False Perceptions Of Piracy Against Yachts In Asia
Yangon to Manila Bay Symposium Crowne Plaza Mutiara, Kuala Lumpur, 26-27 May 2005
By Bruce Maxwell
Google the words “Piracy Pleasure Boats Asia” and an astonishing 15,000 references come up on the computer screen, many of them quite recent entries. Yet there have been hardly any cases of piracy involving pleasure boats in Asia for the last decade or two. Herein lies the problem. The world has an almost totally false impression that it isn’t safe for pleasure boats to sail or motor through the prime passages of Asia’s exotic seas and straits, and the region is losing millions of dollars, perhaps even billions, as wealthy marine tourists are at least partly discouraged from coming.
Because there are very few real robberies on pleasure boats in Asia these days, let alone physical attacks on people aboard them, I would like to begin by giving a closely related example of how this perception process works abroad. Think back to the haze problems that affected Singapore and the southern part of peninsula Malaysia in the late 1990s. The haze was caused by farming burn-offs, particularly in Sumatra, and it attracted widespread adverse publicity. In 1997, when the haze was at its height, I was helping the former chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy, Tan Sri Abdul Wahab Nawi, organize Asia’s first superyacht gathering at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace show (LIMA). About 15 big boats eventually turned up, mostly belonging to savvy Asian owners such as the Sultan of Brunei, but a number of others from Europe, which had booked and paid deposits, cancelled at the last moment. I told their agent, Nigel Burgess of London, that Langkawi on the Malaysia-Thailand border was far removed from the haze-affected areas further south, and that cruising in pristine waters of the Andaman Sea between Langkawi and Phuket was perfectly clear. “It doesn’t matter”, the agency’s Jonathan Beckett said. “There is a perception among owners and their guests that the whole region is covered by haze, and they won’t come”. I had myself seen front page pictures in the International Herald Tribune in France showing people wearing gas masks, with a general story about “haze enveloping Southeast Asia”, so it wasn’t hard to see what Jonathan meant, but equally, it was very frustrating, and an enormous loss to the local economy. One superyacht worth say US$30 million spends a tenth of its value every year in running costs, and that money, earmarked for this region, would now go somewhere else. Multiply this by at least 15-20 similarly-sized vessels that increasingly come through today, and add an estimated 1,500 private pleasure boats of various lengths that normally roam Asia’s seas and straits, and the disastrous effect of the negative and generalized haze publicity becomes starkly evident. The perception of piracy in Asia, in this submission, has exactly the same effect as the perception of haze. The idea gets around that security is a serious issue, and marine tourists affluent enough to have their own vessels tend to stay away from perceived “trouble”. In recent months I have been based on the Gold Coast in Australia, and noted reports in the national newspaper The Australian and the Gold Coast Bulletin, about piracy in Asia in the last eight weeks alone. The headlines read “Tanker Crew In Dire Straits”, “Pirates Seize Tanker”, “Pirates Take Over Tugboat” and “Piracy Deaths Up”.
There are absolutely no distinctions in these stories about piracy attacks on commercial shipping, which do continue to occur but within a well-documented range of circumstances and geographic areas, and piracy attacks on pleasure craft, which in Asia are virtually non-existent now. So a vessel owner based in say the Americas or Europe, where such reports are circulated by international news agencies – as well as to Australian and New Zealand and East Asia print and electronic media – would be perfectly justified in thinking that private vessels are coming under heavy attack, and that loved ones and friends could be at considerable risk if venturing into such unsettled waters.
Knowing the subject was coming up at this symposium, last month I asked my fellow speaker, Captain Pottengal Mukundan of the Piracy Reporting Centre, based in Kuala Lumpur, whether he would be kind enough to let me know of any cases involving pleasure craft – sail or power – that had come to his attention. He instanced only one, involving the yacht Okla, from which probably land-based thieves stole some cash and personal belongings when it was at a Thai island on 19 February 2004. There have, of course, been very substantially more robberies ashore, in all countries, in the same interim period. He commented further: “There were ten attacks against yachts reported to us in 2004. Most were off Somalia, or in South America or the Caribbean”.
Personal experience also suggests that piracy against pleasure craft in Asia is decidedly on the wane. I have lived in East Asia and Southeast Asia since 1970, run boating magazines such as Asian Boating, Asia-Pacific Boating and Yachts Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur since 1976, sailed across the South China Sea 98 times, took part in the inaugural mid-1980s Phuket-Pangkor races organized by another speaker here, Vincent Tabuteau, and helped start the King’s Cup Regatta in Thailand in 1987 and the annual island-hopping Raja Muda Regatta in Malaysia, which has been running since 1990. For five years I ran the China Sea Game Fishing Tournament at Taiwan-garrisoned Pratas Reef or Dong Sha, and I have spent other sojourns at Scarborough Reef in the northern part of the mysterious Spratlys, claimed variously by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, where a lot of nefarious-looking seafaring characters turn up. Add the Darwin-Ambon Race and many other events in the Indonesian and Philippines archipelagos, and I think I can claim to be reasonably experienced in these waters. Nowhere have I, nor any of my hundreds of friends who skipper all sorts of boats around here, and with whom I have re-checked immediately before this symposium, heard of a really serious pirate attack on a pleasure craft in the last 15 years.
Piracy has indeed existed, involving pleasure craft in Asia, and I well remember covering stories in the 70s and 80s about husband-and-wife cruising yachts being boarded going into Manila Bay, and attacks off Vietnam for nearly ten years after Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, and to this day I would avoid parts of the northern Papua New Guinea coast and some tiny pockets like waters off NW Borneo, and the southern end of the Sulu Sea, between Mindanao and the NE tip of Sabah, where frankly piracy in its various forms has been the norm for centuries, and where there is also much political and religious unrest. But this remaining “activity” is so relatively small and so localized. I am quite happy for example going into nearby Sutera Harbour at Kota Kinabalu, also in Sabah, which has superb facilities for anything from superyachts down, and their Magellan Suites ashore are on a par with the ultra-upmarket Aman marine tourist resorts, such as Amanpuri in Phuket, Amanpulo in the northern part of the Sulu Sea, and Amanwana in Bali. Or The Datai or Four Seasons in Langkawi, or the E&O; or Mutiara in Penang, or Pangkor Laut Resort. These establishments and their facilities are a core key to the future of high-end marine tourism in Asia, and the last thing we need to do is frighten off potential visitors and their vessels with generalized scare stories about piracy.
So how best to tackle this very real problem of a perception of piracy against pleasure craft in Asia? Our friends in the Piracy Reporting Centre undoubtedly have a valuable role to play in tracking piracy against commercial shipping and identifying ways to eliminate this scourge. But as far as pleasure craft are concerned, the real danger spots in the world today are the Gulf of Aden, between Somalia and Yemen in the approaches to the Red Sea, and in the Caribbean, where private boats are regularly targeted for one-off drug and refugee runs. We need to make it clearer that Asia is relatively free of such attacks.
If the immense damage that the false perception of piracy creates for marine tourism, in the countries concerned, is seen in its true economic light, perhaps that, or the further threat of a possibly aligned terrorist incident, will act as a spur in convincing governments to stamp out this menace to commercial shipping once and for all.