Crews have held pirates off with Molotov cocktails, crates of rubbish and oil drums. They've electrified handrails, sprayed attackers with high-pressure fire hoses and simply kicked the pirates' rickety ladders overboard.
But owners of ships plying the pirate-infested waters off Somalia's coast have balked at having firearms onboard, despite an increasing number of attacks where bullets pierced hulls or rocket propelled grenades whooshed overhead.
The reason is twofold: Owners fear pirates would be more likely to continue shooting once on board if they confronted weapons, and the company might be held liable for deaths or injuries inflicted by someone on the vessel.
"There's basically resistance to the idea of armed guards because of the risk of escalation ... possible harm to the crew," said Neil Roberts, a senior technical executive at Lloyd's Market Association, which provides support to underwriters with Lloyd's, the largest maritime insurance marketplace in the world. "Most ship owners don't encourage it."
The brief taking of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama by pirates Wednesday has again highlighted the issue of protecting vessels traveling the waters off the Horn of Africa. The American crew was able to wrest control of the vessel from the pirates without weapons, but the captain was taken hostage as the hijackers escaped, leading to a standoff with the U.S. Navy.
While the American government supports putting armed guards on ships as one of many preventative strategies, the British have been more reticent, expressing fears over possible court cases and the lack of clear, standard rules of engagement.
The International Maritime Organization suggests using unarmed security consultants to train crews and advise captains on evasive maneuvers or vulnerable areas of the ship, but it discourages the use of armed guards. Not only is the legality of engaging possible pirates unclear, the group said, some ships carry explosive cargoes like chemicals or gas which a stray bullet could turn into a fireball.
In a case last November, a pirated Thai vessel being used as a mother ship was sunk by the Indian navy after it came under fire. Of the fifteen sailors being held hostage onboard, only one survived.
Crews often outgunned
Graeme Gibbon Brooks, founder of Dryad Maritime Intelligence Ltd., said his company did not provide armed guards although they were often asked by clients for advice on a firm to hire.
He noted that one of the biggest problems with carrying weapons is that ships may often be outgunned. Pirates tend to use long-range assault rifles capable of firing up to 600 rounds a minute, he said, whereas sailors or guards carrying weapons must satisfy the laws of both the ship's flag carrier and the nations where the vessel will dock. Many countries will only allow shotguns — traditionally used for bird control — with a much shorter range than the pirates' weapons.
"Essentially in that situation you're getting into a sword fight armed with a dagger," Brooks said.
Ship owners have shown little appetite for more serious weaponry. Last October, the American firm XE — then known as Blackwater — offered a ship fitted with helicopters and armed guards for escorting vessels past the lawless Somalia coast. But spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the company, had had no takers so far. Blackwater, which provided private security in Iraq, is under investigation for its role in the fatal shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.
Nonlethal weaponry, like long-range acoustic devices, which blast a powerful wave of sound at attackers, also have their drawbacks. The devices came under scrutiny last year when three security contractors were forced to jump overboard after pirates overran the ship despite the devices. The two Brits and one Irishmen were fished from the sea by a naval helicopter while pirates made off with the vessel.
Statistics were not available on the number of attacks in which firearms have been used in the taking of ships off the coast of Somalia, but observers said the pirate were becoming more violent.
A Nairobi-based diplomat, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, used yesterday's gunfire aimed at the Maersk Alabama as an example.
Ship bridges are targets
"The captain was under fire as he was making his mayday calls," he said. "Pirates regularly machine-gun the bridge of ships or fire a (rocket propelled grenade) at it to encourage the captain to stop. ... This has become more common since mid-last year."
Security consultant Crispian Cuss at London-based Olive Group said his company prefers using non-lethal evasive maneuvers to elude pirates. But, he said, having armed guards onboard — which his company provides — can be a useful deterrent since pirates were more likely to seek easier prey if they were fired on.
Once pirates are onboard, however, there is usually little crews can do to resist, despite the dramatic standoff between American sailors onboard the Maersk Alabama and their Somali attackers. Having the crew lock themselves in a safe area — usually a room with a steel door that opens from the inside and has access to water, electricity and provisions — has only a limited impact, said Cuss.
"It's not desperately recommendable because then you lose the ability to control the vessel," Cuss said. "If someone has a gun and he's onboard your boat, just do what he tells you."