A tanker in the Gulf of Aden uses fire hoses to keep pirates away.
A tanker in the Gulf of Aden uses fire hoses to keep pirates away.
Olivier Grivat

SUEZ CANAL — In Port Said, Egypt, at the mouth of the Suez Canal, three private guards, one from Romania and two from Ukraine, board the Monte Rosa, a 20,000-ton Swiss tanker captained by Viacheslav Gavrilov. Their destination is Sri Lanka by way of the Gulf of Aden, a 12-day journey.

The captain, a 44-year-old from St. Petersburg, heads a crew of Ukrainian and Russian officers, Filipino sailors and a Burmese electrician. There is not a single Swiss person among them. Only English and Russian are spoken.

Gavrilov and his crew have good reason to bring the guards aboard. In the Gulf of Aden, Somali pirates, often disguised as fishermen, stalk yachts and merchant ships to rob them or take their passengers hostage. Several years ago there was even talk in Switzerland about deploying the military to protect the country's ocean vessels.

As the Monte Rosa nears the southern exit of the Suez Canal, the Filipino crew members, armed with tongs and heavy gloves, unfurl rolls of razor-sharp barbed wire, which they wrap round the hull. The Romanian guard, Andrei, oversees the operation from behind dark sunglasses. The 37-year-old former police officer was contracted out by Seagull Maritime Security, an Israeli company based in Malta and Cyprus.

"This work serves primarily as a deterrent, but the owner who neglects these precautions may be at risk," he says. "Pirates are aware of the value of cargo carried through maritime sites. They can see which ships are poorly protected, and pounce on their prey with fast boats."

Early in the morning, crew members perform a pratice drill. At the sound of a siren, they quickly gather in the "citadel," a difficult-to-reach hideaway in the hold that has been fitted with armored doors and stocked with about 72 hours worth of food and water. The access walkways are usually greased to slow down would-be attackers.

"I know a sailor who spent six months in the hands of pirates," one of the Filipino sailors explains. "He was skin and bone when they released him."

Chugging along at 13 knots, the ship heads for the island of Barr Kabir Musa, off Sudan, where the security team takes delivery of weapons and ammunition. In the dark, a fast boat docks the Monte Rosa, handing over a box full of Serbian-made Zastava machine guns, ammunition and protective equipment (helmets with GoPro, vests, etc.).

Six barrels are filled with water and used as shields. The men carry out an exercise with live ammunition. Their targets are a pair of manikins dressed in work clothes, sunglasses and helmet.

The Swiss vessel is due to arrive in Djibouti the next day. But it already faces clear and present danger. Through binoculars, a fishing boat shows up in the opposite direction. Seven or eight people are sitting in the back. Andrei, the Romanian guard, is not reassuring. "It could swing past but then come back for us at nightfall," he says.

Paying for private protection

The European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) has a base in Djibouti from which it patrols several million square kilometers of water in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. Switzerland plays no part in the military operations despite lobbying efforts carried out in 2008 by the Swiss ship owner's association after several close-call incidents involving Swiss-owned ships. In December 2008, a ship called the Sabina was followed by pirate fast boats while traveling from Italy to the Gulf of Aden. Its calls for help went unanswered. Fortunately, the would-be attackers eventually turned away. Three months later, the Nyon, a Swiss cargo ship carrying Ukrainian iron ore, had a similar experience.

Others, however, argued that deploying soldiers would only exaccerbate the problem, that they might "cause carnage," as one military strategy expert from the University of Zurich suggested. A better strategy, he told Le Temps, would be to put Swiss boats under Russian or American flags. Questions were also raised about Switzerland's famous neutrality. What would happen, for example, if Swiss soldiers took pirates as prisoners?

In the end, the Federal Council decided against the proposal. As a result, shipping companies like Swiss Chem Tankers, the Zurich-based firm that owns the Monte Rosa, have had to seek private security assistance. Andrei and his colleagues are a case in point. Their services for this particular trip cost $16,700.

"With private guards, costs are higher, but they get passed on to whoever contracted the shipment," says Michael Eichmann, a spokesperson with Swiss Chem Tankers.

Arriving off Sri Lanka, the Monte Rosa remains in international waters because of the presence of weapons on board. A special maritime agent is sent out to collect the guards and bring them to shore, where they are escorted through Sri Lankan customs.

The Monte Rosa, loaded with Moroccan phosphoric acid, resumes its journey through stormy waters, this time to Kakinada, India. There it will take on new cargo and sail to Indonesia before finally returning to Hamburg via the Suez Canal, for which it will need new guards, a new round of emergnecy drills, and new rollls of barbed wire.

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