Safety & Security

Protecting cruise liners against piracy

Piracy remains a significant threat faced by the cruise industry, and one that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Callum Tyndall explores recent developments in counter-piracy security to find out how cruise operators can protect their vessels from pirate attacks, both through operational approaches and with the help of technology and equipment

​​​​​​​The WeChat service was launched on Costa Atlantica. Background image courtesy of Costa Cruises

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​lthough piracy in high-risk areas such as the Somali coast seems to have somewhat calmed in recent years, it remains a significant threat to both commercial shipping and cruise business. As of October, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre has received 127 reports of maritime piracy since the beginning of the year.

Standard procedures for protecting against attacks may seem somewhat tame, principally reducing the amount of light and sound while the vessel is in a high-risk area, but cruise ships generally have a speed advantage over other at-risk ships. However, when simple escape is not an option, what steps can and are being taken by cruise operators to protect their ships and passengers?

A Kelly Hoppen-designed Edge stateroom with 'infinite veranda'. Image courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Standard operating procedure

While the small, skiff type boats used by pirates may be faster than a cruise ship in best conditions, they are unlikely to be able to board a cruise liner travelling at 20 knots or more, particularly given the choppy conditions such a chase would create. As such, making use of this speed and attempting to initially maintain a low profile while in high-risk areas tend to be the standard procedure for cruise ships entering dangerous waters.

“It’s impossible to know whether a small craft is a threat or just fishermen.”

Generally, such measures are taken as standard practice and cruise lines will stick to the accepted best management practices, with perhaps some minor variation according to company policy and individual risk assessments.

Going further, using armed guards for example, is recommended only in such cases as a ship being at risk far beyond the mitigation of standard practice and, moreover, is not without its own flaws.

Speaking to the Telegraph, security consultant Graeme Brooks, a former principal warfare officer with the Royal Navy and now chief executive officer of Portsmouth-based Dryad Maritime, described the difficulties faced when attempting to cross high-risk areas: “There are millions of square miles of water and you can only see vessels on the horizon up to ten miles away,” he said.

“It’s like looking for a mouse on a rugby pitch. And it’s impossible to know whether a small craft is a threat or just fishermen. You can’t tell the difference between a weapon and a baguette at anything more than 200 yards. If there are armed guards on the ship, by the time you can make a case to open fire you’ve already got your head in the lion’s mouth.”

The best defences against piracy ​​​​​​​

Turning a potential hijacking into a firefight may not be the solution but, if under threat, what other avenues are open to cruise operators? The range of equipment is varied and can allow the security crew of a ship to do more than just provide warning of an attack – although early detection via means such as low-light binoculars is frequently emphasised as a priority – but actually go on the offensive against attackers.

“Well thought through security is unobtrusive and provides quiet reassurance.”

Barbed wire can be used to hinder any attempt to force a boarding but ships are also now equipped with far more aggressive methods. Fire hoses can be turned to a secondary purpose, with 80 pounds per square inch of water pressure making it difficult for any pirate to get on board, and some ships are now equipped with sonic defences. Long-range acoustic devices are primarily used by warships to serve as a long-range hailing and warning, but can be used to direct sonic waves in defence against would-be pirates.

However, while all these defensive measures are useful, their application needs to suit the purpose of the vessel.

“It is important that the security framework matches the threat – whether this be pirates or terrorists – and is tailored to the lifestyle of the passengers and the operating pattern of the ships,” says Gerry Northwood, chief operating officer at Maritime Asset Security and Training (MAST). “If the environment that the ships are to be operating in is so hostile that 24/7 surveillance is required along with permanent hardening measures, then it is questionable as to whether anyone is going to have an enjoyable holiday on board the vessel. Furthermore, well thought through security is unobtrusive and provides quiet reassurance that all is well, and that any untoward situation can be efficiently dealt with”.

Northwood emphasises the importance of Best Management Practice 4, an industry guide aimed to assist with how to prepare for high-risk areas, and deploying passive self-protection measures. Although it is important for operators to tailor their measures to their specific route and ship environment, in addition to thoroughly exercising any such measures, it may well be that the best defence is to follow standard procedure and stick to the principle of strong liaison and good co-ordination with national and local military authorities.

Advanced technology and rigorous protocols​​​​​​​

However, while heavy safety methods have their place, there are subtler techniques and technologies that can be deployed to ensure security is properly handled aboard cruise vessels. By placing the emphasis on reinforcing the measures that should be place as part of standard protocol, technology can be utilised to support security without compromising the enjoyment of any passengers.

“Technology can assist is through better cyber protection of personnel and passenger data, and better management of movements of people and goods.”

“Where technology can assist is through better cyber protection of personnel and passenger data, and better management of movements of people and goods on and off the vessel,” says Northwood. “We have seen in a recent case how drugs were smuggled across the Pacific Ocean in a cruise liner under the noses of the security team on board the vessel. Had the drugs been a bomb or weapons, the outcome could have been a lot worse for all involved, and the use of advanced technology and some more rigorous protocols for checking passenger pattern of behaviour would have rumbled the situation much earlier.”

Moving forward, it is worth bearing in mind that piracy is currently in a downturn. According to Northwood, MAST currently rates terrorism as a higher risk and suggests that operators should be conducting proper due diligence on any ports they may rely on.

The first line of defence in all scenarios, however, should be ensuring that cruise operators are properly assessing the areas they travel through and maintaining rigorously exercised security protocols. While technology can assist with this, the priority of operators should be ensuring that their measures are up to scratch and properly tailored to the regions they are travelling.

Go to top