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Piracy has lost its romance

Dec. 1, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

Avast, me hearties, there is a crisis a brewin’ on the high seas.

Worldwide, piracy, like many other industries, has declined in recent years. Off the lawless coast of Somalia, however, it is thriving.

Attacks have increased in that area, leading up to the high-profile hijacking of the Sirius Star, which is carrying two million barrels of oil valued at $100 million.

This is only one of more than 90 pirate attacks in the area this year. The pirates typically hold the vessels and their crews for ransom. As many as 14 ships are currently being held.

Naturally, one would never advocate piracy of any kind, but it must be said that the pirates of today lack the style of their predecessors.

Notorious pirates of old, such as Blackbeard and Henry Morgan helped to build the larger-than-life reputation of pirates.

Then there were Anne Bonney and Mary Reade, the two cross-dressing swashbucklers who sailed around with Captain “Calico” Jack Rackham on his sloop, The Vanity.

These two ladies of the sea were reputedly tougher and more vicious than the men with whom they sailed.

They plied their trade in the waters off Cuba and Hispaniola, making life miserable for the fellows who were trying to sail treasure ships back to Spain.

Pirates today treat their avocation like a business, and it is difficult to imagine them defending the “pirates’ code,” or coming up with catchy logos like the skull and crossbones, or the skull and crossed daggers.

Pirates were once colorful characters who swaggered around wearing braces of pistols in their belts and carrying ornate daggers and cutlasses.

Their weapons were designed for the manly (or, in the case of Bonney and Reade, womanly) pastime of hand-to-hand combat in the close-quarters found on the rolling deck of a ship.

The really stylish characters often went with the classic single-eye patch look and carried a parrot on their left shoulder.

Some also sported wooden legs or hook-hands as a testament to the precarious nature of their business ventures, and the primitive state of medical care aboard the average pirate ship.

On their days off, they loafed in harbor side bars, swilled rum, told stories, and sang bawdy songs.

Today’s pirates use satellite phones, GPS systems, speedboats, and automatic weapons.

Instead of cannons, they use rocket-propelled grenades.

Modern pirates like to move quickly and attack at night, which makes it difficult for their victims to take evasive action.

The Sirius Star was attacked miles from shore, demonstrating that the pirates’ operating area is increasing to include a large expanse of the Indian Ocean.

The fact that the pirates refuse to confine their activities to a more manageable area has made it difficult for international authorities to cope with the problem.

Shipping companies are trying to combat the attacks with barbed wire, electric fences, improved radar, and even new technology that uses special sirens designed to emit a beam of sound that can annoy and confuse would-be attackers.

Many ships’ crews, however, still rely on the old-fashioned method of repelling pirates who attempt to board their vessels by turning the fire hose on them and washing them off the deck.

Despite these efforts, piracy has been a lucrative career choice for some.

Modern pirates have collected millions of dollars in ransoms, which is why they prefer to take their victims hostage rather than sending them to Davy Jones’ Locker.

They have also cost consumers millions of dollars. Vendors have been forced to raise prices to cover losses and additional security measures needed to combat piracy.

Shiver me timbers, that’s a lot of loot.

In addition to the pirates’ sneaky nature, a confusing and often ineffective collection of laws addressing piracy has hampered efforts to deal with the issue.

In the old days, if authorities managed to get their hands on pirates, they made the old sea dogs dance the hempen jig and left their corpses hanging on gallows near harbor entrances as a deterrent to others.

Today, things are not that simple.

The pirates of yore were the inspiration for unforgettable characters such as Long John Silver and Captain Jack Sparrow.

It is difficult to imagine what the pirate stories of tomorrow will be like.

As with so many other things, the adventure and romance has gone out of piracy.

Not only are pirates making it hazardous to ship goods in some areas, and costing consumers money, but they are doing so in a boring and businesslike fashion, thus depriving us of good stories to tell.

It is a sad time for both the sailors and the readers in the world.