The Pirate Panic Button
The ships that make the two-day run from Mombasa,
Kenya, to Somalia carrying vital humanitarian supplies are frequent
targets of pirate attacks — and have been for more than a decade. How
have ship’s crew adapted? Same way the pirates have adapted over the
years: with simple technology and no-nonsense tactics.
On Wednesday, the small cargo vessel Semlow, an
old veteran of the Somali humanitarian route that was hijacked by
pirates and held for 110 days back in 2005, prepares for a Sunday run
to Mogadishu carrying hundreds of tones of split peas and other
foodstuffs. Captain Edward Kalendera gives me a tour of the bridge. In
the small, wood-paneled map alcove on the starboard side, he points out
the green-and-black screen of a simple ranging radar. Kalendera says he
uses it to spot incoming boats. If he decides they’re hostile, he can
turn tail and open the throttle.
According to experts in Mombasa, you need to
exceed 20 knots to outrun pirates. It’s not clear that rickety old
Semlow can make that speed.
Stealth is a more reliable tactic. Kalendera lays
out a detailed chart of the waters around Mogadishu and traces the most
dangerous zone with his finger. When Semlow breaches this zone, he
said, it will be night — and he will rig the ship for silent running.
That means turning out all the lights and minimizing noise. Rigged like
that, Kalendera says, a pirate can pass within yards and not even know
But if they are detected, and there’s no chance of
outrunning the attackers, there’s one last measure. Kalendera crosses
the bridge to the port side and opens a door to the closet-size radio
room. He pops open a tiny cabinet. Inside is a white plastic device
shaped like a garage-door opener. This, he says, is the panic button.
Press this, and it alerts Semlow’s owners, by radio, that the vessel is
Now, alerting the owner won’t save the ship from being captured. But
it will speed the process of ransoming the ship and crew, and hopefully
head off any desperate, violent acts by impatient, panicky kidnappers.