The Biggest Haul by Pirates Since Sir Francis Drake's Day?
The National Law Journal
Nobody keeps records like these, but one veteran admiralty law lawyer guesses that the pirates who recently commandeered the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star probably took the biggest haul of booty in 500 years.
"You have not seen this level of piracy since Sir Francis Drake was seizing Spanish galleons loaded with doubloons," said Brewster Jamieson, a shareholder on the admiralty law team at Lane Powell, a Seattle firm with offices throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The Sirius Star, loaded with crude oil valued at $100 million and boarded by Somali pirates nearly 500 miles from the coast of Kenya, is possibly the most valuable and least well-protected ship ever seized by pirates, Jamieson said.
"If I am a bank shipping cash, I have an armored car and a couple of armed guards to deter the casual thief with a gun. A supertanker is a tremendously valuable asset and a calamitous liability rolled into one, but they are putting it onto the high seas unguarded," Jamieson said. "It's shocking how easily these pirates can capture these tremendously valuable assets."
U.S. Navy and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies are patrolling the Gulf of Aden, a vast expanse of water narrowing to the Suez Canal, but the capture of the Sirius Star has reportedly prompted some shippers to take the much longer but safer route around Africa.
Jonathan M. Gutoff, an associate professor at Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, R.I., is teaching a maritime law course on piracy. The naval forces hunting pirates operate under the Convention on Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against Maritime Navigation that allows every signatory to take action against pirates anywhere in the world. The Navy could bring captured pirates back to the United States for trial, Gutoff said, though in practice Somali pirates have been sent to nearby Kenya, a signatory to the convention, for prosecution.
Of far more pressing concern to the ship owners, Gutoff believes, is the ransom reportedly being negotiated for the ship and crew. Maritime law has long recognized ransoms to pirates, along with emergency repairs or tossing cargo overboard to keep a ship afloat, an expense to be shared by all parties with an interest in the voyage, Gutoff said.
"It is possible for the vessel owner who pays ransom to claim what are called general average contributions against the owner of the cargo," Gutoff said. "A more typical example is when a ship requires repairs to complete the voyage. The owners can assess everyone with an interest in the continuation of the voyage to pay a proportionate share of the costs."
Jamieson said the modern maritime insurance industry took root in London in the 15th century, when pirates were as big a threat to shipping as storms.
"From time immemorial, piracy is a covered peril," Jamison said. "Typical maritime hull policies list piracy as an insured risk, though that can be modified."
Jamieson conceded it might take extra effort to buy a piracy coverage for supertankers sailing past Somalia, but he is certain there is a policy for the right premium.
"It is peculiar and precise coverage, but there is coverage for piracy," Jamieson said. "There is an entire class of insurance devoted to this type of peril. You don't get this from your All State agent in the neighborhood. They have to negotiate with pirates, after all. This is not for the faint of heart, but there are policies like that."