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Cruise Industry Vs. Piracy

Cruise lines weigh tougher response to pirate threat near Somalia

May 17, 2009

Passengers on MSC Cruises' Melody were partying under the starry midnight sky when armed pirates in a small speedboat attacked their luxury cruise liner last month in the Indian Ocean, and attempted to board the ship on rope ladders.

"It was a movie scene," said Rick Sasso, President of MSC Cruises USA. Passengers were among the first to spot the pirates and even tried to thwart them by hurling deck furniture off the vessel and running to alert crew members, he said.

The 2,000-passenger ship was sailing near the Seychelles Islands, about 700 miles from the coast of Somalia, in waters that international maritime officials considered safe. It managed to evade the pirates.

But the incident — and a couple of others like it in recent years — has raised the issue of whether cruise ships on itineraries near Somalia should be stepping up anti-piracy tactics or avoiding the area altogether.

Historically, cruise line passengers and crew far outnumber pirates who have attempted hijackings. Ships also have onboard security forces and are faster than cargo ships, so they can maneuver and speed past even the most brazen pirates. And many cruise vessels have used other ways of protecting themselves such as blasting water from fire hoses or using devices that give off deafening sound waves.

Sasso said the pirates may have been more easily thwarted because Captain Ciro Pinto used his own discretion and took an extra security precaution before embarking on the journey: allowing a few low-caliber pistols onboard the ship. Those pistols were kept under the captain's lock and key until the pirates' imminent threat forced him to distribute the arms to the ship's specially trained Israeli security officers, who fired blank shots that scared off the intruders.

"That is the only place in the world where you might need that kind of extra protection," the executive said.

As chairman of the Cruise Lines International Association, Sasso said passenger safety and security is always members' top priority. However, the issue of whether cruise ships should be carrying arms on Somali routes is worthy of serious, industrywide debate, he said.

Itineraries that include East Africa are a tiny fraction of the industry's business and may be shrinking further. From December 2008 until now, there were 20 transits of this area, according to CLIA, which only tracks its member's movements there.

Small ultra-luxury cruise line Yachts of Seabourn said it just may avoid the troubled Gulf of Aden region altogether. The company has an itinerary planned from the Seychelles to the Maldives in 2011 but may change the ship's course if pirate attacks continue to pose a threat, spokesman Bruce Good said.

"We have hopes that they'll be able to get this under better control by then," Good said, of international navel forces patrolling those waters.

In 2005, the SeabournSpirit was attacked by pirates on two small motor boats who fired assault rifles and launched rocket-propelled grenades at the ship. One security guard was injured with shrapnel, but none of the passengers onboard were hurt. The 200-passenger ship — one of the smallest in the cruise industry — managed to evade the attackers by using quick steering and taking off at top speed. The line has sailed in the area since then without incident, Good said.

Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines spokesman Andrew Poulton said the line has no plans to cancel its 15-night cruise from Athens, Greece, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, this October. The 700-passenger Voyager will be sailing near capacity, he said.

A few cruise passengers have expressed concern over pirate attacks, but most trust the company to stay vigilant of their safety, Poulton said, declining to discuss the Fort Lauderdale Is your Fort Lauderdale restaurant clean? - Click Here. line's anti-piracy tactics.

Most cruise lines that offer around-the-world itineraries travel the Gulf of Aden route and attract wealthy, experienced cruisers. Regent's 119-day world cruise in 2010 bypasses those waters completely. But Poulton said the decision was prompted by the line's desire to offer new port calls to its world cruise, not a reaction to pirate violence.

"It's something we planned a long time ago," he said, noting the West African course, with a stop in Namibia, is a first for the company.

A spokesman for the company's sister cruise line, Oceania Cruises, could not be reached for comment. The line was attacked last November by pirates on two skiffs. One got as close as 300 yards from the Nautica before ship officials were able to out-run them.

Cruise security experts say lines take piracy issues seriously, and are better equipped to handle attacks than other vessels such as cargo ships.

"I don't think they're ever going to successfully take a cruise ship at sea," said Mike Lee, assistant vice president of McRoberts Maritime Security, which has a consulting office in Miami.

Pirates are short-sighted, Lee said. They don't consider that they have to out-run and board a ship that's bigger and faster with far more people on board, Lee said. "They see a big, white, beautiful cruise ship with a lot of affluent passengers on board and it screams money to them," he said.

He's not convinced that arming cruise ships with weapons as another layer of protection is necessary or smart. "Using weapons could really escalate the violence," Lee said. And firing warning shots is not a proven deterrent.

Avoiding the area, though, is a good idea for the cruise lines that can extend the length of their itineraries and absorb extra fuel costs, he said.

MSC certainly won't be taking any chances of another attack, Sasso said. The cruise line will take a longer route around Africa on the Sinfonia's European repositioning course to South Africa.

"They say it is safe 1,000 miles off shore, and obviously it isn't, so we're going a different way," Sasso said. "The fact that they [pirates] even tried to take the ship and they were so far out, it taught us a lesson."

Cruise lines weigh tougher response to pirate threat near Somalia
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