It’s hot and cramped in the engine room of the Rettin; the air is thick with diesel fumes. Suddenly, boots clatter outside, voices clamour in Arabic and an angle grinder screeches as it cuts metal.
Smoke enters the room, where 13 “hostages” huddle together. They are shipping company employees participating in a workshop on piracy prevention held by the federal German police.
“In a real pirate attack, crewmen can hold out in such a safe room for up to 96 hours,” says programme director Klaus Wulf.
Most of the participants have never faced the terrifying realities of modern-day piracy on the high seas. They mostly work at company headquarters and are responsible for the protection of crews and vessels.
These courses help them get a real-life idea of how they could organise shipboard safety better and protect their employees.
Germany has shied away from putting armed guards on its merchant vessels. It has sent its navy to patrol the Indian Ocean near the Somali coast. Other navies keep a close eye on Southeast Asian and West African shipping lanes where pirates have struck.
Berlin recommends civilian crews hide in so-called citadels aboard ship if they are attacked and wait for the military to arrive with lethal force to retake control.
The simulated first-hand experience on the Rettin, a 21-metre police tender, quickly prompts ideas about how to improve the logistical and atmospheric preparedness for a potential siege in tropical waters. In such critical situations, psychological confidence—plus plenty of drinking water and a thick steel door—can be half the battle.
“We shouldn’t just store water, food and blankets, but also a change of clothes for the men,” says Lars Liebner, wiping sweat from his forehead after the besieged group opens the door to liberators—rather than aggressors—after they hear the correct password.
Liebner is ship security officer of the Hamburg shipping company August Bolten, whose vessels regularly use waters that are prone to attack by pirates using speedboats bristling with rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
For the past five years, such groups have been trained at the piracy prevention centre at the federal police’s marine department in Neustadt, a small port on the Baltic coast of Germany.
“We advise all German shipping companies to send a staffer to train here and to build contacts with national and foreign authorities and organisations,” says Wulf. “We have been offering prevention workshops for a long time, yet the demand is still very high.”
The workshop covers pirate assault tactics and how to safeguard ships and crews, but also deals with negotiation tactics and how to act if taken hostage. On one boat trip out on the chilly Baltic Sea, federal police instructors enacting the role of pirates demonstrate the importance of vigilance and a good pair of binoculars.
While a marine-police cutter sails at 12 knots, three open top boats appear on the horizon and approach rapidly. “With a good pair of binoculars, you usually can spot the attackers in time to increase your speed and make it harder for them to board,” says Wulf.
Participants see this for themselves in the practical drills. Even when the target ship is moving at 12 knots, the high-powered “pirate boats” are shaken vigorously as they pull up beside it at their 22 knots.
Increase a bigger ship’s speed to 15 knots and the bow waves will be so strong that the small boats can barely get near.
This has saved many ships in real peril, shipping company employees will confirm.
“In such situations we always tell our captains to put on full speed ahead and don’t spare the engines,” says Johann Dirksen from Emden-based M. Lauter Jung shipping company. “The higher fuel consumption may not please the charterer, but in such a situation that does not matter,” he says.
It’s not always possible to get away. Barbed wire around the hull and shooting a powerful jet of water from a fire hose may repel boarders, but sometimes, there is no option left but to turn off all power and scarper to the safe room, with no guaranteed happy ending.
“Avoid getting into a hostage situation for as long as possible by flight and a defensive stance. You want to avoid capture, because then the threat is very hard to manage,” says a police trainer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Dirksen has grim stories to support this. “One of our ships was hijacked off West Africa by extremely well-equipped pirates,” he says, having followed the incident “live” from his company’s control room. “They used welding gear to burn a hole in the wall of the safe room, poured petrol inside and threatened to set fire to it.”
Financial considerations often make ship owners and charterers reluctant to invest in extra security, says Wulf. “But once a shipping company has suffered a pirate attack, their attitudes change completely.”