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Today's pirates not dressed for success

November 24, 2008

I confess to being rather fascinated with the idea that pirates are once again roaming the high seas. Fascinated and confused. Like, how do you bury 2 million barrels of oil in a chest off the Somali coast?

As of this writing, the pirates were holding a supertanker called the Sirius Star off the coast near the "well- defended pirate haven" of Eyl. They had also taken over a Thai fishing boat, with cargo presumably worth a lot less than the supertanker's $100 million.

So the pirates are sort of all over the board here. I might advise them that their business plan could use a little focus. And they snagged an Iranian ship with a load of grain. That's not good. Maybe they don't have the Internet in Somalia and haven't seen them launching all of those test rockets.

Of course they do things a lot differently in Africa and the Middle East than they do here. The pirates' catchphrase is probably "Yo ho ho and a bottle of qishr." So maybe this works for them.

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One other thing: If you're a pirate ship coming along a 20-story-high supertanker, how do you throw a grappling hook over the side? I know that instead of swords they have grenade launchers, but still, it seems that boarding would be problematic. It almost smacks of a car-chasing dog that actually catches a tractor-trailer. What does he do with it now?

I saw a photo of one of the Somali pirate ships and, not to brag, but it made our pirate ships of the 1700s look like the Diamond Princess. It appeared to be hammered together out of used flooring and fence posts and was unspeakably picturesque. The only thing missing was a line of laundry on the transom and a couple of goats on the foredeck.

These things are subduing our most modern ships; makes me want to hop in my rowboat and take down a nuclear sub.

Those familiar with the situation say that piracy was born out of fishing -- specifically, actions against illegal foreign fishing boats that were depleting the catch. These pirates are apparently former fishermen who -- with nothing left to sell -- turned to another vocation. It's sort of the way a laid-off autoworker winds up in community college taking courses in graphic arts. Except that there's a job for pirates.

I don't know whether this is true or not, but a photo of some of these captured pirates would bear it out. They were a sorry looking lot who seemed to be a bowl of porridge away from starvation, and in serious need of pirate outfitting. Bleeding heart that I am, I wanted to send along a care package full of eye patches, peg legs and parrots. The ringleaders, however, are said to live a far more extravagant lifestyle. In short, we still have a lot to learn about the situation.

Of course if I did want to learn more, the ever-helpful Internet is there for me. No lie, the day after the tanker was captured, a message appeared in my e-mail box with the subject line: "Pirate Expert Available."

It commenced:

"Dear Producer:

"The power of the pirate is evident. From a hijacked Saudi Arabian supertanker to the boomtown of Somalia pirate port, pirates are raiding, looting and raking in millions.

"How are they taking these huge ships? How do they plan? What do they want? Is there any way to punish them, catch them, stop them? How are piracy and terrorism connected -- and how should they be dealt with under international law?"

Amazing. These were all the questions for which I was seeking answers. But that was yesterday. Today, I don't care anymore. Sadly, the e-mailer overestimated the attention span of this particular producer.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com.

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