New age of the pirate-chasers

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The Independent Online
JOHN DALBY hunches over his computer screen, staring at what appears to be a hi-tech game of battleships. "This is one of ours," he says, pointing to a little red dot steadily making its way across the Malacca Strait, where some 2,000 ships a day pass from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. "It's a cargo ship that was hijacked. We've been tracking it for a few days."

Mr Dalby is a pirate-chaser and recently he has been rather busy. Piracy on the high seas is on the increase; there were 180 recorded cases in the first nine months of this year, ranging from petty theft of cash and parts to hijacked oil tankers, compared with 202 in the whole of 1998. Only last week 15 Indonesian pirates who had hijacked a ship carrying aluminium ingots were captured off Goa after a chase across the Arabian sea by the Indian Navy.

It is Mr Dalby's business to catch the pirates and return the ships to their owners. He has a pool of 28 "useful chaps" - usually former Special Boat Section personnel - on standby so that at any time he can muster a team of up to 12 at short notice. He is now tagging 22 ships that have been stolen, waiting for the right time to reclaim the booty from pirates who operate in waters that range from the west coast of Africa to South- east Asia. He runs, he believes, the only such non-governmental operation in the world.

In the three years it has been harrying pirates, Mr Dalby's company, Marine Risk Management, has been involved in 20 "pirate incidents", as he euphemistically calls them. He declines to identify his clients though they include major shippers, underwriters and insurers who can be found in any copy of Lloyd's List.

Piracy has become "a big ticket" according to Mr Dalby. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in London, a nonprofit division of the International Chamber of Commerce, estimates that $1bn (pounds 637m) was lost to piracy last year. Mr Dalby deals with the big players rather than individuals, who are usually hard-up fishermen. The days of Blackbeard are long gone, according to Mr Dalby. There is little romance: today's pirate is more likely to be armed with a Kalashnikov than a cutlass, though he can be just as ruthless.

"Pirates are increasingly looking at high value cargo that can be sold on quickly such as aluminium ingots and steel, though they can also go for sugar, rice and oil," said Mr Dalby, speaking at his Georgian mansion on Merseyside. "They are very stealthy, they don't approach a ship all guns blazing. They don't just sail on the off-chance of finding something. They have targeted a ship and its cargo before it has even left port."

The tactics of the good guys draw on more old-fashioned skills: Marine Risk Management's website defines its mission as "a capability to recover ships in a hostile situation, initially and primarily by negotiation and diplomacy but ultimately by more intensive methods if necessary".

"So far we've never been armed. That would really have to be a last resort," says Mr Dalby, aged 51, who served in the merchant navy for 20 years. "Most of it is hard slog and devious. There are a few cunning stunts we employ. Our men are trained in psychological warfare which enables them to disarm an entire party. It's easy to do that even though you don't have any guns."

Most of the work, for political reasons, is conducted in international waters. Often the team will place a satellite tracking device on the hijacked ship at dead of night and then wait for the vessel to dock a few days later. "We did once Shanghai a boat in Shanghai," he recalled with a smile. "That was a hostile incident." He does not elaborate further.

"Often the shippers who lose a cargo go to the local authorities but find the governments can't often do very much and the pirates aren't just going to roll over. That's when they turn to us," he said. They turn to Mr Dalby because the stakes are high: freight and vessel may be worth up to $10m to the insurers and shipping agents (in this calculating world, the crew are viewed as petty cash, perhaps $50,000 a head). Mr Dalby's fees are large: a minimum of $1m per mission.

The IMB does not approve of Mr Dalby's methods but it is aware of the growing crisis. In 1992, the IMB set up a regional piracy centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Financed by the shipping and insurance industries, it offers a satellite tracking device for ships and a piracy "hotline". It has also called for an international code to cover investigations into piracy. Mr Dalby agrees that all such work should be above board but adds a note of realism. "Piracy will never be kicked entirely into touch. There's nothing pleasant about this business. You do run the risk of being killed."

SIX MONTHS OF TERROR ON THE SEA

17 MARCH 1999

Twenty pirates with face masks and machine guns boarded a Panamanian cargo ship in Thailand. The crew were set adrift in rafts. They were picked up by fishermen. The ship turned up in southern China under another name.

28 MARCH

Pirates armed with machetes and machine guns boarded a Panamanian bulk carrier anchored in Sapele, Nigeria. They ordered the crew to the bridge, where they began firing their guns and smashing up equipment. Several crew members were injured.

APRIL

Pirates with long knives boarded an Irish chemical tanker off Lepar Island in Indonesia, taking two crew members hostage and stealing cash.

9 APRIL

Pirates sped alongside a Lithuanian refrigerator ship in Zaire, firing at it with machine guns. The pirates stole cash and valuables.

MAY

Gunmen boarded a ferry packed with tourists off Mexico's Caribbean coast. They robbed passengers, threw two security guards overboard and destroyed the ferry's communication system before escaping in a speedboat.

4 MAY

Gunmen boarded a Finnish yacht off the North-east coast of Somalia, took the crew hostage and demanded a ransom.

24 JUNE

Somali gunmen attacked and hijacked a German yacht en route from New Zealand to a tourist island in the Indian Ocean. They held the crew hostage and demanded pounds 30,000 ransom.

8 JUNE

Pirates in speedboats hijacked a Thai oil tanker off the east coast of Malaysia and set 16 crew adrift.

20 JULY

Twenty armed pirates boarded a Bahamian chemical tanker with a crew of 17 Russians off Lagos near the Pennington Oil Field. They beat the crew, took hostages and removed equipment. 11 SEPTEMBER

Armed pirates boarded a British yacht as it was sailing around the world. One of five crew members was shot and buried at sea the next day.

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