Explainer’s Pirate Roundup

Your questions about pirates with answers from our archives.

Pirates don’t really say “Arrr!”

Somali pirates seized a Saudi oil tanker worth $100 million on Saturday, and attacks on Thai and Indian vessels followed on Tuesday. So far, more than 95 ships have been attacked by pirates near Somalia this year. It’s been a while since the last golden age of piracy, so the Explainer is here to get you up to speed on all the most crucial information about these high-seas renegades.

What’s their motivation?

Booty, naturally. Pirates haven’t changed that much. In the middle of the 20th century, pirates tended to be merely thieves at sea, climbing aboard commercial ships and making off with whatever valuables they could grab. Some pirates are still operating on this small scale, but they tend to pack more heat—guns or even grenades. A typical yield for this sort of attack, which often involves breaking into commercial safes onboard, can range from $1,000 to $20,000. The really big bucks in pirating come from ransom, though. For instance, the Saudi oil tanker is being held captive for $25 million; a more typical ransom for a captured ship is $1 million. (The United Nations estimates that $25 million to $30 million has been paid out in ransom to pirates this year.) Human captives are sometimes taken for a less dramatic ransom, yielding tens of thousands each. (For more detail on what modern pirates want from us and how they get it, check out this Explainer from 2005.)

After the news broke of Saturday’s oil tanker seizure, world oil futures spiked briefly, with investors worried about the impact such unpredictable factors could have on supply. If you’re in the commercial shipping business, what steps can you take to pirate-proof your haul?

You should definitely invest in K&R insurance—that’s “kidnapping and ransom.” Premium costs have increased as much as tenfold over the past year, but if you’re shipping through the Gulf of Aden, it’s worth it. You should also consider hired muscle: Blackwater, of Iraq war fame, is offering a protection package that includes an attack helicopter and escort ships. (For more on how to cover your booty, see this article from Slate’s sister site The Big Money.)

Since August, anti-piracy patrols have had a few victories. Earlier this week, the Indian navy sunk one pirate ship and forced the crew to flee another, while last week a British ship stopped a boat full of pirates and arrested eight people. How exactly do you make an arrest at sea?

First, try to contact the outlaw ship via radio or P.A. system. Then board the vessel from helicopters or smaller ships, and make a thorough search for lawbreakers and weapons. Prisoners should be handcuffed and the seized ship steered to the nearest port. If the pirates try to flee, you might try to shoot out the ship’s engine or “foul its propeller” with a netlike device deployed in the water ahead of the ship. (For more detail on maritime arrests, see this Explainer from 2005.)

So, do these modern-day pirates still say “Arrr”?

No, and the old-fashioned ones probably didn’t, either. Hollywood brought the phrase onto the scene in 1934, and it stuck. Arrr, pronounced with the trademark burred accent, became fixed in the popular consciousness when an actor from Southwestern England used it to great effect playing Long John Silver throughout the 1950s. Today’s Somali pirates might be likely to say something more along the lines of “is dhiib” (“Surrender”), “istaag ama waan ku tooganayaa” (“Stop or I will shoot”), or perhaps one of these other useful Somalian phrases. (For more on high-seas etymology, see this Explainer from 2007.)

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