The Danish Navy warship ‘HDMS Absalon’ patrols one of the busiest sea routes in the world, where more than 120 ships were attacked by Somali pirates last year.
The crew aboard HDMS Absalon have no use for their ship’s sauna. At 08.00, as the 130-strong Danish company assemble on their heli-deck for the morning’s muster, the African heat is already scorching – the sweat flows without any help from their Nordic hotbox. After a three-day delay waiting in Mombasa’s industrial port for engine lubricant, they are keen to get on with their mission: the Danes are on a pirate hunt. They pivot and twirl through the morning’s salute.
“We’re needed out there,” says the captain, Dan Termansen, who spent eight years on patrol in the Arctic before he took command of the Absalon. He’s right. The ocean that stretches beyond pullulates with pirates. As the vessel waits on its supplies, a British auxiliary ship is set upon some 250 nautical miles east of Kenya. This time the attack is fought off.
Modern sea-banditry is a dirty, asymmetric conflict. In the past year, pirates from the war-ravaged province of Puntland in northern Somalia have infested the waters of the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest transport arteries. Using rusting Soviet-era weaponry and hand-made ladders, pirates attacked over 120 ships last year and netted an estimated $40m (€29.2m) in ransoms.
Experts aren’t clear what provoked this spike of barbary – Somalia has been a failed state for the past 18 years. But the rash of attacks that started in May 2008 has rallied the world’s naval forces. “People talked about piracy but didn’t take it seriously,” says the captain. “Pirates were something with wooden legs and a hook.” Despite the flotilla of warships and air reconnaissance in the area, wolf packs of fibreglass skiffs continue to strike.
The Danes were among the first on the scene when they sent a frigate from the Arctic (its ice-breaking facility in check) to escort a World Food Programme shipment of aid into port at Mogadishu early last year. The Absalon arrived in August from the North Sea to assume rotating command of “Combined Taskforce 150” (CTF150), a sib of the American-led “Operation Enduring Freedom”. Now, the crew is one of four nations, including the US, the UK and Turkey, that form the new CTF151 – the first modern force whose sole mission is to combat piracy.
As the Absalon sets sail, dolphins leap alongside the bow and the chopper circles above. Already, the operations room buzzes with messages from nervous merchant ships reporting suspect boats. “We get a lot of false alarms. A lot of our traffic is from paranoid vessels,” says the officer of the watch. “Somali fishermen have a very aggressive way of hunting in packs for tuna and it’s often seen as an attack [on shipping].”
Despite recent US guidelines that recommend merchant ships arm themselves, sailors are unwilling to have armed guards aboard – a shoot-out on an oil tanker, for instance, could spell disaster.
Instead, guards fend off pirates with fire hoses and noise machines. Unless they tag along to an aid convoy, provided by the new EU force Atalanta (the Danes opted out of this force in favour of CTF151) or the unilateral Chinese patrol, there’s no guarantee a warship will be even vaguely near and able to intervene. The patrol zone is over 10,000 sq miles and stretches from East Africa to the Gulf of Aden. “It’s like policing the US with a scooter,” says one sailor.
As the coalition forces bolster the transit corridor in the Gulf of Aden, pirates are being pushed further south along the coast of Somalia and even further out to sea. During the night, a distress signal is picked up from a Chinese merchant ship under attack, but the Absalon is 500 nautical miles away. At full speed it would take the frigate 24 hours to reach the scene. “Most attacks are over in as little as 10 minutes,” says Anders Larsen, a watch officer on the bridge. All the coalition forces can do is cheer on the skipper over the radio as he sails his ship using evasive zigzag manoeuvres and blasts his assailants with water cannons. He makes it. But out on the dark ocean, and clearly desperate, the single skiff strikes again hours later.
As the Absalon sweeps the rugged Somali coast, past the pirate towns of Eyl, Hobyo and Harardhere, it keeps a wary distance. In the past, pirates have panicked and threatened to kill hostages at the sight of an encroaching warship. “We need to be at least five miles away,” says tactical officer, Axel Primdahl. “We can’t help them. It’s too risky.”
At the time of writing, there are nine hostage ships that are all in different stages of ransom negotiations. The vast vessels bob around listlessly a few hundred metres from shore. “They usually seize [the ships] in the Gulf of Aden and then bring them down to anchor off the Somali coast with half the crew on land and the others on board,” explains Primdahl. “Instead of hoisting the Jolly Roger, they change the Automatic ID system to ‘this ship is hijacked’.”
One Malaysian-owned ship, the Massindra, has been held hostage for seven months, the status of its crew is unknown. Another Greek-owned cargo ship, the Salldana, and its 28 crew, was taken just two weeks before this from the Absalon’s patrol zone. “We were disappointed about that,” says Primdahl. “We were in the area but had to go to Djibouti for supplies.” The captain is clearly perplexed. “I find it quite awkward, sailing so close to these pirated vessels,” he says. “When I think of how restless we were from just three days in port, it’s difficult to imagine how these men must feel.”
Life at sea is not without its perks. The Danish Navy is one of the oldest in the world, but one of the most progressive. Unlike the iron-clad hierarchy seen in the US army, life on the Absalon is laissez-faire. The soft-spoken captain likes to operate a flat command structure. There are no minions on board. “When you’re living and working together for so long, and so closely, it just wouldn’t be fun,” he says, demonstrating how he uses the industrial-sized tumble dryers in the laundry to do his own washing.
Termansen’s egalitarian attitude is unusual in Navy circles. But then his urbane crew are not typical military types. The quieter moments tell all: in the library, one officer makes headway with a tome about the life of the composer Gustav Holst. Later on, in the operation room, one tousled-haired man gives the radar operator (a striking young blonde woman) a head and shoulder massage to what looks like a professional standard. After lunch, dozens of crew bask in the sun on the heli-deck using green khaki stretchers as sun-loungers. And when the ship stops for propeller checks and diving operations, the crew have been known to take a dip in the Indian Ocean – and have the photos to prove it.
Denmark’s modish morals are alive at sea. There is more than a frisson between the 17 females on board and the rest of the crew. There are no GI Janes in sight. The girls – who stomp about in sturdy desert boots and cropped khaki shorts on duty – get dressed up to leave the port for the evening, while stuck in Mombasa. “Of course people will fall in love,” says the captain. “I can’t stop them from doing that and I wouldn’t want to police them.”
But behind the sanguine Scandinavian posture, the crew run a slick operation. The Danes are dexterous sailors. All of the personnel on board have multiple functions – whether it is serving as a fire-fighting kitchen hand or a gunner-cum-craftsman. Although they lack the quivering obedience seen on other ships, they are implicitly coordinated. The helicopter’s technician may skip around the hangar and hug his co-pilots, but his tight-knit team can launch the chopper at seven minutes’ notice.
The special forces on board, known as Frogmen, (the secretive equivalent to SBS or Navy Seals who, in a bizarre ritual, spend their year’s training jogging – on duty, they’re not allowed to stop – in a red helmet marked “student”) switch from amiable gents to automatons as they launch the rhib to patrol suspicious boats.
The flurry of attacks so far out to sea has put the team on high alert. “Our trip wires are RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] and ladders,” says Simon Hagel-Larsen, the chief tactical officer. “Right now we’re looking for a mothership with several skiffs attached.” Fishing dhows packed with Somalis hunting tuna seem stunned as the squad approaches with a masked interpreter demanding them to stop through a loud speaker. On average the team will approach four boats a day, but steer clear of traffickers, who have been known to off-load their human cargo. The Frogmen look like alien robots as they engage with ragged sailors who don’t even have a radio.
In a restricted area on the loading deck, the military police’s cadre of confiscated Kalashnikovs and RPGs look like antiques from the Wild West in comparison to the Danish arsenal of futuristic Harpoon and Sea Sparrow missiles that arm the Absalon. “This is mini-Lisel. She’s named after my girlfriend,” says tactical observer Henrik Christensen, pointing to a gargantuan machine gun that gapes off the side of the ship’s helicopter. “This is what they respect. We make sure they see the gun before we fire a warning shot. They usually stop. Most Somalis have never seen a gun like this before.”
The steely special forces chief is empathetic: “We don’t consider them an enemy, just criminals. Most of them are desperate. It’s their last chance to feed their families,” he says. Others are verging on gung-ho. “I feel very safe on board,” says one private, Asger Hoger. “We’re the sharks out here. We’re doing the hunting, not the other way around.”
Modern pirate hunting is not the stuff of films. The high seas are controlled by reams of legislation. “We have EU law, Danish law, and the UN charter against torture to consider,” says Thomas Klyver, the captain’s legal adviser. “It is not possible for us to extradite [captives] to a country with the death penalty.”
In September, the Absalon detained 10 pirates who had allegedly hijacked a ship, but were forced to put the culprits back on shore despite having comprehensive evidence. “It was a special operation, in the middle of the night,” says the captain. “Without a country willing to claim jurisdiction, we had no choice.”
Termansen insists the bureaucratic matrix hasn’t rained on his mission’s parade. Last year’s farce was, instead, a breakthrough. “It was a wake-up call to the international community,” he says. Since then, Denmark has become chair of a new UN committee on countering piracy and is leading a call for a Hague-style court to try pirates. It has also established an organisation, NORCAP, to train the East African and Yemeni coastguard.
Meanwhile, the Absalon has set precedent by handing over its last galley-full of Somalis to the Dutch, after they were caught raiding a Dutch-flagged cargo ship. The group is awaiting trial in the Netherlands under domestic piracy laws. “I think we are getting wiser every second here. There was no doctrine, we made doctrine,” says Termansen.
Others disagree. As the frigate anchors in Oman for a visit from its foreign minister, feelings run high. “It was better when we just hanged them,” says the press attaché, in jest. “Personally I think we should do something [to help free the hostages]. If they change their tactics and start killing we will have to.”
So far Somali pirates haven’t harmed their captives but have threatened to. “There will be a time when the anger of the young fishermen in Somalia will reach the last. At that time we will not hijack a ship, we will intercept it and kill anyone on it,” says one pirate, Abdi Baymad, via satellite phone from Harardhere.
For now, the Danes are following legislation to the letter. According to the translator, the Somali prisoners felt safe in Danish custody and even thanked him. They put on weight eating the hearty diet of schnitzel and fish pie. “Did you know you have to offer cigarettes as part of the UN convention on human rights?” says the logistics manager, Kal.
Just like the Louis Poulsen lamps and Sørensen chairs that furnish the ship, there are some constants the Danes are not willing to compromise on. Human rights is one of them. Even when hunting pirates, they take their designer staples and liberal attitudes with them.