THE CHAIN LOCKER
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Click for Navy statement
The Los Angeles-class submarine USS MIAMI caught fire last Wednesday while at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The fire was successfully extinguished and there were no serious casualties among the crew, shipyard firefighters, or civilian firefighters - quite a blessing, given the setting of the fire. 

I've never been aboard a modern submarine, but have toured a couple of WWII subs. If the spaces on USS MIAMI are anything like as constricted as those on the old subs, firefighting must be a nightmare! I've responded to fires in the relatively open space of a tugboat, and found it a frightening experience. So those who fought this fire have my wholehearted respect.

This would have been a good environment for the Naval Research Laboratory's firefighting robot SAFFiR (click "Fire Fighting Robot" in the Categories listing to the right of the page for that post). The two-legged equivalent of the air- or water-borne drone, SAFFiR is intended to be able to operate and interact on its own when necessary, and of course it doesn't need to breathe. It will be interesting to read about SAFFiR's first live shipboard firefighting test late next year. When you think about fighting a fire deep in the convoluted confined spaces of a submarine, a tool like SAFFiR has a lot of appeal.

The US Navy statement contains the basic facts about the fire, and can be found by clicking the sub's logo above - that will take you to Maritime Executive's site. And here's a good late wrapup from The Morning Sentinal, of Waterville, Maine, near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where the fire took place. It addresses the possibility that the sub may just be scrapped - and the effect that might have on the Navy's readiness, and on the local community, who depend on the shipyard for jobs.

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Fighting USS MIAMI fire at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
According to the Navy, no weapons were aboard at the time of the fire, and the nuclear reactor was undamaged. The fire burned primarily in the fore part of the sub, affecting living and command & control spaces. Many expensive components had been removed for the overhaul, and were thereby saved from damage.  So an argument could be made for rebuilding the sub and putting her back into service. SSN 755 MIAMI represents about 2% of US submarine capability. 

But it was also also noted that this class sub, the Los Angles class - although "improved" and updated - represents cold war technology and might not be worth rebuilding. The Navy will make a decision after evaluating the damage.

This incident seems a little different from the YEKATERINBURG nuclear sub fire in Murmansk last December. In that case, an external scaffolding fire ignited the sub's rubber armor, and the sub had to be partially sunk to finally extinguish the fire. Some of the YEKATERINBURG's crew stayed on board during the fire, according to reports. Here is a gCaptain blog post from 30 December, telling about as much as was known at that time about that fire.


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Firefighters battle YEKATERINBURG blaze in December, 2011
However, a later article in the Russian magazine Vlast stated that the Russian Navy's claim that no nuclear weapons were aboard YEKATERINBURG during the fire was false. According to a Huffington Post report dated 14 February, Vlast quoted several sources in the Russian navy as saying that throughout the fire on Dec. 29 the submarine was carrying 16 R-29 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each armed with four nuclear warheads"Russia, for a day, was on the brink of the biggest catastrophe since the time of Chernobyl," Vlast reported. 

YEKATERINBURG also had torpedoes and mines aboard at the time, and the fear was that if one of them exploded, the nuclear missiles and their warheads could have been affected. But Russian Navy spokesmen said that the nuclear missile areas are hardened and would not have been breached. Thank God, we didn't have to find out!

Shipboard firefighting is hard, dangerous work. We've all trained for it, and many of us have had to fight one. But I can't think of anything much worse than fighting a fire aboard a submarine. In both of these cases - MIAMI and YEKATERINBURG - things seem to have gone about as well as possible (except for the fire starting in the first place). But I look forward to learning more about both of these incidents, don't you? No matter how good the outcome, things are sure to have gone wrong; and that's how we learn.

Do you have any experience fighting shipboard fires, especially in the Navy? Comment and tell us about your experience!

 
 
THE CHAIN LOCKER
I spotted this YouTube video on the Naftrade site this morning. If you've wanted to see the faces and hear the voices of Somali pirates - and glean some idea of how their minds work - the video is helpful, though there's nothing fundamentally new here. It's by Journeyman TV, which has done some previous work in Somalia and some interesting work in hot spots around the world.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of everything presented, but it does give us a feeling for life in that desperate place, and covers piracy from several points of view - pirates as prisoners, pirates operating freely, and government officials who may or may not be working with pirate forces. 

It's always interesting to see people doing what they do, even when they know they're on camera. Their reaction to that, too, tells you something about them. So watch and enjoy!

Have you been to Somalia, or the region lately? Can you shed light from your experience on what's presented here? Please feel free to share your observations with the rest of us!
 
 
THE CHAIN LOCKER
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Shipowners form human SOS - click for MarineLink story
The 21st Asian Shipowners Forum, meeting in Australia, had piracy at the top of their agenda. To illustrate this, and show their support for the SaveOurSeafarers campaign, the owners got together to form the gigantic SOS shown in this photo (click the photo to go to the story on MarineLink.com).

 The Forum went strongly on record that not enough is being done to combat piracy. “Not only are these dangerous Somali pirates free to roam the Indian Ocean at will attacking and hijacking ships, they have not spared ships anchored in sovereign waters. Also, Somali pirates may serve as a strong inspiration for criminals in other states,” stated Mr. Patrick Phoon, ASF Safe Navigation & Environment Committee Chairman. “The safety and welfare of our seafarers and their families must remain of utmost importance. Discounting the economic cost of anywhere between US$3.5 and US$8 billion a year, we cannot ignore the lasting physical and psychological trauma suffered by our seafarers at the hands of these merciless outlaws.”

The Committee recognized that adoption of the Best Management Practices for Protection Against Somalia-Based Piracy (BMP4) were insufficient, by themselves, to protect shipping from piracy.

They also supported calls for the UN to establish an anti-piracy military task force, which had been proposed earlier by the Round Table of International Shipowners Associations (RTisa) - see this story from gCaptain for details of that plan. Basically, it calls for a dedicated UN force to deploy on ships passing through pirate-infested areas, and would apparently cover ALL ships, extending to everyone the protection private armed guards have provided so successfully to date, for those who have been willing to pay.

The Forum is the latest group to call for more to be done. But the world - aside from shipping interests who are directly affected, and their representative countries - remains fundamentally indifferent. Being human, everyone sees this through his own lens, so shipowners, for instance, tend to see the effect on business first - though to their credit they are concerned with seafarers' welfare too. Their support for SOS is appreciated!

But we still have seafarers who have been held for long periods, and seafarers who have been mistreated, tortured, or killed. Don't forget the MV Iceberg I sailors - 24 men who have been held for over two years, with one despairing crewman victim of suicide - who have been basically ignored since their shipowner went out of business and abandoned them. Their fate shows the lack of any useful mechanism for helping victims of piracy, aside from direct payment of ransom by the company involved. Surely the world can find better ways to deal with this problem, and to free the hundreds of hostages being held right now in unjust, abusive confinement.

Help raise piracy's profile by taking action yourself - support SOS, keep your friends informed, and do all you can to educate folks who are not directly involved in our industry, and who may not appreciate the magnitude of the problem. I know we'd all want somebody working on our side if we were being held hostage.

And tell us here what you are doing, so we can help, too. Thanks!

 
 
THE CHAIN LOCKER
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Heavy lift MAERSK TEXAS - click photo for gCaptain story
We just covered EU NAVFOR's attack on Somali pirate bases ashore near Haradheere, Somalia (see the last post), expressing the hope that pressure on shore  might put a crimp in pirate operations at sea. And well it might, eventually.

But the pirates' area of operations remains very large, as using motherships they cover a vast area that stretches from the Seychelles and the Maldives to the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea. 

A recent attack making the news took place near the Strait of Hormuz, and highlighted both the pirates' extended operating range and the effectiveness of embarked security teams. (Click the various "Enrica Lexie" and "Pirate" or "Piracy" links in the Categories list on the right side of the page for background information.)

MAERSK TEXAS was attacked in the Gulf of Oman (see map at bottom of post) by "numerous skiffs" that converged on the ship. The crew undertook action according to their Vessel Security Plan and fired warning shots. It's claimed the pirates then fired on the ship, when the armed guards returned fire, driving the skiffs off. The excellent gCaptain site has a good story with an exclusive response from Maersk - or click on the photo above to access that.

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Click photo to go to The Lede report about Iranian Navy assistance
MAERSK TEXAS also sent out a distress message, which was responded to by Iranian Navy units in the area. According to the Iranian news agency IRNA, “Upon arrival of Iranian forces the pirates who had attacked the American ships aboard some speed boats had to flee the scene.” The NY Times blog The Lede has a good wrap-up of that angle. 

Maersk and a spokesman for Combined Task Force 151, LCDR Mark Hankey, were unable to confirm the Iranian contribution, but it would not be surprising given broad anti-piracy cooperation in the region. Iran and the US, bitter enemies in other arenas, have cooperated to help each other in past piracy incidents. The Iranian Navy also stormed and freed MV XIANGHUAMEN recently.

So, embarked armed guards remain un-scored upon versus the pirates - although, according to one source, the pirates are upping their game with more sophisticated weapons (click "Pirates Up Ante" in the Categories list). I've read that about 40% of ships passing through the area off East Africa now use armed guards. 

It's possible that a campaign of shore-directed attacks, as the EU seems set to pursue, could sap pirate gangs' reserves and their ability to operate at long distances. But as long as the pirates' range of operations remains as large as it is, naval units will have difficulty meeting the threat. That leaves armed guards as the only entirely successful strategy deployed to date. 

And as the ENRICA LEXIE saga amply shows, properly implementing armed guards within a viable security response plan is vitally important if they are not to do nearly as much harm as good. It sounds as though Mearsk has got that part right!

As always, we want to hear from you, especially if you're on the scene or have passed through pirate waters recently. Please comment and let us know what you've seen and heard!

 
 
THE CHAIN LOCKER
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Click image for EU NAVFOR website
European Union forces have finally carried out their threatened action ashore in Somalia, attacking several pirate skiffs and other equipment near Haradheere. There are many reports available, but as usual gCaptain has the best wrapup and some unique interviews with Somali eyewitnesses.

Marine Log gives the plain-vanilla industry view; Lloyd's story goes into more detail and draws out the fear that hostages will be harmed in retaliation, which is the first thing that occurred to me. About 300 seamen are hostage in Somalia - most of them currently being held aboard their ships. 

What's to keep the pirates from holding hostages ashore at their equipment dumps, or - more worryingly - selecting individuals for abuse or killing as a response to attacks? 


Well, nothing, really - so this could be the start of a high-stakes game of chicken in which seamen stand to be hurt. 

On the other hand, taking the longer view, any action that cripples pirate activity would spare future sailors from having to share the fate of those now in captivity. 

This could be the start of larger operations ashore to attack pirate activity at its source - and, if successful, perhaps eliminate the threat. We'll have to wait and see how each side plays the game - and I'm pulling for EU NAVFOR.

Are you in the area - or have talked with someone who is? Please comment and let us know what's going on!

 
 
THE CHAIN LOCKER
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Everyone will remember the story of Adrian Vasquez (click "Fishermen Ignored" and "Star Princess" in the Categories column on the right side of the page for earlier stories & links). 

The 18-year-old Panamanian and two friends, 16 & 24, were out fishing, trying to make some money after Adrian lost his job at a hotel. The motor in their small fishing boat died, and the trio drifted offshore. After more than two weeks, with one of the boys on the point of death, they saw the 109,000GT cruise ship STAR PRINCESS steaming by and desperately began to wave their shirts to indicate their distress. But STAR PRINCESS never acknowledged their presence. 16-year-old Fernando Osario died that night, and 24-year-old Oropeces Betancourt died five days later. (I've seen this order reversed in some stories - however it happened, they were both dead shortly after being passed by the cruise ship.)

Two weeks after sighting the cruise ship the lone survivor, Adrian, was picked up near the Galapagos Islands by Ecuadorian Coast Guard. He was 1000Km from the coast they had set out from a month before.


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AIS track of STAR PRINCESS and track of FIFTY CENTS as it drifted
The green line in the image at left is the track of  STAR PRINCESS; the ragged red line is the track followed by the three young men as they drifted westward in their disabled boat FIFTY CENTS. 

As you can see, it was an amazing coincidence that FIFTY CENTS passed close to the cruise ship at all, in that vast expanse - and it must have been a crushing disappointment to have been ignored and left to die. 

Princess Cruises contends that they weren't ignored on purpose, and it seems very likely to me that that they were not - no matter how hard I try, I can't imagine a bridge team failing to stop for a vessel in distress! The breakdown seems to have been in communication between the crew member to whom the passengers reported - now identified as a sales agent for the cruise line - and the bridge.

The Captain claims that neither he nor his bridge team were actually notified, although I did read one story in which a passenger claimed that the crew member had communicated with someone via walkie-talkie, and had been told that he was talking to the bridge. But apparently the message never got there. 

I also wonder what the lookouts were doing! I've never been on a ship's bridge where something like that wouldn't have been reported and evaluated. Of course, on many ships it's common practice for no lookouts to be posted during daylight hours, and that may have been the case here.

The sole survivor Adrian has filed suit in a Florida court.  This story from International Business Times brings us up to date on the latest developments. 

Another article from World News Australia shows the international interest in the story, and focuses on the witnesses' accounts - play the video on that page for interviews with them. The witnesses are insistent that they informed a member of the crew; they are distressed that the information they provided wasn't acted on, and sound as though they will be testifying against the cruise line in the trial. 

Finally, in this blog post from Cruise Law News, a lawyer experienced in admiralty law predicts that Princess will try to get the case dismissed rather than let a Florida jury hear the emotional testimony in the case. He points out the high international interest in the case and the damage it causes to cruising's image, coming right after the COSTA CONCORDIA incident.

Whatever happens next, I find myself firmly in Adrian Vasquez' corner. To imagine apparent salvation sailing serenely out of sight reminds me of a horrific image that sometimes haunted me at sea - the image of a man fallen overboard, watching his ship sail off without him. It's the kind of thought that gives a seaman nightmares, and Vasquez and his friends had to experience it. So as far as I'm concerned, he deserves anything he can get in the way of settlement - and the cruise industry has another safety issue to address.

Do you know the cruise industry? Can you give any insight into how such a thing could happen? Please comment and tell us what you think!

 
 
THE CHAIN LOCKER
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A Royal Navy team boarding a pirate skiff on the Somali coast. Photographer: Rex Features via AP Images - click photo for Bloomberg story
You'll remember a short time ago that a video clip of a security team repelling a pirate attack went viral (click "Pirates Up Ante" in the Categories column). Although it excited a lot of comment, no one knew what ship it took place on, or who the security team was. Now, thanks to Bloomberg, we have some information, though there's more I'd like to know.

The ship was AVOCET belonging to Eagle Bulk Shipping, an American company. The security company has been identified as Trident Group of Virginia Beach, VA. The Bloomberg story tells us a lot we didn't know previously, but doesn't get into the weeds with regard to warning shots or escalation of force (EOF), because neither the shipping company nor the security firm would comment. The head of the security firm did say that he was "absolutely" satisfied that his company's operating procedures were legal. 

There are a dozen ways to look at this situation, based on the video - but we can't really make any informed judgment without knowing more. For instance, EOF: were other defense measures taken prior to the shooting in the video? None were shown. If those were *warning shots* then I hope no one ever tries to warn me of something that way. 


The Trident representative also said that an AK-47 round narrowly missed one of his men, indicating that the pirates were shooting back. In the video, with all the shooting from the ship's end, any shots from the skiff are drowned out, so we can't tell. And unless someone comes clean with a complete, unvarnished account of what really went down that day, we'll never know.

Most people I've talked to about this video admit to similar misgivings. But for all that, they feel that the pirates had it coming and wouldn't have been hurt if they hadn't been there. As a seaman, I tend to that view myself. But there's an unorganized, ad hoc tenor to the action in the video that looks like potential trouble to me. 

I was a patrol boat crewman in Vietnam; as a military unit we operated under clear orders with regard to escalation of force. We never started in with gunfire, although we eventually had to resort to it more than once. 


It seems to me that AVOCET's security guards (or the shipping company) should have included fixed EOF procedures and a few non-lethal warning measures in their arsenal - something like the water cannon shown in an earlier post (click "Piracy Water Cannon" in the Categories column) or a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) that could penetrate the loud background noise in the skiff. Warning shots don't warn if the subject can't hear them. Deadly force should always be the last resort, not the first.

Fishermen may be in a similar type of boat, and fishermen may even carry guns. Unless you're sure you're dealing with pirates, you may end up killing innocent fishermen, as in the ENRICA LEXIE case (for background, see "Fishermen Shot", "Enrica Lexie Settlement" and "Enrica Lexie Released" in the Categories column). A sloppy response to a perceived pirate threat could land you in serious legal trouble.

The difference between my Navy experience and operations like these is oversight. We were under constant oversight, so far as our communications could provide it, and our operations also had to be reported in detail after the fact. Not to say that's a perfect or even a satisfactory system - atrocities happen in every war in spite of oversight. 


But in the AVOCET case, we have the opposite of oversight - all concerned have clammed up tight. Maritime's governing authorities have no idea what went on. And this attitude is apparently widespread - according to the Bloomberg article some armed guard contracts explicitly require the shipowner not to report an attack. 

This lack of transparency is bound to bite someone in the nether parts sooner or later. One could argue that it already has bitten ENRICA LEXIE's owners, as well as robbing two Indian families of their breadwinners. 


The recently-issued IMO guidelines for armed guards are a start, but are non-binding, and regulations governing these sorts of things usually take years to be developed. Maybe the flag states could take it up individually, because lack of direction in this area could be costly. Armed guards have proven to be an effective anti-piracy measure; poor implementation and lack of transparency should not be allowed to diminish that effectiveness.

In the meantime, private security companies - along with their customers - might do well to agree on basic principles of conduct and EOF - and to be more transparent about their operations, not less.

As usual, we want to hear from you! Are you on the scene - have you worked on one of the 42,500 ships that transit the region yearly? Then you probably have strong feelings on this topic. Let us know how you see it!

 
 
THE CHAIN LOCKER
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Click on photo to go to lngcoldfacts.com blog
I wanted to let everyone know that I've started a new blog, focussing specifically on LNG and LNG shipping, on the WordPress blogging platform. It's called lngcoldfacts.com, and that's the URL, too: http://lngcoldfacts.com/ I hope you'll click on over and have a look. 

The Chain Locker blog will stay right here, and will continue to highlight general maritime interests; only (I hope) getting better in response to your feedback! 

And I especially encourage you to comment and criticize the new blog, if you feel like helping to shape and focus it - being brand new new, it can really benefit from your informed questions and good suggestions. I want it to become a reliable source of information about LNG, and an interesting forum for discussion on that topic. I need your help! So don't be shy.

You can leave comments here or over at the new blog - I'll respond to them either way. Please let me know what you think! And thanks.

 
 
THE CHAIN LOCKER
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Abandoned ICEBERG 1 - click photo for gCaptain story
I was reading the KENNEBEC CAPTAIN blog last night, and was struck with something I already knew, but had carelessly allowed to drop out of my consciousness: the shameful fate of the crew of ICEBERG 1. These longest-held pirate captives marked their 2-year anniversary over a month ago. 

There are 23 of them now, although there had been 24 - one committed suicide in October 2010. They are being held in cramped, unhealthy conditions aboard ship, have been tortured by some accounts, and are being provided little food and unclean water. Reportedly (and understandably) several are suffering from acute psychological issues. 

A good summary of their situation appeared a month ago in the very good gCaptain blog on the second anniversary of their captivity. As the IBN video above reports, almost nothing is being done for the men or their families. The company that had owned the ship, Azal Shipping and Cargo, has gone out of business, abandoning the ship and crew to their fate. 

A story on IBN Live marked the anniversary of their captivity, but didn't suggest any action for concerned parties to take. And apparently the national governments of the various crewmembers - they are from Yemen, India, Ghana, Sudan, Pakistan & Philippines - have done little or nothing.

The Kennebec Captain blog post expressed hope that other maritime blogs would take up the story and bring it to wider attention. This justly stung me when I read it, because that's exactly what I've failed to do, although I have been aware of the situation. It's so easy to ignore someone else in trouble - a little righteous indignation, but then you move on to the next item of interest. I checked on Twitter, and found one post! But their suffering and despair, unlike the world's attention, goes on.

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So I'd like to state that I'm going to do what I can to bring this story to people's attention. I can tweet about it, mention and link to it in maritime forums, and link to stories about the situation here on the blog. Will you also do what you're able to do? Imagine yourself in their situation. Perhaps we can make enough noise to mitigate their conditions and let them know that they're not forgotten.

It's criminal that these men have fallen through the cracks and have been left to rot, simply because the usual avenue to freedom - ransom paid by their employer - is no longer available. Please take action! And let the rest of us know what you're doing - it will encourage and inspire other avenues of action. God bless these poor men!

 
 
THE CHAIN LOCKER
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ENRICA LEXIE under Indian arrest - click photo to go to BBC story
Another step has been taken in the the ENRICA LEXIE episode, as the Supreme Court has decided that the ship can depart Indian waters. Italy has given assurances that any crew members, and the ship itself, will be made available to Indian authorities as and when they may require them. Click the photo at left for the BBC story, and see another story from Deccan Herald, and also from Economic Times. And finally, for another slant from the victims' point of view, see this article from Asian Age

In good news for some captive seafarers: another Italian ship, the ENRICO LEVOLI, which had been hijacked about four months ago, has been ransomed and released. This story from Safety4Sea gives an eyewitness account from one victim. As in another similar case (click "Piracy Survivor Alex" in Categories on the right side of the page) a terrifying moment for the victims came right after the ransom was paid - when the hostages wondered whether they'd be released, or killed - now that the pirates no longer needed them alive. However, all ended well and the men are going home to their families. 

I was interested to note that in the ENRICO LEVOLI case the crew might have been saved from capture if they'd been able to mount some resistance to delay the pirate takeover. A Turkish helicopter, dispatched in response to the Captain's distress call, arrived on scene just twenty minutes after the hijackers took control of the ship. 

Maritime Connector has an interesting article about evolving tactics among Somalian pirates. After a period during which they used captured vessels as mother ships, the pirates are beginning to go back to using dhows. Captured vessels are well-known and more easily tracked, especially as the world's navies intensify their efforts in the region. But a dhow, like thousands of other dhows used by local people for fishing and transport, can provide obscurity through sheer ubiquity. Among so many dhows, which one is the pirate? Guerrilla warfare on the sea - it was effective in Vietnam, as I can testify.

Tanker Operator gives a good rundown of piracy hotspots worldwide, including Somalia, Nigeria, and Southeast Asia. Tactics vary between regions. For instance, recently a tug was hijacked in the South China Sea, the crew robbed and set adrift, and the containers on the barge the tug was towing were then opened and rifled for goods. This is a common tactic in that region. In Nigeria, by contrast, robbery or kidnapping are more usual. And we know that Somalian pirates usually take control of the ship and crew. 

Not fun in any case. And piracy seems to be gaining momentum - often driven (at least in the case of African piracy) by social disintegration and poverty in the countries the pirates call home. Nothing excuses pirate violence, which is also on the increase - but a neglected, uncultivated field will grow weeds. . . And we know that military force hasn't stemmed the tide.

Many of us see the piracy problem from a distance - but you may be sailing through affected waters right now, or know someone who is! Please comment with your point of view: on defensive tactics, causes, remedies, responses - we want to know what you think!