August 27, 2014 | 6 Comments

Anti-Pirate Water Cannon (Unifire)

From the curators: Often relegated to storybooks and film, pirates remain a very real threat to seagoing vessels, as the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Live Piracy Map attests. Twenty-first century pirates primarily target international shipping vessels, often as they sail through narrow passes (such as The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden) that render them more susceptible to attack. It is estimated that pirates make between a few thousand to many millions of dollars per attack in ransoms paid to prevent the loss of a ship, damage to sensitive cargo, or to promise the safe return of hostages. In light of escalating aggressions, anti-pirate technology has developed rapidly in the last decade and has, to some degree, managed to curb the number of successful raids. Pirates pose the greatest threat to vessels and their crew once on board, and so designs to fight piracy at sea are aimed at preventing pirates from ever boarding a ship. Aside from the armed onboard private security that has grown increasingly common, anti-pirate designs include various non-lethal weapons such as long-range acoustic devices, electric fences, Active Denial Systems, and anti-pirate water cannons. The latter deliver high-powered streams of water that can be aimed at pirates trying to board a ship or at their small skiffs, flooding and destabilizing them. However, no design can fully deter a crime as old as sea-trading itself. As Captain Richard Phillips recounted about the attack of his ship by Somali pirates in 2009, pirate attacks remain a matter of if, not when.

The phone rings, it’s 02:12 hours. Why is it always between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m.? It’s not going to be good news. The options run through my mind in the 20 seconds before lifting the receiver. Collision, grounding, fire, engine breakdown, fatality—after 40 years you’ve dealt with them all, but every one is different. Lift the receiver and listen very carefully, you can’t afford to get the facts wrong. It’s the Master of the Star Harrier, he’s in panic mode shouting down the satellite phone, “We’re under piracy attack, there are eight skiffs, four on each side of the vessel, they are closing fast.”

There is an echo on the phone so every word is duplicated. Take a deep breath, speak calmly. The questions come automatically: “Is there anyone injured?” “No.” “What is the vessel’s position?” “… degrees … minutes north … degrees … minutes east.” “Have you reported the attack to the anti piracy forces?” “Yes.” “Have they given a response time?” “No.” I can hear shouts and static from the bridge VHFs (Very High Frequency radios); it almost feels like I’m there. “Are you complying with Best Management Practices?” “Yes, we are at full speed, zig-zagging, and have the water cannons going.” “OK, Captain, I leave you to it. When you get the chance, update us, and in the meantime remember, avoid putting the crew or yourself at risk, and we are here to assist in any way. We will mobilize the emergency response room.” As I say this, I know it sounds crass. He hangs up.

My wife squints up at me from the dark, “How bad is it?” “It’s bad, a piracy attack.” “Oh shit. Do you want a cup of tea?” She knows the drill, too. “No thanks, I’ll get one at work.” The training kicks in: first call to the emergency coordinator, give him brief details, mobilize the emergency and media response team, call the Human Resources office heads in Europe, Manila, and Mumbai, have them stand by, don’t give them more details until we can get them all on a conference line in 45 minutes. Next call to the Chief Executive Officer—he listens, I advise him of next steps and ask him to notify the Board of Directors. He signs off with a curt “keep me informed.” Off for a five-minute shower—it may be the last for some time. Fifteen minutes later, and I’m on the way to the office. It’s a 20-minute drive during which I go through the next steps mentally. Still haven’t heard back from the vessel, let’s hope to God they are all right.

Arrive in the office, remember to be calm, precise, and positive. Four of the 10-man team are there. I assign temporary roles until the rest of the team arrive: have the coordinator call the ship, set up the conference call with the HR heads 10 minutes from now. Quick look at the watch—it’s been 50 minutes from the first call. Time seems to have passed in a heartbeat. The ship isn’t answering the phone—not good news. Let’s stay positive but plan for the worst. Everyone has arrived, we all know our roles, the conference call starts, I provide a briefing, we discuss the next steps. The big question: “When do we call the families and what do we say?” Experience says tell them immediately, they have a right to know. As to what to say? The truth’s a good start. Next call the authorities, check whether they have heard anything, and get the media team to draft some press releases and some question-and-answers. Update the CEO. He asks for my opinion, and I tell him I fear the worst. The phone in the emergency response team emits its shrill tone; everyone freezes. I pick it up, lots of static, then a voice in broken English yelling and demanding money before they kill the crew. The phone is handed back to the Captain. He is terrified and virtually incoherent. The worst has happened. There are going to be long days and nights ahead. Next step is to advise the families, the worst act of all. And so the next phase begins.


Is it fair to ask mariners to use non-lethal weapons when their adversaries are lethally armed?

  1. August 28, 2014, 8:54 pm


    Abso f'n lutely

    You do what you need to do to survive. They should use guns actually.

  2. August 30, 2014, 6:59 am



    You can ask but you can’t prohibit them from using whatever means necessary and available to assure their safety.

  3. September 3, 2014, 1:41 pm


    Badly put, uninformed, populist question…. I would expect more from a cultural institution of MOMA’s calibre.

    Would it increase their safety if ship crews answered approaching pirates with machine guns or would it result only in violence escalation and civilian casualties?

    Wouldn’t it be more productive to have a look at underlying causes of contemporary piracy and treat this issue in a more complex and holistic way?

  4. January 31, 2015, 7:41 pm

    Dan Aos

    Wow Pete, seriously?

    Tell you what Pete, while you’re off playing academic in your magical world of unlimited time, others will come up with real solutions to problems rather than a new intellectual means to dismiss them. A guy who thinks like you would feel its wrong for women to user a taser to fend off a rapist, when really, we should figure out why the rapist rapes. In the meantime ladies, suck it up and take one for the team in the name of sociology’s high-minded ideals.

    Back to piracy, its always boggled my mind ships don’t have a lethal means to defend themselves in the water. Every other mode of transportation carries an ability to take expedient evasive maneuvers to avoid conflict. The fact that a 2 man speed boat with an RPG could halt a massive freighter carrying iron ore, simply through the threat of sinking it, is asinine. If ships were allowed to arm themselves with lethal means, the reduction in insurance premiums alone would be enough to fund Pete’s expedition into 3rd world socioeconomic issues to find us a permanent solution. In fact, why don’t we get him a ticket to Somalia today so he can get cracking. Let us know how it goes.

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