Violent confrontations between Somali pirates and merchant ships’ armed guards could become more common as some shipping companies have reduced ship speeds through the highest-risk area to save on fuel, maritime experts have warned.
The shipping companies have switched to relying on guards, rather than speed, for protection because a single day at lower speeds can save $50,000 in fuel at current prices - enough to pay the guards for the whole journey.
The speed reductions contravene published advice that ships should use their maximum speed in the highest-risk areas. Pirates have never managed to board a vessel travelling at 18 knots or more and container ships and other faster vessels have traditionally crossed the high risk area up to 1,500 miles off Somalia’s coast at up to 24 knots.
Ron Widdows, chief executive of Germany’s Rickmers Holding, a major shipowner, said several maritime security companies had suggested his company employ their guards and slow ships down. Rickmers’ current security company opposed reducing speeds because pirates were more likely to attack slow ships, Mr Widdows added.
But many container shipping lines were “haemorrhaging cash” as high fuel costs, a glut of capacity and slow demand growth had pushed many into loss, he pointed out.
“They’re looking for just about anything that will allow them to save costs,” Mr Widdows said. “The opportunity for exchanging shots out there very certainly increases if people start to do this.”
Peter Cook, director of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, said estimates earlier this year had put the total fuel cost to shipping companies of running faster through the high-risk area in 2011 at $2.7bn. However, he opposed speed reductions.
“I can see why it happens,” he said. “I don’t agree with it.”
A third observer agreed that ships seemed to be slowing down in the area.