The Pirate Latitudes

When the French luxury cruise ship Le Ponant was captured by a raggedy, hopped-up band of Somali pirates last spring, in the Gulf of Aden, it looked as if the bandits had bitten off more than they could chew. But after a week-long standoff, they got what they had come for—a $2.15 million ransom. Describing the terrifying attack, the ordeal of the ship’s epicurean crew, and the tense negotiations, the author examines the ruthless calculus behind a new age of piracy.

William Langewische in Vanity Fair:

ScreenHunter_03 Mar. 08 18.58 Last spring, as crew members of the small French-flagged cruise ship Le Ponant prepared to sail through the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, they taped blackout cardboard over the windows, readied fire hoses to repel boarders, and mounted a special pirate watch to port and starboard. The Gulf of Aden is a hotbed of piracy, a crucial waterway where over the past several years Somali gangs operating far from shore have been hijacking ships, and allied navies have tried to respond. The Ponant was not built for such places. It is a modern, 290-foot, three-masted sailing vessel, with Riviera-style raked lines, that sells luxurious holidays to a maximum of 64 passengers at a time. It has four decks (including an upper one for lounging in the sun), two restaurants serving sophisticated French cuisine, individually air-conditioned cabins, a bar, a library, and a marina platform close to the water at the stern, for the launching of Zodiacs and water toys. It spends Northern Hemisphere summers in the Mediterranean on old-stone excursions to dead-city sites, and Southern Hemisphere summers in the Indian Ocean, visiting Madagascar and the pristine islands of the Seychelles. Its customers tend to be silver-haired and genteel. Most are American or French, traveling in groups sufficiently large to charter the entire ship. On this run now, however, no passengers were aboard. The ship was being repositioned to the Mediterranean for the summer season—a trip requiring a monotonous passage beyond sight of land for a full week at sea. The crew took advantage of the pause to relax and perform minor chores. Despite their precautions they did not believe that the Ponant would be attacked.

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