John Burnett was sailing in the South China Sea one night over a decade ago when he was attacked by pirates. The incident changed his view of the world of piracy and shaped his career from that point forward. Burnett is the author of 'Dangerous Waters, Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas' and also serves as a consultant and advisor on piracy issues. He has worked with agencies such as the US State Department, the US Council on Foreign Relations and the Dutch government.
Burnett spoke with CSO about the recent spate of crime in the waters near Somalia and what shipping companies can do to protect themselves.
You were the victim of a pirate attack. Can you give me the details of that?
I was sailing alone across the South China Sea and I was going to meet my wife in Singapore. Late one night, I was down below and hard a thunk. I thought perhaps I had hit a submerged container or a reef. Then I heard footsteps on my deck above. Anybody who is a yachter or a sailor knows if you don't expect anybody on your boat and you hear somebody on your deck it's as frightening as being on land in your bed and hearing an intruder.
I got beaten up pretty good with the back end of an assault rifle. I could speak some Indonesian, so I lead them into my cabin down below. I was polite. That's the key to all pirate survival stories: You don't resist and you try to be as accommodating to them as possible.
What is the main motivation of pirates?
Is it robbery plain and simple? Actually, it's not robbery. It's greed. It's money. Pirates are attacking ships off the coast of Somalia not because of the cargo the ship carries. Pirates are attacking ships off of Somali because of the human cargo.
When they attacked the Sirius Star (a large oil tanker hijacked last month) there was nothing they could do with the crude oil on board. The 25 men on board were worth a lot more to them than the crude oil or the ship itself.
It seems every day there is news of what is happening in the waters near Somalia. Is anyone safe from these kinds of attacks now?
Every vessel is vulnerable to a hijacking. I wrote that in 'Dangerous Waters.' I warned that a fully-laden VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) -- a ship as long as the Chrysler Building is tall, carrying 300,000 tons of crude oil -- would be hijacked.
It's interesting to note that when it comes to hijacking, every ship is vulnerable: From the 50-foot Indian fishing boat that the Pakistani terrorists used to attack Mumbai to the Sirius Star, which is 1,000 feet long. No ship is invincible.