Modern pirates' booty: oil not doubloons

Piracy hasn't left the high seas -- it's just changed its tactics and "booty." Acts of piracy have occurred recently off the coasts of West Africa, Florida, and even New York, besides being a continuing bane in the Far East.

The US Coast Guard and leading marine insurance companies describe a modern-day form of piracy far removed from the stereotype of a swashbuckler with a black patch over one eye and a dagger in his belt, leading a band of cutthroats who swarm onto the deck of their prey.

Pirates "have modernized their tactics, but the principles remain the same," says Thomas Riley of the American International Group Inc., one of the nation's largest marine insurance brokerage firms.

A primary target today is oil, which in terms of relative values is at least equivalent to the Spanish gold doubloons of yore.

Last month, off the coast of West Africa, a Liberian-registered tanker was "lost" while on a voyage from Kuwait to Italy. Investigators from Lloyd's of London, which had insured more than 50 percent of its $60 million crude oil cargo, suspected piracy. No oil slick was found, making it unlikely that the ship had sunk with its oil still aboard.

But oil is not the only target of 20th- century pirates. A number of yachts, privately owned or under charter, have disappeared in recent years, and officials feel fairly certain some were pirated, the crews murdered, and the boats used for drug- smuggling, then scuttled.

Statistics compiled by the Coast Guard show that, from 1971 to 1978, 48 vessels have been reported missing and Coast Guard searches have failed to turn up any traces of them. At least some of them, it is felt, fell victim to pirates.

On Jan. 27, 1977, a sleek 75-foot luxury yacht, ironically named The Pirate's Lady, left Apalachicola, Fla. -- and disappeared. The US Coast Guard searched a 55,000-square-mile area for it, but no trace was found. The crew members have never been heard of again. The Coast Guard suspects the vessel, valued at well over $1 million, was boarded by sea robbers and the crew killed.

"There have been a considerable number of instances of vessels that have been boarded and their operators killed," says Donald J. Mahoney of the Donald J. Mahoney Company Inc., of Miami, an agent for Lloyd's of London.

Strangely, no such overt acts of piracy have been reported along the East Coast north of Florida in the last 10 years, the Coast Guard says.

Insurance agents like Mr. Mahoney, as well as spokesmen for the Coast Guard, to some extent blame companies that charter yachts for not pointing out the potential piracy hazard to clients. Many charter companies are afraid "to go too deep into it [the possibility of encountering pirates] because they would scare away people," Mr. Mahoney says.

But at the very least, yacht renters should be told to search their vessels from stem to stern to see if there are stowaways aboard, says Lt. Norris Turner, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Insurance agents believe that some of the yachts hijacked off Florida and in the Caribbean are used as "drug runners." The refitted vessels ferry illegal drugs from Caribbean islands or South American countries -- such as Colombia, a notorious marijuana and cocaine producer -- to the coast of Florida and elsewhere. Only a little more than 10 percent of these vessels are ever caught, Coast Guard spokesmen say.

Yacht charter company spokesmen interviewed by the Monitor agreed that there is a piracy problem and admitted they want play it down because business might be hurt.

But marine insurance companies and their agents don't want to bury the piracy problem under the sand. They say pirates are stealing oil or other precious products -- often, insurance investigators say, working with the aid of dishonest crew members -- and the matter must be aired and solutions sought.

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