BREAKING NEWS – M/V Athena – Somali Pirates Coordinating Attacks

Earlier today gCaptain received reports from Australia that the M/V Athena was attacked by 29 pirate boats while transiting the Gulf Of Aden. This was the second cruise ship to be attacked and the first to witness an attack at this scale. The shear number of boats and the coordination of this many individual assets left us in disbelief. We spent this afternoon looking for the facts.

M/V Athena

Cruise Ship Athena - Photo By Shipspotter Regin TorkilsonPhoto By Regin Torkilson

The M/V Athena is owned by Classic International Cruises and operated by World Cruise Agency, both of Portugal. According to Equasis the vessel was built in 1948 and operates under the Italian flag. The company provides us with an overview of the vessel:

Athena was originally built as a trans-atlantic ocean liner and in 1994 the vessel changed ownership and was virtually stripped to her hull and re-constructed and restored as a beautiful new premium rated contemporary cruise ship. With a handsome profile and a traditional walk around promenade deck, Athena is a medium to small sized cruise ship by today’s standards carrying about 550 passengers and offering a wide selection of well appointed public lounges and comfortable cabin accommodation spanning eight passenger decks serviced by two lifts.

In a phone call to World Cruise Agency we have been told the number of pirate vessels was 24. We are awaiting a reply from the company on details of the attack and will post then here once available.

Convoy
penne destroyer

In researching the Athena attack we learned from multiple sources that just yesterday a convoy of merchant ships under the direct protection of an Italian Penne Class Destroyer was attacked by 20 boats while transiting the Gulf Of Aden.

Naval Technology provides insight on the capabilities of this naval asset:

The Durand De La Penne Class destroyers were built by Fincantieri for the Italian Navy. The first-of-class ship, MM Luigi Durand De La Penne (D560), and the second, MM Francesco Mimbelli (D561), were commissioned in 1993. The ships were constructed at Fincantieri’s Riva Trigoso shipyard.

The Durand De La Penne destroyers are 5,000t multi-role warships able to perform anti-air defence for protecting task forces and convoys, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare operations, assistance during landing operations and coastal bombardment.

The ship is equipped with a helicopter deck and a hangar with facilities for two helicopters such as the Agusta Bell AB 212, the Sea King SH-3D or the EH-101. More Information…

gCaptain will be reporting on this breaking news as more information becomes available. Regardless of the upcoming details the coordination of pirate assets is deeply troubling. We consider this an elevation of the current threat and ask you to pass this new information to all mariners transiting the region.

gCaptain is also working towards a solution to the problem. We have coordinated efforts with an outfit that provides rescue services to mariners and travelers worldwide. The underlying problems in Somalia are:

  1. Under-Manning Of Vessels
  2. Lack Of Specific Training
  3. Political Instability In The Region

While we have little ability to change the political situation in the country itself we believe new ideas are needed to harden potential targets and assure the safety of mariners transiting the region. Increasing the number of watchkeepers and providing on board training and advice is within our capabilities. If any companies or mariners are planning on transiting the region in the coming days/weeks please contact us directly, otherwise, stay tuned for breaking developments on this story and our plan to coordinate the maritime community’s efforts to protect our shipmates.

UPDATE:

Classic International Cruises Australia has changed their account of the M/V Athena attack. The Australian reports:

A spokeswoman for Classic International Cruises Australia, which owns the Athena, said the boats had turned out to be local fishing vessels whose crew were “very friendly”.

“Precautions were taken when the boats were sighted but there was never any suggestion that the boat was going to be attacked,” Classic Cruises sales and marketing manager Ann Hope said.

She said water cannons were dropped from the side of the ship as a standard measure, but were not used at any stage.

Ms Hope said the company had exchanged emails with the Department of Foreign Affairs and had sent a message to all its travel partners to inform them there was no piracy attempt.

“We would like to advise you that Athena has not in any way been under attack by pirates or even under direct threat and the current situation on board is as it was at the beginning of the cruise,” the email said.

This is in stark contrast to the phone conversation gCaptain had with Classic International Cruises just yesterday. Also of note, the company promised to send us a maritime advisory drafted after the attack. This email never arrived and the company representative has been unavailable for a follow-up conversation.

UPDATE 2:
gCaptain received the following report from a maritime security group working in the area. They write:

The on-again/off-again, it happened/it didn’t happen, attack on the Australian cruise ship ATHENA did, in fact, happen, and we should no longer doubt the extraordinarily large number of pirate skiffs involved, originally reported by eyewitnesses as about 30 to ATHENA’s port side and 12 to starboard.  When the press heard eyewitness accounts from passengers onboard, the cruise line acknowledged the attack initially, only to deny it 24 hours later, referring instead to passengers who were mistaken about the “very friendly” fishermen whose boats surrounded the ship (but nonetheless prompted the crew to deploy fire hoses).   Companies have their reasons for saying things, and the cruise line wishes its passengers aboard ATHENA a “memorable cruising experience.”  It is not the company’s fault that pirates tampered with the memories of her Gulf of Aden passage December 2nd.

The latest version of the corporate story has compelled Portuguese Captain Antonio Morais to explain to passengers that the “very friendly” fishermen his cruise line first described in version 2.0 were, version 3.0,  pirates on a recce/training mission.  Doubtless, Classic International Cruises should award the captain a medal for saving his ship and her souls (not to mention a judge’s spot on “Dancing With The Stars” for the deft corporate waltz he was compelled to perform).

Nevertheless, the facts remain:  after two and possibly three boarding attempts, pirates mounted a full-on effort to capture his ship. Fortunately, Portuguese mariners rock, and speed kills, sometimes thankfully:  Captain Morais and ATHENA outran their attackers.

And the number of boats makes sense.  Two to four boats (nominally as many as 24 combatants) capture tankers and freighters with crew of 20 or so.  Some 40 boats with 200 combatants, pirates figure, can take and hold a defenseless cruise ship with hundreds of passengers and crew.

Despite the cruise line’s denials, this attack was evaluated by our people, and others with a stake in the game, as totally authentic, and it involved the approximate number of boats initially reported by ATHENA passengers.  I also believe it figured solidly behind a German cruise line’s decision to pull passengers and much of the crew from the cruise ship COLUMBUS December 8th, fly them to Dubai and put them up in a five-star hotel to await that ship’s arrival, all at considerable expense.

I also believe SECSTATE  Rice and/or our people at the UN referred to ATHENA to build support for the U.S. initiative circulated at the UN to go ashore, if need be, to pursue pirates (full Security Council vote slated for December 16th).  If and when we go ashore in Somalia, it is very much game-off for pirates and a most serious game-on for President-elect Obama, our Navy, Marines and special forces, and the international forces fully committed in the region.  It also represents a unique challenge to General William E. Ward, U.S. Army, first Commander of U.S. Africa Command.

Perhaps it’s a sign, too, that pirates made a grave error by targeting a ship named after the Goddess of Wisdom.