Somalian pirates surrender to HMS Cumberland's Royal Marines Defence Imagery MOD Royal Navy
Sea vessels

What To Do If Your Ship Is Hijacked

Pirates and other threats pose severe risks for shipping companies and crews.

Somalian pirates surrender to HMS Cumberland's Royal Marines Defence Imagery MOD Royal Navy

Pirates and hijackers have threatened the seas as long as there have been seafarers and ocean-going merchants.

Maritime thieves are reported to have been in operation as early as 4th Century BC in the waters off ancient Greece.

Piracy and hijacking is no less of a threat in the modern day, and although the means and methods of piracy have evolved with the times, maritime organisations receive regular warnings to remain cautious and vigilant, especially in piracy-sensitive regions.

Hijacked Tankers and the danger faced by crews operating on sea vessels have been back under the public gaze in recent times, following two high profile attacks on shipping in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

This has included a drone strike on a Tanker which claimed the life of British security expert Adrian Underwood, a former member of the British Army. A few days later, another ship was boarded and reportedly hijacked in the Gulf of Oman. 

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused Iran of being behind the earlier attack, summoning the Iranian Ambassador to Whitehall to explain his nation's actions. 

Shipping forms a fundamental element of global commerce. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, some 11 billion tons of goods are transported by ship each year. This is the equivalent of one and a half tons per person and means the shipping cost of a five-pound bottle can be as little as 20p.  

Working constantly on the enormous ships transporting billions of tons of goods worldwide are tanker crews, and frequently, their onboard security teams known as maritime security experts.  

But what advice is there for crews or security teams working on ships under attack or at risk of becoming hijacked? What should you do if you found yourself stuck on a vessel that had been boarded by hijackers?

Looking at the advice provided by security experts and shipping bodies, including the UKMTO, there are some essential dos and don'ts of coping with a ship hijacking event or piracy at sea.

The peak in pirate activities came in 2010 when there were 445 incidents. Jumpstory

How Common Are Ship Attacks?

According to market data portal Statista, in 2020, there were 195 pirate attacks worldwide. This was an increase on the previous year when there were 162 attacks.

The most dangerous areas for piracy worldwide are in seas near Indonesia and Malaysia and off the East coast of northern Africa in the Indian Ocean, parallel to Somalia. 

The peak of pirate attacks on shipping came in 2010, when 445 incidents were recorded. This prompted shipping companies to invest in specialist security expertise and led to governments relaxing laws on arming security officers. These measures were designed to disgruntle would-be pirates and offer ships and crews strengthened abilities to defend themselves from attacks. 

How Can Ships Protect Themselves From Hijacking?

In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to allow British merchant ships to carry armed guards. Before that, the UK was one of a handful of nations worldwide that did not permit the use or carriage of weapons on vessels registered or owned in Britain. 

Speaking at the time, Mr Cameron said:

"The evidence is that ships with armed guards don't get attacked, don't get taken for hostage or for ransom and so we think this is a very important step forward."

The law change meant maritime security firms could place armed guards, known as privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP), on vessels in the most at-risk areas of pirate attacks. 

Shipping companies today invest considerable sums of money in piracy prevention. Along with placing armed experts on ships to defend crews and loads should an attack begin, they aim to reduce the risks of getting into difficulties long before an attack can get underway. 

James Hilton, CEO of Protection Vessels International (PVI), explained that although ship attacks are back in the news "the dynamic is not changing" for international piracy in international waters. He said:

"In the Indian ocean, the risk from Somali pirates remains low. There is a possibility or underlying threat. But the young men going to sea there are opportunists, so the risk to shipping is low.

"Geopolitical factors do affect the threat dynamic. That could be the war in Yemen or Iranian-backed proxies from Yemen. There are other threats too, land-based, improvised explosive devices mounted onto boats, or the type of attack we saw a week ago using drone."

Risks around maritime security have increased in the Gulf of Oman. Credit: Simon Hunter

What Happens During An Attack?

United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) describe the stages of an attack by pirates. The process they describe is:

1. The Approach

"Effective lookouts may aid in identifying the nature of the attack, the threat profile of a piracy or other attack may initially look similar and it will not be until the attackers are close that the nature of the attack becomes apparent." UKTMO.

Ships being approached by attackers are advised to move to full speed, if not already doing so, and to steer a straight course to help maintain that maximum speed. The ship's emergency procedures should be initiated, included the ship's emergency communication plan. The emergency alarm should be sounded, a mayday call via VHF radio made and a distress message sent via the Digital Selective Calling system.

In addition, all external doors, interior cabins and rooms should be secured with crew members not required on the bridge mustered at the pre-determined muster point or citadel. 

2. The Attack

Privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP) would have already begun their operation to defend the ship and its crew from the attackers. While that is happening, UKTMO advises the following steps:

  • Confirm the crew are at the muster point or citadel.
  • Report the attack immediately to UKMTO.
  • Commence minor alterations of the helm to deter skiffs from laying alongside for a boarding attempt.

3. The Boarding

If the ship is boarded by pirates or attackers, the ship's engines should be stopped. The remaining crew members should be moved to the muster point or citadel. At this stage, the PCASP will follow the procedures agreed beforehand with the shipping company and Master. 

UKMTO advises that, at this point, the Master should place himself with the crew at the muster point/citadel, and communications with the shipping company and UKMTO themselves should be attempted from there. The crew is advised to remain in the citadel until "conditions force you to leave or advised by the military."

UKMTO say that "if any member of the crew is captured it should be considered that the pirates have full control of the ship."

Somalian pirates surrender to HMS Cumberland's Royal Marines Defence Imagery MOD Royal Navy
Crews from HMS Cumberland approach Somalian pirate vessel. MOD

What Is The Advice If Attackers Take Control Of A Ship?

To help understand the broader situation of hijacking ships and advice to help survive attacks, it is perhaps helpful to look at the business model behind piracy and pirate gangs. 

The most significant factor behind the modus operandi of pirate gangs is money. 

Money tends to be the attackers only motivation in most piracy cases.

Before launching an attack, the attackers, including their backers, will have adequately researched their target. They likely know what onboard security measures might be present and how valuable the cargo on board is likely to be. This allows the gangs to assess the risk of going after the ship and the probable ransom figure that would secure the most likely reward for their efforts. 

Because the attackers' motivation is money secured via a ransom, killing crew members is not part of their plan. They do not tend to want to injure or kill people because that leads to a diminished chance of financial reward. Security experts say that the ransom is typically split between the hijackers themselves, a holding group, and the investors behind the pirate gangs. 

But once an attack is underway, do security teams have carte blanche rights to provide protection?

James Hilton, who prior to becoming CEO of PVI served in the Royal Marines for 11 years, said that this was not the case. He said that armed guards and security teams are "bound by international law."

James said:

"Any actions taken on the vessel come under the laws of the flag state of the vessel. It’s certainly not a case of anything goes when a ship is attacked. Any company providing security to vessels has a very clear set of rules, following international law. All action has to be for self def and be a proportionate use of force. Proportionate is a key word here.  

"Things can become complicated when you have a state actor – as there might not be a threat to life.

"If you have an Iranian Revolutionary Guard boarding team boarding a vessel, a security team is not going to be in a position to prevent or stop that. The Master could, if there was a boarding attempt, refuse the boarding under the law of the seas. But if they were becoming insistent, the best thing is to remain compliant. Our teams would be advised accordingly to avoid any aggressive confrontation."

We each account for 1.5 tones of shipping per year. Jumpstory

UKTMO's Advice For Crews When A Ship Is Hijacked

UKTMO's advice on how crew members should conduct themselves should a successful hijacking occur is focused on the end goal of people surviving the ordeal. Their advice is:

  • Remain calm and maintain self-control.
  • Be humble and respectful to the pirates. 
  • Look out for your colleagues' well-being. 
  • Stay together as a team, where possible. 
  • Accept the new pirate leadership.
  • Maintain the hierarchy of rank.
  • Try to establish normal communication with the pirates.
  • Maintain personal hygiene.
  • Save water and essentials.
  • Be positive – many people are working on releasing you.
  • Be patient and maintain routines (including your spiritual needs, as permitted by pirates).
  • Try to keep your breathing regular.
  • Meditate and stay mentally active.
  • Respect religion: yours, your colleagues', and the pirates.'

UKTMO's advice includes some frank DO NOT matters, too, such as offering resistance, arguing with pirates, taking photographs of the attackers, drinking alcohol and bargaining with captors for personal privileges.