Whoa! section
... from October 22, 1999

Like the buccaneers of old, modern pirates engage in gun battles, leap daringly onto the decks of their target vessels and toss resisters overboard. But today's piracy is a cruel parody of the myth treasured by authors from Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie to William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker. Instead of velvet coats, they wear army fatigues and hockey masks. Instead of cutlasses, they wield AK-47s. And instead of "leav[ing] without having actually murdered anyone," as Acker wrote in Pussy, King of the Pirates, today's marauders coolly and pragmatically massacre whole crews, leaving no witnesses, before seizing their ships.

"Modern piracy is violent, bloody and ruthless," says Eric Ellen, executive director of the International Maritime Bureau. "It [is] made all the more fearsome because its victims know they are alone and defenseless." Noting with concern the "steady rise" in incidents since 1984, the IMB has sent task forces to ports around the world and set up a piracy information center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. But piracy in the nearby Straits of Malacca has been outpaced in the '90s by activity in other parts of the world -- notably that favorite American vacation region, the Caribbean.

Near Brazil just this August, a British couple was tied up and beaten by six men in surgical gloves and black face masks who attacked their ship. Ulrike Ireland said the gunmen threw her across a table, breaking several of her ribs, and held her at gunpoint while they yanked off her necklace and rings.

Such attacks have become increasingly common off the coast of Brazil, where heavily armed gangs prey on ships entering or leaving the ports of Santos and Rio de Janeiro. This activity won the country the dubious distinction, in 1996, of having the second-most pirate-plagued waters in the world. Yet Brazilian authorities have proven indifferent to the problem, according to Mark Monday, one of the authors of the new book Maritime Terror: Protecting Yourself, Your Vessel, and Your Crew Against Piracy.

"Brazil remains a highly dangerous area," according to an IMB report Monday quotes, "and this will continue to be so as long as the authorities fail to acknowledge the situation."

Northward, the waters of Nicaragua and Costa Rica are hunting grounds for armed men in speedboats. Costa Rica, an increasingly popular vacation destination, is believed to be the source of boats responsible for more than a score of attacks in the last three years. The elaborate military equipment used by these craft is of particular concern to international authorities -- a report by the International Maritime Organization notes the "extreme violence" of the Caribbean attacks.

"The standard type of equipment [includes] radars and thermal imagers and night vision devices. We're seeing more of that because when the Russian empire collapsed there was a lot of that stuff available at a very reasonable price on the market," says Maritime Terror author Gary Stubblefield. He notes that firearms left over from small wars tend to find their way into outlaw hands. "Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua all have a recent history of [armed] conflict. So those things have been put on the market [and] pirates have access to what was considered military weaponry up until now."

Another hot spot of pirate activity against private citizens is the Mediterranean. In 1997 the international shipping newspaper Lloyd's List reported attacks on private yachts by groups of bandits, many from the disintegrating republic of Albania. One yacht cruising near Sicily disappeared entirely, leaving officials to speculate that the crew and passengers had been murdered. Albanian pirates armed with rifles and grenades attacked a yacht off Corfu that same year; another group boarded a boat off southern Italy and stole jewelry and money from six Frenchwomen on board.

Even more brutal attacks can be found throughout the Third World. Officials at the IMO cite the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and waters off East and West Africa as particularly dangerous. Each of these areas reports anywhere from 10 to more than 50 attacks per year. Armed men in speedboats cruise the Bay of Bengal, preying on boats out of Bangladesh and Calcutta, while others take refuge on the uncharted islands of the South China Sea. "The disturbing fact is that in the last quarter of 1998 we have seen ships hijacked and whole crews murdered in cold blood," says IMB Director Captain Pottengal Mukundan.

Piracy around the Philippines has been particularly violent. In one 1996 incident, armed men boarded a ferry as passengers and commandeered it, killing five in the process. In another, a Philippine navy vessel engaged in a gun battle with a Chinese pirate ship armed with automatic weapons. Many experts suspect that the Chinese government backs pirates sailing from its coasts. Corrupt officials in the port of Beihai were linked to pirates who hijacked a Cypriot vessel, casting 23 crewmembers adrift on a makeshift raft. The IMB's Ellen says Chinese authorities have admitted to him that some of their officials are involved in these crimes. "They are totally out of control," he says.

These renegades are a far cry from the whitewashed buccaneers of popular tales or Acker's playful creations. Western tourists planning oceangoing vacations would do well to keep an eye on piracy reports. If you behave like Acker's pirate girls, "so into their own private world, they didn't notice that the world was shifting again," the penalty could be death.

Etelka Lehoczky writes regularly for Salon and the Chicago Tribune.