RICK BARRETT, Staff, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
It’s a scene played out often these days, and not just in Disney movies: A yacht or a ship is attacked at sea, the passengers and crew are beaten up or killed, and the modern-day pirates get away with valuable booty.
Piracy is big business, costing mariners and insurance companies $16 billion annually, according to the Piracy Reporting Centre, based in Kuala Lumpur.
Worldwide, pirate attacks have doubled over the past 10 years, with 335 reported in 2004. Many more incidents go unreported, either for fear of reprisals, because of doubts that an incident will be investigated, or out of reluctance to delay a voyage.
In a June attack in St. Lucia, documented on , a Web site for boaters, pirates boarded a yacht, beat one of the occupants until he lost consciousness, and raped his wife. In another attack off the coast of Venezuela, a yachtsman who tried to stop pirates from stealing his dinghy was beaten and left for dead, although he survived.
Far from the scenes of carnage, Wisconsin yacht companies are playing a role in fighting piracy. Burger Boat Co., for example, has formed an alliance with SAFE, a Los Angeles firm that specializes in high-end residential and yacht security systems.
Founded during the Civil War, Burger has built yachts for some of America’s most famous families, a list that includes the Fords, Rockefellers and Walgreens. It built a yacht for former Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen, not to mention the king of Morocco. Some Burger yachts cost up to $50 million.
Burger officials won’t disclose the security features of individual yachts. But the company’s options list includes things such as bulletproof glass, «safe rooms» for hiding from pirates and high-tech weapons meant to kill intruders.
«It’s a scary world out there. Piracy was big in the 1980s, died down, and now has reared its ugly head again,» said Katie Ross, company marketing manager.
A Burger yacht named «Pirate’s Lady» was the apparent victim of an attack at sea nearly 30 years ago. The 75-foot yacht vanished after leaving Florida’s Apalachicola harbor in January 1977, and its two crew members were never seen again.
Years later, the wreckage of Pirate’s Lady was found in 90 feet of water off Florida’s Gulf coast. No one knows for sure what happened, but law enforcement officials suspected the yacht was attacked by drug smugglers who were active in the area at the time.
Thieves and thugs can make a lot of money from attacking expensive pleasure boats, including ransom for the crew’s safe return. The current threats are especially acute in Indonesia and off the coasts of Africa and South America.
«In some areas, pirating is more likely to happen than not. You wouldn’t take a boat there unless it was fully armored and fortified,» said Al Corbi, SAFE president.
Corbi has installed security systems in homes and yachts for more than 35 years. His clientele range from sports stars to royalty.
«Most of my clients are the types that have their seven homes and three yachts and two jets,» he said.
Corbi has dozens of ways to make a yacht more secure, most of which he won’t publicly disclose. His firm uses technology such as unmanned aerial drones and remote surveillance devices for identifying threats from a distance.
«We have been using things that the federal government is just now buying to test,» Corbi said.
His firm also doesn’t hesitate to arm yachts with lethal force, subscribing to the theory that sometimes it’s necessary to kill your attackers and worry about the legalities later.
Yachts are easily big enough to be equipped with electrified fences as well as machine guns and lots of other weaponry.
«Let’s just say that our company is one of the few that will do whatever it takes to protect the client,» Corbi said.
Some of the non-lethal force would be painful for attackers, to say the least.
Yachts and cruise ships are sometimes protected by sonic cannons that aim ear-splitting sound directly at approaching attackers. A large sonic cannon can cause deafness.
«It’s all a matter of degrees,» Corbi said. «A small cannon will do a certain amount, a medium-sized one will do more, and a large one will leave you with blood coming out of your orifices. It will put you out.»
Yacht hulls can be reinforced with blast-proof materials. Interiors can include «core» areas where attackers would have to get through sealed passageways, protected by lethal force, to reach the passengers.
It’s difficult to turn a yacht into a fortress, largely because yachts are mobile. The advantages of a safe harbor or a dock don’t apply once a yacht leaves those familiar surroundings.
But in other ways, a yacht can be more secure than a land-based home, Corbi asserts.
«I can have a greater response to a threat in international waters than I would probably want to have in your neighborhood,» he said. «I could make a yacht more secure than a home because there is probably more that I could do to the bad guy.»
Yachts are homes on the sea, often used by high-profile individuals who pose security risks.
«We built a boat for the king of Spain, so we are very familiar with security,» said Mike Kelsey Jr., president of Palmer Johnson Inc., a Sturgeon Bay yacht builder.
Palmer Johnson has installed bulletproof windows in yachts. Its basic level of security is much higher now than it was years ago.
«That’s more because of piracy than terrorism,» Kelsey said. «Piracy has definitely happened in yachting.»
Some yachts have armed guards, but the trend is to have fewer people on the security staff, according to Corbi.
«The fact of the matter is that you have a greater chance of having problems with a large security staff because often threats come from within,» he said. «Our clients want to be able to keep an eye on the fox in the hen house.»
SAFE’s weapon systems are encoded with biometrics so that only very specific people can use them. That way, the weapons can’t be used against the crew and passengers they’re supposed to protect. It also leaves a permanent record every time a weapon is used.
Burger currently has twin yachts under construction for a Russian industrialist who will keep one of them in the United States, for cruising the Bahamas and the Caribbean, and the other in the Mediterranean.
«With these boats being so large, they are traveling all over the world,» Ross said. «And there is a lot of uncertainty out there.»
In rare cases, cruise ships have come under attack. Last November near Somalia, a cruise ship used a sonic cannon to chase off pirates armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
There were 25 serious attacks reported near Somalia in six months during 2005, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
«There’s a reason why there are popular cruising grounds in the world, and why are there some places you just don’t go anymore,» Kelsey said. «There’s nothing to worry about while taking a cruise in some place like Alaska. There are plenty of places to go where it’s perfectly safe . . . But there are areas where there is lawlessness.»
Piracy is getting worse every year as the attackers get powerful weapons that can be carried on speedboats.
Even the U.S. Navy has tangled with pirates while responding to calls from attacked boats. In March, two Navy warships exchanged gunfire with suspected pirates off the coast of Somalia, in international waters. One suspect was killed and five others were wounded, according to the Navy. No sailors aboard the USS Cape St. George and the USS Gonzalez were hurt.
«It’s a pretty gutsy group that would mess with a Navy vessel. There’s no fear there,» said Chief Petty Officer Dan Tremper, spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard.
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RICK BARRETT, Staff, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel