Image: Spanish escort
AFP - Getty Images
The Spanish Numancia frigate escorts the Italian cruise ship Melody 250 miles off the Seychelles Islands. The Spanish frigate intercepted a skiff carrying nine suspected Somali pirates believed to have attacked the cruise liner over the weekend.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/28/2009 9:45:43 AM ET 2009-04-28T13:45:43

On Saturday night, the Italian cruise ship MSC Melody, with 1,500 passengers aboard, was attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Thanks to private Israeli security forces on the cruise ship who fired at the pirates, the assault was thwarted and the marauders were driven off.

Last December, the Oceania luxury cruise ship Nautica took evasive measures and outran a pirate ship off the coast of Yemen. In 2005, the Seabourn cruise ship Spirit, carrying 150 passengers and a crew of 160, was approached by two small boats filled with pirates armed with assault rifles and a grenade launcher. The captain of the Spirit took responsive action, even trying to ram one of the pirate boats, before eventually outrunning the bandits.

While pirate attacks on commercial ships have become more frequent of late, assaults on cruise ships remain rare. Still, rare is enough to cause some concern.

“We’ve had people cancel because of it,” said Bill Knight, who runs All Cruise Travel in San Jose, Calif. “We had one large booking cancel. No matter what we said, it didn’t make any difference.”

The threat of pirates taking over a cruise ship is relatively low for two major reasons: It isn’t so easy to do, and there aren’t many cruise ships that service the area near the Gulf of Aden, where the recent incidents involving Somali pirates have taken place.

“One of the assets a cruise ship has is speed,” said Tim Rubacky, spokesman for Prestige Cruises. “But also there is the size and the sheer number of people. When you look at pirate incidents recently, they involve capturing a cargo ship with four or five armed pirates against a crew of 15 to 20 men. That’s different than four or five men trying to take over a ship with over 1,000 people on it.

“Also, cruise ships have highly vigilant security. They have high-pressure hoses, extra watches on all decks. Many times there are military patrols nearby because they know there are passenger ships in the area. We also have several levels of anti-piracy deterrents at our disposal. And cargo ships are easy to board, because their decks are low to the water. Cruise ships, if you’re in a pirate skiff, you’d have to climb three, four, five decks to get to the first open deck space. If you’re bobbing in a skiff at 16 knots, even in calm seas, how are you going to climb up a sheer 30 to 50 foot wall?”

Worth the risk?
Carolyn Spencer Brown runs a Web site called CruiseCritic.com. She has divided her readers and clients into two distinct groups. “One says, ‘I’m not going to let anybody dictate what I do with my life,’ ” she explained. “That’s about 60 percent. The other 40 percent say, ‘It’s not worth the risk. I don’t want to go badly enough for that.’ ”

But generally, people who take exotic or luxury cruises that make stops in Dubai, Mumbai, the Seychelles, Zanzibar and Mombasa and other locales tend to be savvier and more experienced travelers who have a better understanding of the situation and the risk levels.

“Most of our guests have a very high repeat rate,” noted Bruce Good, spokesman for Seabourn Cruises. “Half of our guests or more have sailed with us before. They trust us to take very precaution.”

Good said that since the 2005 incident Seabourn has not sailed to Mombassa, although it is scheduled to do so at the end of 2010. But Seabourn does have cruises through the Gulf of Aden, and those are done with extra security precautions, he said.

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“International naval forces there plot a course they find optimum so they can keep track of people and maintain an optimum distance for response,” he said. “We are always on our highest alert. Our onboard security protocols are maintained through that whole region.”

Last year, more than 130 merchant ships were attacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, an increase of more than 200 percent from the previous year, according to the International Maritime Bureau. Earlier this year, to step up security in the region, the CTF 151, a counter-piracy naval force, was formed by the U.S. (It recently turned over command to Turkey.) That is the fourth such naval group in the region, joining those sponsored by the European Union, NATO and the French.

Necessary adjustments
Cruise ships represent a small percentage of the overall ship traffic in that area, noted Good. “There are tens of thousands of ships each year that go through the Gulf of Aden,” he said. “It’s one of the busiest shipping channels in the world.”

Lanie Fagan, spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association, stated that members of her organization in the cruise ship business are following the advice from the Maritime Security Centre that recommends ships should avoid transiting within 600 nautical miles of the Somali coast. “Our ships are following this guidance and will continue to coordinate with military forces patrolling in the region,” she said.

And once in a while, when plans go a bit awry, cruise lines adjust. Gail Nicolaus, spokesperson for MSC Cruises, said the Melody had already altered its itinerary before last weekend’s attack to avoid pirates. Now MSC Cruises may reroute its cruise ships away from the east coast of Africa. “It’s in response to the recent things that have happened,” she said.

Still, Oceania’s Rubacky emphasized, the threat to cruise ships from pirates remains low. “The crew receives anti-piracy training,” he said. “We file sailing plans. We have inspectors from coalition forces who will visit prior to transit in the Gulf of Aden to make sure we have done all of our preparations. We also brief all our guests, so they know all the safety details.

“Security on cruise ships is better than you will find at most airports, hotels or major attractions around the world. It’s something the industry as a whole takes very seriously. We’re very well prepared to repel any act of piracy.”

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