The pleasures of cruising, especially on an ocean liner like Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, are many and I shall continue to wax lyrical about them for many years to come, but nobody tells you about the perils.
On a six week sector of the 2012 World Cruise, I ate pancakes (plenty of pancakes, not to mention the pastries), and discovered that piracy drills on board are now compulsory, especially when travelling through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea (or anywhere near Somalia for that matter).
On 29th March this year, right between Langkawi, Malaysia and Colombo, Sri Lanka we made preparations in case of pirates.
All passengers were told to return to their staterooms at 10.30 am. Anyone with an interior cabin (no balcony or windows) could retire to the comfort of the room and remain there behind closed doors for the duration of the drill. Anyone with an exterior cabin was required to sit in the corridor outside the room – not directly in front of the door, mind you – whilst the Captain fed us titbits of information over the intercom.
He told us that if the pirates attempted to approach, or worse, board Queen Elizabeth and were thwarted in their attempts to take over the liner (as they would be – it’s Cunard!), they may take out their frustration by shooting at the windows of the ship to make a point or cause collateral damage. It was Cunard’s mission to ensure that no passengers or crew would become injured by flying or broken glass.
Sagely, the Captain avoided any mention of AK47s or bullets in his little safety speech to us.
As alarming as this all appeared we became reassured that we were in safe hands. Cunard had enlisted the services of a Royal Navy Liaison Officer, no less, who was on board to guide and advise the Captain and his officers through the dangerous waters and to give the passengers an information lecture on piracy.
I attended his lectures (the first was so popular it was repeated) and learned quite a bit:
- The Somali pirates disguise themselves as fishermen to avoid detection.
- They follow a Rule of Committee, not unlike what was used by Blackbeard.
- Their business model is kidnap for ransom.
- They do not give up unless they cannot board the other vessel or are threatened.
- Any vessels flying under a British flag can employ armed security teams to protect against piracy.
- No vessel travelling with armed guards has been taken.
I am pleased to report that Cunard does employ armed guards, along with other deterrents such as: closed-circuit cameras, fire hoses with sea water (to blast in the intruder’s eyes as they try to board), long range acoustic devices (gives them sore ears) and razor wire. Also, the speed at which Queen Elizabeth can travel makes it very difficult for pirates to reach or keep up with her.
Following the drill and ensuing lectures, the strict security measures were to be in place for the following two weeks as we sailed closer to the dangerous waters of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. We would be sailing through an internationally approved transit corridor, frequently patrolled by the forces of NATO and tracked by the European Union and the British Navy.
Every evening our cabins were to have the curtains drawn and we were asked to turn off any unnecessary lighting in order to prevent any ‘points of aim’ for the pirates. After 1.00am all the deck lights were also turned off.
The running track that circles Deck 3 was to be out-of-bounds at the end of each day. This proved to be my only grievance with the pirates because the curfew time seemed to change daily and I was accustomed to donning my iPod and going for twilight walks in order to burn off all the pancakes I was consuming.
The closest call we had was on April 8th when a tanker, travelling 8 miles ahead of us, sent a radio message that it felt threatened. These words were sufficient for the security forces to take action and a NATO warship was able to respond to the VHF call for help within 10 minutes. On Queen Elizabeth’s bridge, precautions were taken that included altering our course, preparing our water hoses, and clearing the jogging deck until we passed the danger.
According to the International Maritime Bureau these pirate attacks have been reduced by a substantial percentage and that is due to prevention measures implemented by the private security firms employed for this purpose.
Thanks to the vigilance on board Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, we were safe from any threats from pirates, and continued to eat pancakes (plenty of pancakes, not to mention the pastries…) throughout the wonderful voyage.