- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

By John S. Burnett
Dutton, $24.95, 332 pages

Journalist-sailor John Burnett found out about today's pirates the hard way. But let him tell it: "The young Idonesian poked me in the stomach with the barrel of his assault rifle. His eyes, cold and hard, challenged me to resist. I was on the edge of doing something stupid …'Money! you MONEY!' he said in agitated jerks of English."
Mr. Burnett was at the time living out a sailor's frequent dream: sailing along in the exotic orient, piloting his 32-foot sloop Unicorn across the South China Sea when he was attacked, deep into a calm night, not by bearded, bandannaed desperados with gold rings and flintlocks, but by four men from nearby Sumatra armed with assault rifles and long knives.
Renegade fishermen? Indonesian army deserters? A water-borne gang of petty theives? Mr. Burnett never found out. He was clouted on the head with the butt of a rifle, his floating home briefly searched. The pirates, noting he had no saleable electonics or weapons, took his cash and his binoculars. He reckons he was not killed because instead of offering resistance or anger, he offered his attackers cold coffee out of his night supply in a thermos. The act of hospitality disarmed the men, he thinks.
But the experience put him on the trail of the story of modern piracy, a thriving business in some waters. The year 2000 saw 66 pirate attacks in Malaysian waters alone and 28 attempts. And these do not include attacks on small trading vessels, or vessels that are looted and sunk, or vessels whose crews are killed or drowned. It's a watery jungle out there.
As the famed bank robber Willie Sutton reportedly opined when asked why he robbed banks, modern pirates operate in places where they can say as he did, "That's where the money is." Mr. Burnett is an experienced writer with a firm grip on a good story; his writing does not rise above the level of the newsroom, but that's not necessary. Here is a workmanlike job; covering an important story with thorough research, interviews and anecdotes, and a little Hollywood drama thrown in.
The money is, Mr. Burnett authoritatively reports, aboard the large freighters and tankers passing through the world's shipping bottleneck, the Malacca Strait between Indonesia and Malaysia. It is a narrow doorway in the sea through which must pass most ships coming from the Arabian peninsula, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Persian Gulf, bound for Japan, China or the West Coast of the United States.
This huge fleet passes in procession through a rock-sided passage (or faces a long detour all the way down to Australia's north coast) in clear sight of the villages and mangrove swamps and tiny harbors where desperately poor men try to make a living from fishing the sea or scratching at tiny plots of land. It's the conjunction of the majestic, football field-sized supertankers and the impoverished peasant seamen of Indonesian and Malayan coasts that foments modern piracy.
The modern pirate needs no stout ship with scores of cannon to make these huge tankers submit. Time and again, large ships have been assaulted in small boats, which sneak from behind or under a ship's radar screen; the tiny assault boats are sometimes powered with several powerful outboards for quick escape. They're manned by young men, who climb on board like acrobats, nimbly scrambling up ropes from grappling hooks, and they soon subdue whatever crew members are on watch.
For the modern pirates know a thing or two. They are aware, for instance that fuel and oil carriers don't carry firerarms because of the danger of fire. They know also the crews are small, and are trained not to resist, but to try to avoid, pirate attackers. They also know that there is literally no civil or military authority protecting the victims. And last of all, they know that the ships must move slowly and cautiously to edge their bulky hulls, carrying millions of dollars worth of kerosene, fuel oil, or crude, past the dangers of reefs, collisions and sea traffic.
The ships' defenses are feeble. They use lights, they use extra lookouts. They carry as little cash as possible to be less tempting. They are able to "lock down" all interior spaces with steel doors. And they are able to fight pirates with high-pressure water hoses, a common pirate defense. At least one ship uses stuffed dummies, strapped to the rail as lookouts.
So vast is the ocean, so many the harbors, passes and islands of the Pacific that hundreds of ships can and do simply disappear, sunk or renamed and reused, sold to different owners or abandoned on deserted beaches after their cargoes are looted. There is no international police force for the ocean, no Federal Bureau of Investigation of the sea.
With this knowledge, Mr. Burnett warns, modern pirates have opened the door to world disaster. Like any good reporter (he spent part of his career with United Press International) he presses the hype button hard. There is nothing to stop terriorists from using the water pirates' methods, stealing a ship full of fuel and the blowing it up in a populous port. Results? A terrorist act which could dwarf the events of September 11.
The big ships are hamstrung by several factors. There is a competitive struggle among oil firms and shipping lines to keep costs low this is why the American merchant marine fleet has dwindled away to a tiny relic of its former size. The men who man the big ships are a polyglot group, basically the cheapest competent men and women to be found in the world seafaring pool. They are employees with moderate loyalties; they are hired from what are called "body shops," firms which supply crew personnel.
The ships are built huge, also to save money, and that makes them hard to control, cumbersome and cautious in motion, vastly visible, unable to use secure harbors.
But politics also endangers world shipping. No nation along the trade route is fully willing to take responsibility for protecting these great floating bags of petroleum and other cargoes and who can blame them? The beneficiaries of this commerce Saudi princes and Americans burning cheap gas in their SUVs do not concern the Malays and the Indonesians.
Hope lies in a small group of pirate hunters and they are part of Mr. Burnett's story as well, who use modern means to track pirates and locate or corner them for pay. The willing participants are, of course, insurance companies for whom a hijack or a lost ship is a financial disaster.
In a way, the situation Mr. Burnett describes along the oil and commerce routes from the orient to the Americas is like the naval battle for Britain in World War II, with the pirates taking the role of the German U-Boat fleet. Convoys, air reconnaissance, armed escourt vessels and spies eventually crippled the U-boat menace.
Will commerce require private navies to protect it? Will shippers develop devices to repel pirates without the risk of setting volatile cargoes afire? Will the insurance companies send security men with each million-dollar load of crude? Mr. Burnett doesn't answer these qestions, but he raises them, and that is a job well done.

Duncan Spencer is a writer in Washington.

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