On a quiet night in Southeast Asia’s Malacca Straits, John Burnett went below deck to turn on his yacht’s VHF radio. Suddenly, a jolt threw him. He pulled himself up to the deck and saw the ghostly silhouette of another boat tied up to his—and two men with assault rifles pointed at his head. It was a modern-day pirate attack.
Cargo ships are no longer the sole targets on the world’s most pirated waters. Kidnapping passengers for millions in ransom can be more lucrative than hijacking ships for the cargo’s value. Fortunately, the percentage of attacks is minuscule; most cruise routes are not affected; and small boats and yachts are more vulnerable than increasingly well-fortified cruise ships.
In fact, cruise lines have taken many proactive steps to ensure their passengers’ safety. Lanie Fagan, director of communications at Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), says that all members have implemented anti-piracy measures. Most companies are reluctant to share specifics, but Crystal Cruises, for instance, hired additional security professionals and enhanced its contact with regional naval authorities and Combined Task Force 151, an anti-piracy patrol launched by 20 nations in 2009.
To determine the world’s most pirated waters, we pooled data from CLIA, the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC), and Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants, with an emphasis on the more trafficked waterways. According to the PRC, 2011 has already seen more than 240 attacks and more than 360 hostage situations. PRC’s Twitter feed reveals frequent news of pirate attacks, while the International Chamber of Commerce’s crime division updates a piracy map daily. Even so, the data remains imperfect as a ship may choose not to report an incident.
Pirate attacks occur everywhere from the Philippines to Peru, but the waters around Somalia and points south have the worst reputation. In January 2011, pirates chased the Zanzibar-bound Spirit of Adventure, and the captain huddled all 350 passengers in the ship’s center. The boat outran the pirates, and the passengers returned home safely.
Still, it’s independent yachtsmen who need to be especially wary of the pirate threat. “The idyllic anchorages and ports in Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Yemen—once must-stops for yachtsmen—are now avoided because they’re in pirated waters,” says John Burnett, whose harrowing experience in Southeast Asia led him to write Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas. His book serves as a cautionary tale. “I was one of the lucky ones,” Burnett says. “I survived.”