by Des Ryan
One of the joys of sailing is the freedom to go where you want when you want. While all sensible cruising sailors are now avoiding the western Indian Ocean as too dangerous to sail, latest reports also suggest that West African pirates are copy-catting their Somali counterparts and cruising sailors are best to avoid these areas as well.
Gulf of Guinea danger area for pirates
Despite a massive naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and some successful prosecutions - of five pirates behind the hijacking of a South African yacht in the Netherlands, and of several pirates involved in the shooting death of four American sailors, piracy is one of the world’s few booming industries in this global economic downturn.
Attacks in Somalia had increased over 2010, showed no sign of slowing down in 2011, and now the copycats in West Africa pose a whole new threat to yachts, and even to international shipping.
Somewhere between 15 and 23 attacks were reported in the first half of the year in West Africa, according to the International Maritime Bureau, and are continuing at the same rate in the second half of the year.
Most have been centred in the Gulf of Guinea, off the coasts of Nigeria and Benin and have analysts very concerned.
Insurers Lloyd’s Market Association has listed the Gulf of Guinea in the same risk category as Somalia. Although it’s thought the West African pirates were inspired by their Somali counterparts, the piracy there has a slightly different character, with pirates unlikely to hold on to ships for too long, preferring instead to steal the contents (including syphoning fuel into smaller tankers) and kidnapping crew for ransom.
The Somali model usually involves holding the ship itself to ransom, along with the crew and is only possible thanks to the almost complete lack of government enforcement.
West African piracy is likely to hit Nigeria and Benin hard. Nigeria’s Port of Lagos is one of the busiest in Africa, while Benin’s government receives an astonishing 40% of its revenue from its ports.
There’s reason for nearby countries like South Africa to be concerned too; if both sides of the continent pose serious threats to shipping, the cost of shipping to and from the country might skyrocket due to increased insurance premiums, which would increase the price of all imported goods and make it a lot harder to export anything.
And with the international community unlikely to finance a second anti-piracy mission in Africa, west Africa will have to find a way to deal with the problem on its own.
Sailors taking the long way to the Mediterranean via Africa will be better to follow the trade winds and sail almost across the Atlantic before swinging back to Europe. West Africa is not a nice place to be, even for ships.