Cargo ships are often very large, how can Somali pirates stop them, and board them?

I keep hearing about Somali pirates operating in small fast ships hijacking large cargo ships many times their size. Seems like quite feat to pull off given the disparity in the sizes of the ships. Don’t cargo ships have some sort of self defense?

How is this typically accomplished?

This is a pretty good description of how they operate:

What I heard is that 1) there aren’t that many crew members on the pirated ship; and, 2) the pirates sneak on board and surprise the crew. They use a grapnel and just climb up when least suspected.

A lot of pirating happens around Indonesia. The shipping companies often don’t report it, though, for insurance reasons.

Well, that’s what I heard. I’ve erased the file I have of that report, so I can’t verify it.

don’t confuse size and speed here. Sure, these ships are large, but also not very fast, probably, and definitely not versatile. So when you’re on a small, fast ship, you don’t even need to stop large ships to board them.

They don’t stop the ships, they come alongside and climb aboard. I am sure it is dangerous, but those pirates that don’t make it aren’t usually noticed. Cargo ships aren’t armed, and the crew isn’t inclined to put up a fight. After all, they might get hurt. Pirates don’t want to hurt the crews-might cause the next crew to resist, they just rob them and take what they can and go. In fact, as I understand it, some pirates in the Straits of Malacca don’t even bother the crew. They just break in to the shipping containers, take what they can and leave. They don’t bother the crew, the crew doesn’t bother them.

Here is a very interesting article from last year that was in National Geographic. It includes interviews with pirates and a first hand account of an attempted hijacking.

Dark Passage

One guy, on foot, steps out from behind the bus stop, jumps the queue, and once he steps in, he pulls out a gun. A mere lone pedestrian has now succesfully comandeered a large bus full of people.

Same principle. All you need is to catch up to the sitting-duck commercial transport and ask the skipper whether he’s willing to get his ship and people shot up for the sake of merchandise.

It was mentioned in an earlier post but it is something that people tend to overlook: a commercial freighter has a very small crew, compared to a ship where there’s people aboard who have to do work other than merely drive it and put out a small fire/leak before it gets big (e.g. a fishing vessel, passenger ship, or military vessel). Cargo handling is now mostly containerized and done mechanically in port by a shore-based crew; most ships are powered by quite reliable diesel engines that are NOT required to put out high performance on demand.
So there’s not a large contingent, and merchant seamen are not Marines trained to repel armed boarding parties. Merchant vessels are NOT armed for that purpose, so all it takes is a very small band of well-armed, motivated attackers.

This is very true, but I don’t think that’s what the OP was curious about. I never had trouble imagining how the pirates took control of the ship once they were on board, but how they got on board in the first place. From my landlubbing perspective, I couldn’t picture how a speed boat could rock up to a steel container the size of a football field rising 15 meters above the ocean and make their way to the bridge. A bit more challenging than stepping onto a city bus.

From the article I linked to before (page 10):

Of course this is in Malaysia, but the same principle probably applies to Somalia, perhaps with a grappling hook or pole instead of bamboo.

That was my initial curiosity. A large cargo ship looms many stories out of the water, a 20 foot bamboo pole might get you to the second porthole.

In reading the links it is fascinating how poorly defended these ships with cargo worth millions are. You’d think that some shippers would take the trouble to increase on board security. The flip side is that apparently up to 75% of these “piratings” are inside jobs.

IIRC, the US Navy and others are now patrolling the areas off the Somali coasts to handle the pirates.

I’m surprised that in light of all the recent piracy that these types of vessels don’t arm their crews and/or post lookouts when they know they are in an area that’s considered a risk for piracy. How many guys would it take to really provide security? 4 guys with M-16’s to shoot the boarders off their grapples? One fore, one aft, one port and one starboard?
I suppose I’m assuming that the entire sides of the ship are traversible on foot which may not be the case. And I also suppose that firing small arms at the boarders might engender an escalatory response from the guys manning the grenade launchers on the pirate boat.
But still. If I owned a company that transported millions of dollars worth of products on the open seas, I would have a small security detachment on board if we had to travel anywhere near known pirate areas.

You just read my mind. I was just getting ready to post this. You could EASILY, and cheaply, post a single guy with binoculars and a high powered rifle on a tower on the boat and see any ship long before it would be in attack range for an RPG. Then you could decided whether or not a boat is full of pirates or not and start shooting once it becomes clear. Hell, there is no boat out there that is going to outrun slugs fired from a 50 cal from over a mile away. It ain’t happening.

I’ve always wondered if the crews are in on it and paid sometimes for being compliant. It just seems like it would be too easy, and cheap, to protect a large ship at see from something like pirates nowadays.

They only need to get to the deck and the deck of a loaded vessel is not that far from the water.

Incidents are rare, extra crew trained in weapons handling have a cost, as do the weapons required. The amount taken is usually small (often just the content of the ship’s safe). The millions of dollars of cargo on board is irrelevant: it takes massive cranes, large amounts of manpower, and specialised wharf facilities to load and unload large modern vessels. How precisely are the pirates in their little fast boat going to offload it?

It’s not a big problem in 99% of the world.

Where are you guys getting the idea that the ship’s rail is “15 meters” or “many stories” above the water line? The freighters on which I have sailed have had a freeboard of around eleven feet when loaded. A powerboat with a deck over the fo’c’s’le could easily be three feet above the water, meaning the pirates would only need to scale a ladder or rope of about 8 feet. I admit that I was on a bulk freighter and that container ships have higher freeboard, but it is not 15 meters. Here is a photo of the largest class of container ships, loaded. Note that while there is still a gap between the upper deck of the pilot boat and the ship’s rail, it does not appear to be insurmountable. Attacking from a Zodiac inflatable would be a different story, of course. In addition, many ships have access hatches on the main deck in the engine room that are often left open in hot weather or hot climates to let air into the engine room. The main deck is at the waterline.

Cruise ships will have shipsides that are much higher, and I have heard of a couple of them being stopped. On the other hand, cruise ships have a lot of passengers who are vulnerable to threats and that may provide a clue to how all ships are stopped.
Pulling up and hailing a ship while waving an RPG or two at the bridge would tend to get the crews to comply with orders to put ladders over the side. For the most part, the pirates off Somalia are still behaving much like air hijackers prior to September, 2001. They hold the crews and ships hostage while they either/both demand ransoms for the crews or steal as much cargo as they can, then release the crews. Freighters (and the couple of cruise liners) have not yet begun to have all the crews and passengers murdered, so the threat of a rocket tearing up the superstructure might well be enough to persuade them to comply with the pirates’ demands.* (The crews and passengers of several smaller yachts have been murdered, but the situation regarding taking the boat have been different.)

I don’t disagree with the broad thrust of your post, but the sheer size of the Regina Maersk and other similar container vessels is deceptive. That ain’t no pilot boat, that’s a large tug. Look at the containers on deck. Each of those is eight feet high. I’d guess it’s about 25 feet (a bit more than three containers) from the water to the ports at the stern at the winch deck level.

Sorry about the double post: you’ve seen this on ocean going vessels? I’ve never heard of it. I also wonder if it wouldn’t be a breach of loadline and MARPOL? In any event, ain’t no way any vessel but one crewed by idiots would have those hatches open at night anywhere near Somalia or Indonesia.

Nonetheless, I completely agree that freeboard is not so high as to be a serious deterrent.

From a quick Google search, here is a pic of a large container ship’s stern:

For scale, the containers are 40 feet long, 8’ wide & 8’6" tall. The couple of extra tall ones are 9’6". You can see the line-handling bay beneath the containers is pretty low to the water; ~20 ft at most.

Most large ships of any kind have open areas not to far above the water for line handling. Once you’re aboard, you can deal with any hatches at your leisure. So no, you don’t need to try to scale the steel cliff amidships. (which as experts above have noted, isn’t really all that high when the ship is loaded.)

ETA: Princhester’s entry wasn’t there when I grabbed this page to add my now utterly redundant post.

What cargo in general is a preferred target for pirates?

I wnt to a lecture on container ships last months and the most suprising thing to me was how small the crews are. The largest container ship ( the Emma Maersk) - has a crew of only 13.