One of Earth’s Most Dangerous Waters: Gulf of Aden – Somali Piracy and Trade’s Response


It was an unusual break from shipping matters on a steamy September day back in 2011 when I said to Bakri, a local Sudanese and the general manager of a small ship husbandry agency based in Port Sudan, “Bakri, now, all the cargo seems to have been loaded on the ship, as much as I can see, thank God! Perhaps we can spare some time for ourselves to celebrate if you take me to Suakin tomorrow.” Suakin, an ancient port city, served as the gateway for trade and culture on the East African coast of the Red Sea for centuries, with its ruins that were built on a one-mile diameter coral island by Ottomans in the 15th century – a must-see.

On the following day at dawn, we were cruising to the south, on Bakri’s partly rusty but “this one has a strong engine which never fails” SUV, as Bakri called it. After an hour or so, there was Suakin, an ancient jewel, along the coast of the beautiful, blue Red Sea, laying in front of our eyes.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Bakri, a good shipping man, who died in 2016 from Malaria, a lethal disease that has spread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

I turned to Bakri, and said: “Look at this deep blue color old friend. I am sorry, but I do not see why it is called the Red Sea, do you?” He went on to tell me “But yes, I saw part of these shores sometimes could turn into red color.”

How the Red Sea got its name is a myth. However, it is said that an algae-like bacteria turns the water into reddish-brown color upon dying.

Island of Suakin

We found ourselves under a shade of a small café in this little town. Before we ordered our tea, I had to make sure that Bakri would translate to the waiter that my tea had to be completely sugarless, not a very Sudanese way of drinking tea, or I would simply not drink it. The tea was served along with a very sweet traditional dessert called Basboosa. I said, “Bakri, you know I will not eat this thing and you are diabetic so I cannot really do the math.” Bakri replied swiftly, “Well, the reason you are so thin, my young friend, is because you do not eat enough sugar. I ordered this for you. This is good for you so you must eat it!”

We could hear the sound of fisher boats that were turning from the South.

Then, there was a Spanish battleship, sailing South towards Gulf of Aden. I said to Bakri, “This should be one of the new deployments to the European Union Navy Forces against Somali pirates.”

“How so?” Bakri asked. “Against piracy?”

“Yes, indeed,” I said. “Let me explain: in fact, this one is a year of increased number of attacks by Somali pirates on merchant ships, and the EU is reinforcing the number of navy ships serving in the Gulf of Aden with a mandate to mainly protect ships of the World Food Programme (WFP) carrying grain and wheat as part of humanitarian relief efforts throughout Africa, as well as other merchant ships that are potentially vulnerable to pirate attacks.”

I added: “As you know, there has been a very strategic war going on between merchant trade, and pirates, for years. If you recall, you may have heard that initial attacks were being launched on merchant ships trading through the Gulf of Aden, also named ‘Pirate Alley.’ The ships, along with the crew, were being taken hostage for ransom to the pirate-infested shores of the Horn of Africa. Then, the attacks spread to further north in the Red Sea, and to the south as far as Madagascar, and to the Omani Coast to the west. Now, you see these pirates are all over the place and I would not be surprised, my old friend, if some pirate gang hijacks the ship that we have just loaded.”

“No, impossible,” Bakri said, and continued: “Port Sudan is protected very well, first by God, and then by the Sudanese Navy.”

“I did not know that you guys had a navy, Bakri.” I chuckled…

“Each day, only about 200 miles south from where we are sitting now, there is a deadly cat and mouse game being played, where pirates are chasing merchant ships, and warships belonging to the international community were chasing pirates. Obviously, the area is literally too big to be covered by a limited number of warships.”

I took another sip from my unsweetened tea. A donkey cart was passing by, carrying some used newspapers, and garbage. I went on:

“Now with all this going on, insurance companies have either stopped providing coverage for ships that choose to navigate through Gulf of Aden, one of the major and widely used sea routes for world trade, or impose a very high premium for additional war risk, and ransom insurance, for those who have no choice but to use this dangerous route. They only insure the ship, if the ship has some sort of protection while taking that route.”

“So, Bakri while you are eating this sweet thing right now, seaborne trade is actually in chaos. But as you know, the industry has improved in the last four years and developed some new ways of deterring pirates off their ships. A number of methods are widely-used and the good thing is that most of them are non-lethal…

  1. High pressure water cannons: if some guys are climbing on board the ship, you can wash them off.
  2. Long Range Acoustic Device: Another non-lethal anti-piracy device which produces a high-pitched noise that is not tolerable by the average human being without ear protection.

  1. Anti-Piracy Laser Device: This is really cool stuff – the highest technology. This machine generates a non-lethal laser beam to provide a visual warning to pirates and distract them. It can be used during both day and night, and can be easily operated by the ship’s crew.
  2. Electric Secure Fence: Another non-lethal way of keeping the bad guys away. It prevents pirates from climbing.
  3. Nets – Boat Traps: One of my favorites. A boat net is a type of ballistic net. It is used to stop pirate boars when they come bear to ship. When in water, the net catches in the propellers of pirates’ boats immediately disabling them from moving forward.
  4. Foul Smelling Liquid: A non-lethal chemical which stinks and burns. The smell and burning sensation forces the pirates to stop climbing on the ship and jump into water.
  5. Anti-Boarding Device: This method uses canisters with sharp razor wires to prevent pirates from boarding the ship. The wires act as a barrier between the pirates and the ship.

  1. Armed Guards: Probably the most-effective method to warn the pirates that the ship is protected by armed professionals, so they will not even think of getting any closer. But let me tell you Bakri, this way is not really popular among the crew members as they do not like having some gunned men around on their ships. Let’s not lose the fact that we are here talking about commercial ships that are operated by civilian seamen. So, the crew, most do not have any military training and are not used to seeing weapons around. There are also insurance and flag-state rules or regulations that may actually prevent having gunned men on board a commercial ship.”

Bakri said, “Well, very interesting, there are so many ways to protect ships from pirate attacks.” “And yet, there are still so many incidents, and on a daily basis, ships are attacked. As these methods are used more often on merchant ships, I believe that the pirate attacks will diminish in the long run.”

Bakri was just sweeping the last pieces of his dessert, and it was almost 11 AM in the morning. Not even noon, but the temperature was already over 100 degrees F. I said, “Let’s see these old coral buildings on the island and then drive back to Port Sudan. We have spent three days to load that ship and I do not want her to be hijacked by some pirate under our watch.”

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Burak Gungor
Burak was born and raised in Emirgan, a small village located at the western shores of Bosporus in Istanbul. He has been in the shipping business for over 20 years. He worked on ships, at ports and various areas around the world taking care of various cargo operations, mainly break bulk cargo. He is an entrepreneur and holds a masters degree in international maritime transportation management from State University of New York. Fun fact: At the age of ten, while he was fishing with his small rod in his hometown, he saw gigantic tankers passing along the Bosporus. Wondering how these giant steel-made structures can stay afloat, it was when he decided to learn about shipping.