Extra: Pirates of West Africa

16 Nov

Pirates aren’t usually a hazard for Vendée Globe skippers speeding along at 20-plus knots, hundreds and even thousands miles offshore. But on Monday, as we passed the Mauritania Exclusion Zone to our east, a curious thing happened.

I checked navigation software for any AIS (Automatic Identification System) targets – nobody around. Then I went to radar, as I do occasionally, and, aha, I spotted a target four miles off the port beam. But back on AIS – nothing. I turned off the radar and turned on the radar detector, and still nothing. The ship had no radar going. I looked through binoculars and saw what looked like an old lightship: red, bizarre.

I was reminded of a weird ship encounter I had on the 2008 Vendée Globe coming north. I called a ship whose lights I saw on VHF, got no answer, and then the lights went off, so I turned out my lights. I never had an explanation.

screenshot-mauritaniaexclusionzoneBecause we’re 400+ miles offshore, we’re not targets for pirates, but those closer in unfortunately are. This year, on advice from the French government, Vendée Globe race organizers established the Mauritania Exclusion Zone, prohibiting skippers from approaching closer than 100 kilometers from the shore for fear of pirates. In addition, a few days ago, the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre sent us a warning of a sudden surge of pirate attacks and kidnappings along the West African coast. According to the message, vessels targeted were at berth, anchor, drifting or underway, up to 170 nautical miles from land. The message warned that pirates are armed and tend to be violent. Ships should be extra vigilant and avoid loitering close to the coast.

We’re not loitering.

One of our maritime experts, Rich du Moulin, has said that if you think piracy disappeared when Blackbeard the Pirate was shot by the British Navy, you are sadly mistaken. In recent years, pirates have attacked merchant mariners, fishermen and yachtsmen in Indonesian waters and the Straits of Malacca, off Somalia in the Indian Ocean, and most recently off the coast of West Africa near Nigeria and its neighbors.

Modern pirates usually come from poor countries. Until the highly publicized attacks off Somalia (such as the one dramatized by the Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips), the goal of the attackers had been limited to stealing cash and valuables – similar to robbing a house. Off Somalia, the game changed and pirates captured ships and crew, often holding them for years until the ransom was adequate. Maritime nations working with the UN have established a naval patrol that has stopped Somalian piracy. However, West Africa has become the latest hotbed of piracy, often more violent than before.

Murray Lister, the New Zealand sea captain who helped rescue us in 1990 off Cape Horn, has been boarded by pirates three times during his career. Every year, he says, significant numbers of seafarers are killed, captured, assaulted and imprisoned by what he terms “vicious thugs who show no mercy.” These pirates don’t even remotely resemble the romanticized movie versions. To preserve world trade, it will continue to be necessary for merchant seafarers to sail into harm’s way in vulnerable vessels, risking death, incarceration and the very real associated stress.

I think of these merchant seafarers as I sail on toward the doldrums. As Murray says, it is important to acknowledge the debt we owe them, but also take appropriate measures to ensure their safe passage – anywhere in the oceans of the world.

With contributions by Louise Bullis Yarmoff 


This article was syndicated from Ship’s Logs | sitesALIVE!


  1. simpletv4u

    The next scale up is cargo theft, the predominant threat in West Africa, when pirates hijack an oil tanker, take her to a quiet place, bring another ship alongside and siphon off the oil.


    I am British and have lived in Africa for more than 20 years, married there, had children there, worked with the military in various countries to do with security and local fishermen etc but if I see a dodgy boat coming near mine who does not answer questions correctly the last thing I will do is invite them for a cup of tea or beer. It will be all the rounds of what I am holding on board. Ask questions later !!!

  3. Ryan R. Corman

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the major sea powers, beginning with the Royal Navy of Great Britain, determine that acts of piracy earned one an automatic death sentence administered immediately upon capture by any lawful vessel, civilian or military, over 300 years ago? What sort of misplaced political correctness changed this, anyway? Ya know, “pirates” killed during an attack on a merchant vessel, or summarily executed following the failure of such an attack, wouldn’t be around to trouble singlehand racers, circumnavigators, or cruise ships, for that matter. Under the rule of law, poverty does not excuse criminality- but as far as my reading goes, no one has yet voided the traditional summary death penalty for piracy. The vast majority of the abjectly poor never turn to violent crime, so why do these “pirates” get a pass? Thoughts? Thanks for the soapbox, sail safe!

  4. Robert Wine

    Joshua Slocum was also chased by pirates off of West Africa. It rattled him so much that he sailed back across the Atlantic and went around the world from east to west, contrary to his original plans. He was well-armed though, with two Henry repeating rifles.

  5. Nicholas S

    Dear Sail Feed;
    Hi Rich Wilson
    We should not forget that when in third world countries, anything could occur.
    My personal example is coming up the coast, bashing as they say, on the pacific side of the Baja I was approached by two men, which demanded drink, water and was very close to my side. A sailboat would not even consider trying to outrun a speed boat (unmarked). I said I didn’t have any water, and continued with the autopilot on. They pulled away and while away I went down below and changed my jacket and hat and put on a ski mask (with ominous eyes/mouth cutouts) and they came along side again. I raised my hands as indicating not having any water. They stayed along side for at least two to three minutes, now very close, and then sped away making a large wake and splashing a wave into the cockpit. I was alone, and figured they may have thought there were two of us. Nevertheless, after porting in San Diego, I heard of one sailor that was cut up rather harshly by thieves and tossed overboard and left to make it to shore to survive, which he did. Conflicting stories were told but he survived.
    My feeling is that when it occurred in 2001, I was surprised, confused and then terrified not to go alone again. I lived in Mexico for two years and never an incident. I love to sail alone, did it to Hawaii, Canada and other PNW areas and I now feel better staying nearby home, good ole US of A.

  6. Wolfgang A. Körner

    Behavior is modified by conditioned responses. If we “Westerners” sent decoys with Overwhelming firepower, deceit, and protection their numbers will dewiddle back to zero, where it belongs….

  7. John

    I halfway through reading, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. I suggest the only thing that’s changed is the boat speeds. Motivation, about the same.

  8. David W. Walsh, M.D.

    Stay safe Rich. Keep up the good work – at times like these I sure would like to have some form of defensive measure on board! I think of Joshua Slocum and his tacks on the deck, but I doubt the modern pirates are shoeless. I will keep you in my thoughts and pray for your safety. There are enough difficulties in what you are doing without this added burden.

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