Pirates, guns and money

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The night was dark, the noise ominous.

I was standing watch on the Lady Margaret, an 82-foot fishing yacht anchored in a cove of an unnamed dot of an island in the Bahamas. It was the late 1980s. I was the yacht’s captain.

The noise was well-known to yachtsman in the Bahamas. It was a go-fast boat used by Bahamian smugglers, fast enough to outrun the Bahamian Defense Force and U.S. Coast Guard vessels. The go-fast was running without lights. The Lady Margaret had her anchor lights on and was an easy target.

Smugglers were one thing; they can go about their business without involving my boat. But pirates frightened me.

Pirates are pervasive around the world. One hundred two pirate attacks were reported by the International Marine Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center in the first three months of 2009. That is an increase of almost 20 percent compared to the fourth quarter of 2008.

I was prepared to fight back that night. I was on deck with a loaded M-16. The go-fast’s engines shrieking turbines were coming closer quickly.

It makes no sense to be unarmed at sea. Open water and places far from the civilized world invite lawlessness. Piracy at sea goes back centuries and now the boats are faster and maneuver more quickly than when powered by wind alone.

The PRC documented that during the first quarter of this year, 178 crew members were taken hostage, nine were injured, five kidnapped and two killed. In the majority of the raids, the attackers were armed with guns and knives. The pirates are not sophisticated fighters.

There is a solution to the piracy problem, however. The owners of merchant ships should create an industry: seagoing security.

The cargo and ships are worth millions. Who can put a price on the life of a merchant mariner? The ransoms the pirates are demanding are also in the millions. This is big business without appropriate security.

If merchant-ship owners hired armed, well-trained mercenaries, the pirates would quickly learn another old law of the sea called the tonnage law. The unwritten law says the “little guy” has to get out of the way of the “big guy.” A well-armed merchant ship would make the “big guy” concept more comprehensible to the pirates.

I was a skilled yacht captain. Yes, I knew how to shoot, and I was willing to do so, but that wasn’t my job. When the noise of the go-fast’s engines receded into the night, I loosened my grip on the M-16. My palms were sweaty. Fighting, killing and maybe being killed were not what I signed on for. I just wanted to enjoy the yachting lifestyle and get paid for it.

We live in a world where a pirate is not a mystical Captain Hook type or a swaggering, good-looking Johnny Depp, but a real life, coldblooded, armed professional demanding a lot of money.

We need creative new occupations. Seagoing security should be a new growth industry.

Lon Matejczyk is publisher of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He can be reached at Lon.Matejczyk@csbj.com or 329-5202.