Guarding the Gulf of Aden
Out in pirate alley, RSS TENACIOUS provides reassurance and safe cover for merchant vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden.
By Clara Lock
Photos by Navy News and courtesy of ME1 Goh Yao Xing and RSS TENACIOUS
Twilight out as sea is a swift descent of daylight into the cover of darkness.
As visibility dips, vessels in the distance are quickly reduced to specks of light on the horizon; shadowy silhouettes on the ship’s electro optic sensor system (EOS).
Navigation becomes more difficult; the bridge is bathed in an unearthly palette of reds and greens – lights specially chosen to help the human eye adapt to the night.
For merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden, dawn and dusk are some of the most vulnerable hours of the day. Pirates in the region often use this time to launch their attacks to evade detection
These merchant vessels with an estimated net worth that extends into the millions, grow nervous, especially when skiffs and dhows come too close for comfort.
Merchant Vessel (MV) ZIM CHINA was one such ship when she called RSS Tenacious about a passing dhow towing two skiffs.
Pirates in the region operate out of small speedboats called skiffs, which work in tandem with larger vessels called dhows.
Dhows may disguise themselves as fishing boats among the large fishing community, and act as a mother ship for the skiffs.
Once they locate a target vessel, pirates launch the skiffs and attempt to either rob or take it hostage. They use grappling hooks, ladders and small arms such as hand guns and assault rifles to take over a ship.
The attack, if successful, is a lucrative affair. In 2012, pirates took merchant vessel MT SMYRNI hostage for a ransom of $12 million USD, the highest known amount so far.
With stakes this high and pirates with little to lose, attacks can be swift and vicious.
The men and women aboard RSS Tenacious understand this only too well.
Every day, they man the bridge and combat information centre to compile a maritime picture of vessels in the vicinity.
They must discern, among the plethora of vessels, which ones are potential threats and which are benign.
Skiffs carrying piracy tools or dhows towing skiffs may be investigated, and the air detachment augments this picture with information gathered during daily surveillance flights of the Sikosky S-70B Seahawk naval helicopter.
When operations officer CPT Eric Goh heard the call from MV ZIM CHINA over the international Maritime Mobile Service, he knew the threat was unlikely.
This was because RSS Tenacious had already passed the dhow in transit, and the naval helicopter had inspected it during the evening surveillance flight.
RSS TENACIOUS was therefore able to advise MV ZIM CHINA to proceed.
“There are parts of the world that are not as safe as the areas we usually operate in, and it is good to be able to render assistance where we can,” said CPT Tong Hui Hao, a naval helicopter pilot.
MV ZIM CHINA is just one of over 20,000 vessels that pass through the Gulf of Aden ever year.
The gulf, which runs between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, is part of a major international shipping route from the Middle East to Asia. 20% of Singapore’s trade flows through the Gulf of Aden each year.
In recent years, piracy has fallen in the gulf.
The international Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau reported 15 incidents in 2013, down from 237 in 2011.
These statistics favour merchant vessels, but no one wants to be the exception.
To guard against pirate attacks, most vessels travel along the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), a dual-lane sea highway that ships are encouraged to transit.
It takes approximately three days for a merchant ship to traverse the IRTC.
Multinational counter piracy forces patrol this stretch – Combined Task Force 151, under which RSS Tenacious operates is one of them.
The presence of these naval warships reassures the merchant vessels.
When MV HANJIN GOTHENBERG encountered engine failure about six nautical miles (11km) from RSS TENACIOUS, the latter kept watch on it for four hours while they rectified the defect.
“MV HANJIN GOTHENBERG was worried about a dhow towing three skiffs behind her. We positioned ourselves between her and the dhow, keeping watch for any suspicious movements,” said assistant operations officer CPT Ho Chuan, who was the Officer-of-the-Watch.
Keeping watch over a merchant vessel sounds straightforward enough, but the crew cannot let their attention waver.
Bridge lookout ME1 A Rajee keeps an eye on the horizon with her binoculars, while Weapons System Supervisor ME2 Sim Ti Kai monitor the dhows from the electro optic sensor mounted atop the typhoon gun.
He calls it ‘part of [his] job’, but accedes it is a tiring one.
But when MV HANJIN GOTHENBERG pipes a grateful thank you – ‘Coalition warship, we want to let you know we are done with our repair work.. we deeply appreciate your assistance’ before heading on her way, ME2 Sim is just as relived.
“When I watch MV HANJIN GOTHENBERG carry on with her journey, I’m pleased because I have helped, to the extent that I can” he said.
In this way RSS TENACIOUS continues its patrol.
One more dawn, one more day, one more merchant vessel sailing safe along the Gulf of Aden.