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Pirate Hunter

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Pirate Hunter Empty Pirate Hunter

Post by Ted-Pencry on 18/8/2013, 11:30

Pirate hunter: How a British ex-Marine and bodyguard to the stars escaped death fighting the most feared hijackers on the high seas - only to find they were run by a secret network of Somali spies in London

  • Carl 'Rocky' Mason works as a professional 'pirate hunter'

  • Entered maritime security in 1991, chasing criminals off the African coast

  • He soon discovered the source of the problem was a lot closer to home

The grip around my neck tightened. I was standing on the bridge of a huge container ship in the middle of the South China Sea, staring into the crazed eyes of an African pirate leader with a knife at my throat. There were ten others with him.

‘We want this ship to take us to Canada. And $3,000 each,’ he screamed. His men had already stabbed the first officer and thrown him overboard.

I was dressed in a suit and tie. They thought I was an insurance agent from Lloyd’s of London, there to negotiate a ransom. But  I wasn’t. I was part of a group of pirate hunters preparing to retake the hijacked ship.

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Armed: Carl 'Rocky' Mason, pictured on a pirate hunting mission holding an automatic rifle, started in maritime security in 1991

‘No problem,’ I replied, placing  a large bag on the table. I started talking about the route to Canada.
The leader snatched the bag and opened it. As the pirates stared, mesmerised by all that cash,  my five colleagues struck. Doug kicked the door in. ‘Everybody down!’ he screamed, throwing me a baseball bat.The bridge was like a scene from the Burt Lancaster blockbuster Crimson Pirate as we fought, bats versus swords. I jumped on the pirate leader, hammering him into the deck with my fists. Soon the bruised and bloodied villains were trussed up. It was 1998 and, as it turned out, just the start of my adventures with pirates.
Everybody knows the names  of Paul and Rachel Chandler,  captured while sailing in the Indian Ocean, and Judith Tebbutt, snatched on holiday in Kenya. But most of piracy’s thousands of victims remain faceless: the badly paid crews of cargo ships or oil tankers, Bangladeshis and Filipinos desperate to earn a living.

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Frisky business: Rocky performs a body search on a pirate onboard a ship off the coast of Singapore

The scale is vast. Between 2005 and 2012, more than 3,740 crew members from 125 countries fell prey to Somali pirates. Nearly 100 of them died. During that time, pirates took about £250 million in ransoms. Pirate activity has gone up by 50 per cent each year since 2006, increasing insurance premiums tenfold and driving up the price of everyday goods.

Between 80 and 90 per cent of the world’s trade relies on sea transport, with half of that – billions of pounds’ worth – funnelled through the Gulf of Aden, that part of the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia, through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal to Europe. It’s crucial for the transport of Persian Gulf oil.
And everything is fair game for the pirates, from 1,000ft-long oil tankers to tiny sailing boats with two people on board – as in the case of the Chandlers. They were seized in October 2009 and held for 388 days.
The huge scale of the problem makes it all the more remarkable that the  hub of this trade in misery is London – the world’s centre of shipbroking and insurance.

The pirates’ moneymen and informers lie hidden among the city’s large but nearly invisible Somali population. Some 15,000 Somalis live in the borough of Tower Hamlets, and a further 5,000 in Hackney.

In London I met Michael, a fisherman-turned-pirate from Puntland, a notorious region of Somalia. ‘Pirates are like celebrities where I come from,’ he told me as he described the pirate world  of his homeland.
He explained the workings of ‘The Corporation’ – a council of high-ranking pirates – and the unlikely sounding pirate stock exchange in the central Somali town of Xarardheere, where locals buy shares in 72 individual pirate ‘companies’ with names such as the Somali Marines.

The entire economy of Puntland revolves around piracy, with hundreds of men, women and children employed as guards, scouts, cooks, deckhands, mechanics, skiff-builders, accountants and tea-makers.
‘So many people in Somalia are desperate for a handful of grain, but pirates can feast on steak and lobster and drink pints of watermelon juice,’ Michael told me.

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Low guard: Rocky, seen on the deck on the left, only had an iron bar to defend himself and the crew of the MV Biscaglia when pirates attacked

He explained how officials in the Puntland ‘government’ work with the pirates and how the pirates use employees of shipping companies as informers. This explains how the raiders can find their targets in a million square miles of ocean. There are telephone calls around the world whenever a ship is hijacked – but the most important of all are the calls to London.

Securing the release of hostages is the responsibility of another hidden population – of lawyers, negotiators and security teams in Britain, while a large chunk of any ransom money goes to pay government officials, Islamist extremists and London spies.

The going rate for ransoms is about £1.3 million, but one Korean ship fetched £6 million.
The Karagöl, a Turkish chemical tanker captured in 2008, had been  singled out as a target by a network of UK-based informers. They had gathered so much detail on targets that  the pirates knew its layout, route and cargo and even practised the assault.

This pattern has been repeated time and again, and I remain convinced this was the case with the Biscaglia, the first ship I was sent to guard in ‘Pirate Alley’ – and very nearly my last.
My life in private maritime security began back in 1991 when the first Gulf War broke out. I had just left my job as a marine commando and my new role was advising the captains of Maersk ships transporting equipment through the Straits of Hormuz up to American troops in Kuwait.

The threat then was from Exocet missiles and mines. Other adventures, such as that violent encounter in the South China Sea, soon followed.

Next I ran a small movie security company and performed military stunts in big films, including the Phantom Menace, Tomorrow Never Dies and GoldenEye. After a few years I decided to try a career in ‘close protection’. The Qatari royal family hired me and I’ve guarded Jamie Oliver and Oasis, among many others.
But I wanted something a bit more exotic and told some old marine contacts I was looking for excitement. So I found myself being interviewed by one of a growing number of specialist security firms, mostly founded and staffed by former members of the  Special Forces.

It remains a secretive world. But they liked the fact that  I had maritime  experience, and soon I was on my first mission with them. On November 26, 2008, I flew to guard the MV Biscaglia, a 27,000-ton chemical tanker heading through the Gulf of Aden. Our three-day trip would end in Djibouti, the northern exit point of the Gulf’s danger zone.

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Under attack: Rocky had to run down the steps at the back of the photograph to get to the back of the ship and aid the crew who had been rounded up by the pirates

Three of us were charged with defending the 28-crew ship: myself and two colleagues named John and Mike. By law we were banned from carrying lethal weapons in some jurisdictions – and still are. I asked the captain for razor wire to line the rails. 
He shook his head. ‘What about hoses?’ He  nodded. These sent out 30ft jets of water to sink pirate skiffs. Every third hose fired steam to make things more uncomfortable.

Our other weapon was the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which fired an eardrum-bursting screech supposed to induced nausea and blackouts. Finally, and most reassuringly, we were part of a convoy of a dozen merchant ships, while a group of international warships, including  a Royal Navy helicopter carrier, would be on patrol nearby.

Out at sea, I rose at dawn to find that the convoy had vanished. Somehow we’d lost the other ships. Had someone on board altered our course? It stank of a set-up, an inside job.
A motionless skiff was lurking in the water about four miles away and we were heading in their direction. Suddenly, one mile off, five men got up from the boat’s bottom. They were carrying AK-47s.
I hit the alarm and radioed a Mayday to the international warships.  I got everyone off the deck and to  the bridge just in time, as I heard the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 being fired. 
The skiff was approaching rapidly. We got hold of the  UK Maritime Trade Operation (UKMTO), which co-ordinates the deployment of the UK’s military response to pirates. But we were told that the nearest warship’s helicopter had already been sent out elsewhere – to a false alarm. It was another sign that this pirate attack had been meticulously planned.
We opened the water cannons and turned on the steam, but the skiff evaded them. A teenager in a red  T-shirt lifted up an AK-47 and opened fire. 
Then one of the pirates hoisted a rocket-propelled grenade to his shoulder. Our ship was carrying palm oil – one of the two key ingredients of napalm. He fired. We ducked. There was a huge explosion and I looked up to see a fireball  rising from the ship’s funnel.

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Victims: British sailors Paul and Rachel Chandler were kidnapped by Somalian pirates in October 2009 and released a year later

The pirates were firing constantly and soon they were on board. John, Mike and I dodged them and hid as the crew was rounded up. There was little we could do. I knew the pirates would take us to their mother ship, wherever it was anchored – but there was no way I wanted to spend the next few months in Somalia.
‘We have one option – abandon ship!’ I said to the other two.
The bridge was too high to jump from so we sprinted towards the back, jumping down level after level, with bullets bouncing off  everything. We hung from the side for a second . . . and let go.
About 40 minutes after we had hit the water, we were hauled aboard a German rescue helicopter.
After its capture, the Biscaglia was berthed off the Somali coast, near the pirate lair of Eyl, an extraordinary town where, at the time of writing, 28 vessels and 587 hostages are held.

Almost two months after she was taken, the handover took place without incident and the Biscaglia was released with all crew – traumatised but safe. Han, a 22-year-old Bangladeshi man, said that the pirates treated them like slaves. Some were tortured. Han saw 11 pirated ships put to sea to act as mother ships. These allowed the pirates to operate over a much larger area.

Since the Biscaglia, I must have made 100 or so successful voyages through pirate zones, boarding ships at Sri Lanka, Egypt, South Africa and Dubai. With God’s grace – and proper security – most pass without incident, but it is an expensive business. Anti-piracy measures cost an incredible £18 billion a year and  this does not include the costs in recovering vessels and hostages.

Yet no ship with armed guards has ever been hijacked. I’ve campaigned relentlessly for guards to be allowed to carry arms, and as more companies take this advice the number of recorded pirate attacks has fallen dramatically, from 237 in 2011 to just 75 in 2012.

But as we’ve started to win the war against piracy in the Horn of Africa, it has shifted from East to West Africa, and the coast of Nigeria.

The biggest prize for pirates there are oil tankers, which are sailed to  a secret location to have their oil pumped into pirate ships before being unloaded on the coast and sold on. Nigeria has lost 20 per cent of oil bound for the US in the past year.

As well as armed guards, an international maritime taskforce – like the one established in the Horn of Africa – is needed to patrol the area. This is expensive, but without it the shipping companies, insurers and ultimately consumers will pay a far higher price. Whatever the case, I’m certain my own pirate adventures are far from over.

Extracted from Pirate Hunter,  by Carl ‘Rocky’ Mason with Kris Hollington, which will be published later this year.

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