Pirates seldom dominate our thoughts beyond movie myths and Halloween costumes, but real pirates still threaten danger for the unwary.
As my ship, the 600-passenger luxury Seabourn Encore, cruised recently on the Gulf of Aden, with Yemen to the north and Somalia to the south, the ship’s crew prepared for a pirate attack.
Passengers, too, were ready, with a set of instructions about when and where to go to hide if the captain sent us a signal.
As expected, the signal never came.
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No matter what anyone tells you about the dangers of pirates boarding a cruise ship in this part of the world, keep in mind two competing realities:
First, pirates still are on the loose in the Gulf of Aden, where the Red Sea meets the Arabian Sea. Convoys of oil tankers, container vessels and fancy ships cruise there on their voyages to and from Asia, using the Suez Canal shortcut between Europe’s Mediterranean Sea and ports of the Middle East.
Second, passengers have little to fear from these ruthless marauders because pirates would be at a disadvantage should they decide to attack a well-prepared cruise ship. Vessels scare pirates away by taking on additional security personnel and such equipment as a sonic weapon that blasts earsplitting noise and a machine that shoots water from a powerful hose.
In the past five years, pirate attempts have fallen dramatically as armed ships from various nations also patrol the primary trade routes.
Still, passengers’ imaginations naturally run wild at night in pirate-infested waters. Officers on the Seabourn Encore assured us of our safety, all the while preparing us for the unlikely. Pirates were the talk of the ship as we sailed through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea toward Somalia.
At sea, the ship’s master, Captain Kreso Volaric, sent each cabin (300 suites, all facing the water) a letter:
“In the unlikely event that the ship is approached by suspicious craft, you will be asked to proceed to the corridor near your suite via the nearest interior route (avoiding windows and outside areas of the ship) and sit or lie down on the deck as the ship may experience rolling. Do not enter your suite.
“Move quickly and do not spend excessive time gathering personal belongings.
“Use handrails when available, particularly on stairs, and be alert for sudden movements by the ship.
“Remain seated in the corridor and away from any exterior walls, windows and balconies until otherwise informed by the ship’s crew.”
Passengers, mostly veteran travelers, did not seem overly disturbed by the captain’s message nor by crew members’ surprisingly upfront explanations about the sudden evasive movements a ship might make to dodge pirates’ boarding tactics.
Mostly, passengers were relaxing and enjoying such pastimes as lectures about the commerce, history and politics of the Middle East, or dining well at celebrity chef Thomas Keller’s only restaurant at sea.
At one dining table, passengers laughed as they wondered aloud about duties for the housekeeping or serving crew if they were faced with a pirate attack. Stories abound on the Internet about freighter crews fending off pirates by throwing various items overboard, including folding chairs. “What might the bartenders throw?” asked a passenger. “Surely not fine wine, but beer bottles would be okay.”
Reality closed in as night fell over the Gulf of Aden, when the captain informed us by loudspeaker that a boat soon would pull alongside our ship, delivering additional security personnel. When someone later shouted that a ship’s light was headed our way, at least 100 passengers rushed to the railing on the top deck to watch a small boat emerge from the black and speed toward our starboard stern (right side, to the back).
Dark-clothed security people, three or four of them depending on which passenger counted correctly — the head security officer would not say — jumped from the small boat into an opening on the hull of the Seabourn Encore.
Soon, the security boat sped away, and the gaiety of the evening returned, with cheers and toasts of confidence (alcohol is included in the fare on Seabourn ships.)
Our night on the Gulf of Aden, as we moved in convoy with other ships, passed without noticeable incident. Despite rumors rampant among passengers the next day that a boat of pirates had pulled alongside and was forced away by special security guards with Indian passports, the extent of the ship’s official position was that nary a pirate approached us in the Gulf of Aden.
Well-fortified and protected, we continued our fascinating route, sailing unscathed to Muscat, Oman, toward our destinations in the Persian Gulf cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com