I started writing this article on 02 February 2019, aboard the cruise ship ms Maasdam of the Holland America Line.

A few hours ago on board the Holland America’s ms Maasdam, officers on the bridge spotted an apparent derelict drifting directly in the cruise ship’s path, approximately 200 nautical miles off the coast of Sri Lanka. From the distance at which the drifting vessel was first observed, it was difficult to ascertain the type of craft they were looking at, so a decision was made to approach and have a closer look at the vessel. As per standard operating procedure, the ship’s captain approached until the craft was within 100 meters of the ship’s starboard side, and a positive determination could be made.

The incident occurred at approximately 9:10 am on Saturday, 02 February 2019 while the Maasdam sailed towards Triconmalee in Sri Lanka from its last port of call in Phuket, Thailand. An announcement over the ship’s intercom system announced the incident, and being a cruise ship, crowds of curious passengers promptly made their way to vantage points on the ship’s outer decks to get a glimpse of what was about to happen.

A contingent from the Maasdam duly lowered a tender from the ship’s starboard side, touching water when the derelict was a mere 200 meters away. The lifeboat containing members of the Maasdam’s crew then proceeded towards the derelict craft, which appeared to be a makeshift bamboo raft with a skeletonized forecastle and crude railings also constructed of bamboo. It appeared to be some kind of village fishing vessel, flying tattered Sri Lankan colors.

Approaching the vessel, the Maasdam’s lifeboat circled the craft three times at ever-closing distances, making its final circuit no less than 10 meters from the fishing raft. No attempt was made to board, as there appeared to be no evidence of human presence on the crudely-constructed vessel. Apparently satisfied that no one passengers required rescuing, the ship’s tender returned to its position alongside the Maasdam and was hoisted back aboard, whereupon the Holland America cruise ship continued on its way. The ship’s officers had decided that the best course of action would be to report the discovery of a fishing raft adrift to the Sri Lankan Coast Guard, and let them decide on how to proceed regarding the incident.

What Ifs

Coming across derelict vessels in international waters can pose a variety of dangers, which most experienced mariners are well aware of:

1. Ostensibly abandoned vessels can contain dangerous cargo such as explosives, unintentionally (or intentionally) meant to cause injury to approaching rescuers and damage to approaching ships,
2. Craft posing as derelicts can harbor hostile elements intending to board responding ships, and
3. Apparent derelicts can serve as seagoing roadblocks designed to halt ocean-going ships for more sinister, secondary purposes.

Worst Case Scenarios

Imagine a modestly-equipped group of 10 -15 privateers intending to take over a cruise ship, container transport, or tanker.

Although it’s been done successfully numerous times off the coast of Somalia, it is no longer easy to simply chase down and then forcibly board large ships at sea.

For one, even large ships are now capable of fairly brisk cruising speeds, such that a few are now capable of outrunning fast pirate speedboats, or staying ahead of them for extended lengths of time. The fact that big ships ride the waves better in rough seas also gives them a decided advantage over small boats.

Most modern ships are routinely equipped with sonic defense systems designed to disorient would-be pirates on the fly. Ships’ crews today are also better trained in protective protocols, such as the use of on-board fire hoses and other devices to repel attempts by would-be boarders.

Other large commercial vessels go to the extent of employing contingents of armed guards specifically tasked with defending their ships. Finally, the increased presence of various countries’ warships patrolling the world’s more dangerous shipping lanes has made piracy a far riskier proposition than it was 10 years ago.

Contrary to popular belief, a stationary large vessel on the high seas isn’t necessarily a sitting duck. Ships’ radar can usually detect approaching vessels from several miles away, and lookouts on the ship’s bridge and crow’s nest can usually spot interdicting vessels before they get too close.

So how does stopping to check out a derelict at sea become a risky business? It helps to think of how you would conduct the exercise of capturing a large ship, if you were a privateer with only limited resources.

You cannot simply chase the ship in the hope that it will slow down sufficiently for your speedboats to catch up, and then hope to get your men aboard without encountering some form of resistance. Your prey is likely to spot you off the bat, and initiate evasive action while radioing for help. Given enough delay, you could wind up toe-to-toe with attack helicopters, or even a very pissed off Navy destroyer.

So you set up what appears to be a derelict and use it as a ploy to make the ship stop, so that an unobserved diver with scuba gear can attach an improvised explosive device to the ship’s hull. A rescue vessel sent to investigate the derelict would find the apparent derelict empty while the diver performed the nasty deed, whereupon the scuba diver could return to the ostensibly abandoned vessel after the ship departs.

In the majority of cases, the improvised explosive device used would have to be activated by timer, since cellular service is notoriously unavailable at sea, and most ships employ radio signal blockers while underway.

A timer-activated IED could be set to detonate just before nightfall, creating a shipboard emergency serious enough to cause the crew of a tanker, cruise ship, or container vessel to halt the ship’s progress mid-course. The ship would then effectively be a stationary target, much easier to attack and to board using conventional speedboats and a small complement of men equipped with grappling hooks, rope ladders and conventional small arms.

It’s important that the damage caused by the IED not be serious enough to impair the operation of the ship, especially if it has to be moved to a secondary location after you board it. This rules out damaging the propulsion and steering mechanisms on a large vessel.

Any passengers and crew can then be taken hostage, and the ship’s communication systems suppressed. Any damage initially caused can then be repaired, and the ship diverted to the port of your choosing so that negotiations or offloading operations can begin.

Mitigating the Peril

I am inclined to believe that the best practices for approaching and dealing with derelicts on the high seas are those implemented by the Coast Guard and Navy units of various countries as standard operating procedure.

A Coast Guard or Navy vessel spotting a vessel appearing to be adrift initiates a radically different, very conservative approach to the issue, whenever it needs to investigate a suspected derelict. It first attempts to hail the vessel in question, using its ship’s horn. At night, it concentrates its spotlights on the questionable vessel, attempting to elicit a reaction from any occupants that may be on board.

A Navy or Coast Guard vessel will also follow proximity guidelines similar to those used by law enforcement authorities on land, when they have to deal with the possibility of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED’s). Based on the conveyance’s size, a rough estimate of the possible blast radius it could have if it were loaded with explosives is calculated.

According to civil emergency procedures, for example, a small automobile loaded with conventional explosives may have a blast radius of 500 meters. A 500-meter exclusion zone around the suspect vehicle therefore needs to be established and strictly enforced. Everyone discovered to be within this area is summarily evacuated; this means that no vehicles or personnel are allowed within 500 meters of the possible source of danger, with the exception of emergency services and the Bomb Squad.

A truck-sized vehicle, on the other hand, may warrant an exclusion zone of up to 2 kilometers, because of the volume of explosives it might contain. The larger the amount of explosives that a conveyance is likely to contain, the wider the exclusion zone that is warranted around it.

Once a Navy or Coast Guard vessel calculates the size of a safe exclusion zone, it parks itself at the edge of the safety zone and sends out smaller seagoing craft to investigate. To forestalł the possibility of hostile behavior, the investigating ship normally keeps a set of guns trained on the vessel undergoing investigation. In almost all instances, the contingent aboard the smaller craft tasked to investigate is also armed.

Using bullhorns, the hailing procedure is repeated as the smaller craft approaches the targeted vessel. Depending on the Captain’s suspicions and upon the instructions provided to the investigative party, members from the smaller craft may even decide to board the suspected derelict.

All told, the operating procedure is a relatively safe way to check on suspected derelicts without compromising the investigators’ safety.

A Simpler, Safer Way to Do Things

Given the latest advances that modern technology now provides, it should no longer be necessary for large sailing ships to closely approach in order to investigate apparent derelicts while plying international waters.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) more popularly known as drones, can provide a safe way to approach and visually check out vessels that appear to be derelicts, without having to resort deploying smaller exploratory craft. Today’s drones are fully capable of flying distances of up to 10 kilometers and operating at altitudes of up to 5,000 meters. They can be reliably controlled up to 4 kilometers away, and the general absence of radio interference at sea (except from the ship itself) probably provides an ideal operating environment for UAV’s deployed in this role.

Guided by the camera on the drone itself, a skilled UAV operator should easily be able to pilot a drone to within 5 meters of any derelict, circle the vessel, and photograph it at will from various angles during any remote inspection process.

Advantages of Remote-controlled Inspection

There are several advantages to using UAV’s for checking out apparent derelicts at sea.

The first and most obvious is that the inspecting ship does not need to approach and put itself in harm’s way to conduct an inspection, although launching and successfully recovering certain types of drone might necessitate a full stop. (Although most drones have return-to-base capabilities, they rely on GPS and GLONASS to return to their original position, which would of course be continuously changing, if a ship were underway.

The inspecting ship, however, does not need to come dangerously close to the apparent derelict, and can conduct an assessment from a safe distance (up to two miles) away. State-for-the-art drones now have a flying time of 20 to 30 minutes, and can attain speeds of up to 60 kilometers an hour. As previously mentioned, they can fly 10-kilometer circuits, which would allow them to get from the ship to the vessel under inspection, make several circuits around the target vessel, and still retain enough battery power to make it back to the ship, while transmitting video images back to the ship for the entire duration of the flight. Using a drone can effectively provide two video records of the inspection—one from the drone’s on-board camera, and another on the handheld smartphone or tablet attached to the drone’s controller.

What all of this means is that an apparent derelict laden with potentially dangerous cargo (explosives or chemical/biological agents) will pose less of a hazard to the ship, its passengers, and crew members, than an inspection carried out using more traditional methods. (It should also be noted that a drone can be airborne and on its way in a matter of seconds, versus the fifteen minutes or so that it takes to get a lifeboat or tender underway.)

A UAV will also have the advantage of drawing the attention of any occupants in the targeted vessel, and possibly causing them to make an appearance while the drone circles their vessel. UAV’s typically emit high-pitched whining or a persistent buzzing sound. This alerts people to its presence, and may pique the curiosity of a vessel’s occupants, enough for them to reveal themselves.

In the event that an apparent derelict is manned by hostiles, the vessel’s occupants are likely to initiate action against any UAV invading their domain. Action may include attempts to ensnare the UAV, or even to shoot it down. While damage to the drone definitely incurs some cost, it still effectively prevents ship’s personnel from getting in harm’s way. It also signals the intentions of the vessel’s occupants, before they can get close enough to do more serious damage, provided that the investigating ship has maintained a safe position at the edge of the mandatory exclusion zone.

Even in a scenario where a scuba diver is standing by on an apparent derelict, waiting for a ship to stop in order to place an IED or to load the ship with contraband, the longer distance from the ship to the interloper’s vessel is likely to discourage the diver from completing the intended operation.

UAV Limitations

Unfortunately, at this time, most UAV’s are not waterproof. Having them land in the water or operating them in the rain is presently out of the question. Operating drones in high winds is also ill-advised, although most state-of-the-art units will tolerate wind velocities of up to 10 meters per second.

Next, any UAV’s operation is limited by its effective battery life, which currently runs anywhere from 7 to 30 minutes using current ‘smart battery’ technology.

Lastly, a drone’s controllability is subject to electromagnetic and radio interference. While most operate in the 2.5 to 5.0 Ghz range, care needs to be taken that the ship’s own signal emissions do not compromise the UAV’s operation, and vice-versa.

Additional Precautions

One other precaution that could probably be taken after a ship stops to inspect a derelict, is a cursory underwater inspection of the hull to ascertain that no IEDs have been attached to the ship’s outer hull surface. Apart from checking for IED’s, it should also be noted that smugglers have been known to piggyback contraband onto ships’ hulls using powerful magnets, for recovery by underwater divers at a ship’s next port of call. This type of smuggling is almost impossible to detect through normal means, and provides a viable method of moving significant amounts of contraband along the shipping lanes.

In cases where trained scuba divers are unavailable, this hull-inspection process can also be accomplished by lowering waterproof cameras with powerful directional lights below the water line, and running them along the length of the hull to facilitate a cursory examination. Anything found to be out of the ordinary should be deemed suspicious and dealt with accordingly.

Autonomous underwater devices similar to UAV’s that facilitate this process ualready exist, but are not generally available at this time, except for military use. This situation is likely to change in the near future, and should provide an additional, much-needed layer of protection for large seagoing vessels.

Postscript

With regards to the incident of 02 February 2019, I wish to state as a matter of record that I have no reservations regarding the manner in which the ms Maasdam’s captain and crew responded to the incident involving the derelict craft. The officers and crew handled the situation as best they could, and called the shots as they saw fit. They are to be commended for having checked on the derelict expeditiously.

From the appearance of the fishing raft encountered, it was unlikely that it could have contained any significant amount of explosives, nor was it likely to have harbored any type of chemical/biological agents. Likewise, no other vessels were present in the area at the time of the incident.

Although it remains a mystery why the vessel was adrift approximately 200 nautical miles from land, there appeared to be no evidence suggesting foul play, much less any indication of malicious intent towards the Holland America cruise liner or to any other ship that might chance upon it.

The general consensus is that the raft simply broke loose from its moorings, and was cast adrift at the mercy of prevailing winds and ocean currents. The craft’s apparent lack of any means of propulsion also made it unlikely that it was deliberately piloted that far offshore.

As for the ms Maasdam, the cruise liner arrived at its next port of call safely, and no untoward incidents transpired from the point that the derelict was encountered. (I did notice several crew members transferring fire hoses to the aft section of the ship shortly after the incident, however, so I figured we were in a good position to ward off would-be boarders afterwards, if the situation so warranted.)

All told, we enjoyed smooth sailing and a pleasant voyage free of untoward incidents, which is the very best that any voyager on the high seas can hope for.

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