Piracy on the High Seas

After the news of  Pirates attacking an American-flagged oil industry vessel off the Nigerian coast early Thursday and then abducted two US citizens–the  captain and the chief engineer, I wanted to repost a piece on piracy I wrote back in March.

In the news industry we have a term “evergreen” pieces, meaning these stories can be done at any time and can be held and used whenever. They are timeless. Unfortunately, my piracy blog below can be considered an “evergreen” piece because the problem of pirates attacking vessels and kidnapping crew members is on going problem.

The reason behind the terror on the water can range from money the pirates would get for ransom to the cargo itself. My piece below is about the theft of crude oil.  I urge you all to take a moment and really look at the pictures of the crew members who were freed. No Hollywood movie or actor like Tom Hanks who starred in the movie “Captain Phillips” could replicate that emotion:

The Theft of “Black Gold” on the High Seas

Pirates have been romanticized in the movies and books for years, but the reality of these individuals is anything but sexy or exciting. Recently at the distinguished Heidmar Marine Forum, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel talking about America’s Energy Revolution. While sitting in the audience waiting for my panel to begin, I listened to a very sobering topic- the Piracy in West Africa. The panel was so riveting it compelled me to write a column about it.

For thirty minutes you could hear a pin drop as Nikos Zannos, Claims Manager of Grace Management S.A. took the audience back to when they found out their vessel, the Orfeas was hijacked off of Abidjan, Ivory Coast on October 6, 2012. It was the second piracy incident in the past week at that time in West Africa. The cargo they wanted? Gasoline. The vessel which sails under the Bahamas flag was carrying 32,068 tons of gasoline. The crew had two shipments to offload, but the tanker disappeared before unloading her second shipment.

Zannos spoke in detail about the search for the vessel and the 24 crew members on board and the fear for the crew’s well being. The enormous tanker simply vanished. Finally on October 9th, the pirates released the ship and her seamen but not before 2,600 metric tons of gasoline were stolen. The destination of the gasoline- the black market.

Unfortunately the story of the Orfeas is not an anomaly. While hijackings in East Africa are going down, on the West Coast, the number of incidents have been steadily increasing.

According to Intertanko (the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners) in 2011 there were 37 attempted incidents and 10 hijackings, in 2012, 40 attempted incidents and 10 hijackings and so far in 2013, there have been 7 attempted incidents and 5 hijackings. “We are not sitting idly by,” said Joseph Angelo, Deputy MD of Intertanko before the packed room, ” We are trying to protect our members…..The situation is far worse in North Africa. The pirates want the fuel. They are ruthless.”

Angelo explained in his presentation at Heidmar these hijackings are now being called “Extended Duration Robbery” (EDR), because ships are now being taken for longer period of times and crew members are being taken for ransom.

To help shine a spotlight on the problem, the members of Intertanko recently sent a letter to the IMO Secretary General requesting the matter to be brought to the attention of the UN Security Council. They are patiently waiting for an answer.

The United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime, which helped the maritime industry with the Somali piracy problem recently released a February 2013 report on the growing problem in West Africa. “….the Nigerian navy has estimated that there have been ten to 15 attacks every month in recent years, and that the monthly tally can rise as high as 50.”

The number of pirate attacks is at the center of dispute with one group saying the number is a lot higher. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), has said the real number of pirate attacks is at least twice as high as the official figure of 129.

According to the U.N. report about three-quarters of these attacks are simple robberies, with the pirates netting very little for themselves. Amounts have been valued at $10,000 to $15,000 per attack. The theft where they get the big bucks? Petroleum products.

Thousands of gallons have been reported stolen and sold on the black market and according to Lloyd’s estimates, the oil losses are between $2 million to $6 billion a year.

The theft of petroleum products are being done in two different ways:

* “Bunkering” where the oil is stolen directly from pipelines and it is then crudely refined, and sold in local and international markets.

* Or commandeer the ship, take the vessel out to open water and offload as much refined gasoline as they can into one of their barges and sell it on the black market.

Shell Petroleum Development Co. of Nigeria Ltd. which is the largest producer of Nigerian oil recently projected losses around 60,000 barrels each day due to oil theft. “We have now witnessed a significant upsurge in the activities of crude oil thieves. The situation in the last few weeks is unprecedented. The volume (of crude oil) being stolen is the highest in the last three years. Over 60, 000 barrels per day from Shell alone,” said Mutiu Sunmonu, the Managing Director of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited, to journalists on March third.

Sunmonu also warned about the oil thieves growing sophistication. “Over time, this whole crime has got a lot more sophisticated and you could see that the perpetrators are now setting up barge building yards; they are setting up storage facilities; they are setting up tank farms for storing the crude oil, prior to shipping out,” he said.

Here’s a link to a riveting Aljazeera report where a reporter interviewed oil thieves. The pirates have no qualms showing the reporter the process in how they refine the products.


As you can see from the oil spilling everywhere, getting their hands on refined fuel would be more attractive to the oil thieves. This is why ship owners tell me they are seeing more activity along the West Coast of Africa.

“Refining the crude to get a clean cargo such as gasoline is the real
problem for the pirates as you can see from the Aljazeera story
exactly what I mean.” said Brian Van Aken, Operations Director at Heidmar, “This is what’s driving the new threat from piracy, namely attacking ships and stealing cargo.”

In 2009 the threat of piracy changed for Van Aken when one of their crew members was killed in a robbery off the coast of Benin. “From that time, we have seen the increase in violence throughout the region which has seemed to trickle down from MEND activities to disrupt oil production on land.”said Van Aken. “There is no government control within Nigeria and in fact, the level of corruption is so high, we’ve no doubt that there is any will to curb this ongoing threat. Without outside intervention, the risk to our crews will only escalate and more lives will be lost.”

One ship owner at the conference told me since the pirates come from specific tribes they counter a possible attack, by hiring the pirate’s rival tribes to protect their ships. These hired guns are armed with poison arrows.

I have been told by numerous ship owners the West African pirates are far more violent than the Somali pirates. Ships owners gave heart breaking accounts of members being killed and tortured (for example Pirates shot a mate dead when they first got on a vessel and in another incident they stripped one crew member naked and chained him out on the deck of a tanker for one week exposed to the harsh sun and elements.)

Just in the last several weeks two vessels were released from pirates– one tanker and one bulk where 17 hostages were held since 2010.

One ship—The Iceberg One which came from Germany (owned by a Dubai company) was released at the end of December after almost three years at the hands of the pirates. Two people were killed.

Roberto Giorgi, President of V. Ships, a “Dynasties of the Sea” participant is a well-known advocate for maritime merchants and is one of the industry’s loudest voices on the growing problem of piracy. Giorgi shared these photos of the release of the crew of the Savina Cayln with me. They were given to him by the Master of the Savina Caylyn.

The Savina Caylyn is an oil tanker owned by by the Italian shipping line Fratelli D’Amato. It was hijacked by Somali pirates on February 8, 2011 and then on December 21. 2011 the ship was released after reports of a ransom being paid and long negotiations.

The photos showcasing the joy of the released crew members speak for themselves.



With images and video like this, one wonders why the mainstream media has not shined a spotlight on this growing problem.



Author: loriannlarocco

I am the author of "Dynasties of the Sea: The Untold Stories of teh Postwar Shipping Pioneers", "Opportunity Knocking: Lessons from Business Leaders", "Thriving in the New Economy" and "Dynasties of the Sea: The Shipowners and Financiers Who Expanded the Era of Free Trade". I'm also the Senior Talent Producer at CNBC, and known as the producer with the trillion dollar Rolodex

5 thoughts on “Piracy on the High Seas”

  1. A well researched, well written, informative and an enlightening blog. One of the best I’ve seen in a long time; and I’ve read a lot!
    Well done and thanks. A link will appear in our newsletter.


    1. Thanks Glen, I’m happy you liked it. I may not write a lot on this blog, would love to, but when I do write, I try to put something up people would enjoy. Piracy is a very important issue, the billions of dollars lost will attract many but I also want to shed light on the mariners who risk their lives for everyone’s every conviences they take for granted. Roberto is a wonderful contact of mine, also was in Dynasties 🙂 Very fortunate to have a stable of contacts I can go to.


    1. Putting on my old local news hat here, unless the robbery is unusual in a city where they are prevelant, news stations won’t air. Same thing with car jackings. In houston they happened so regularly we didn’t cover unless there was a kid in the car or if something unusual happened. Sad but true.


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