MANILA — It was just past midnight, and the cargo ship Marta was 24 hours out of Bangkok, Thailand, steaming north to Korea, when pirates suddenly appeared on the aging vessel's bridge.
Two men aimed pistols at the captain's head, handcuffed him and forced him to his cabin. Four others quickly overpowered the six-man crew, locked them in the hold and took over the Cypriot-registered freighter.
The pirates rapidly repainted the ship's smokestack, stenciled on a new name, the V-Tai, and hoisted a new flag. After two days at sea, they dropped anchor and carefully unloaded $1.8 million worth of tin plate onto a waiting barge. Before leaving, they destroyed the ship's radio and drugged and kidnaped the ship's captain. He was released a week later.
While 2,000 tons of tin hardly sounds the stuff of swashbucklers, the well-planned plunder of the Marta in August is, in fact, increasingly the story of modern piracy. From the South China Sea to the Caribbean, from the east Mediterranean Sea to the west coast of Africa, the scourge of ancient mariners is thriving in the 1990s.
Maritime crime, including piracy, costs an estimated $13 billion in losses each year, according to Eric Ellen, director of the International Maritime Bureau in London. Hundreds of sailors and fishermen have died in attacks in the past decade, or are missing and presumed dead.
And by all accounts, the problem is growing.
Armed gangs have seized 40 to 50 ships and boats off Lebanon in the last two years, Ellen said. Pirates have boarded and robbed at least 25 oil tankers and freighters near Singapore this year, up from three last year. One hapless ship, the Stella Lykes, was boarded at least three times in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The even more hapless M/V Sea Wolf was boarded at least five times in various Brazilian ports.
In Lagos, Nigeria, ships steam endlessly offshore, afraid to anchor in the pirate-infested harbor while awaiting a berth. In the Philippines, pirates have stolen at least five entire freighters in the last two years, turning them into "phantom ships" that roam from port to port stealing cargoes.
"The pirates' harvest probably never has been richer," said Daniel J. Dzurek, a maritime expert at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
The U.S. Maritime Administration in Washington reports more than 70 cases of piracy against oceangoing ships around the world since 1986, not including attacks on thousands of yachts and small fishing boats.
"No one thinks that list is anything like complete," conceded Kevin Takarski, an analyst who compiled the list. "I figure that may be 40% of the total. But it may be worse than that."
It is. The list does not include the continuing terror faced by Vietnamese "boat people." Although the number of pirate attacks has fallen sharply, the atrocities have not. Children have been clubbed into the sea, women raped and abducted and men shot and stabbed. Their boats have been burned, rammed and sunk.
Indeed, despite a 10-year joint Thai-United Nations anti-piracy program, the number of known dead and missing refugees from boats reaching Thailand and Malaysia jumped from 92 in 1987 to 750 last year. At least 348 are dead or missing this year.
The horror may be far higher, said Pierre Jambor, Bangkok representative for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. "No one has any idea if a boat and its passengers disappear completely," he said. "Only survivors can talk."
The danger is less severe for the world's 20,000 merchant ships. But most are unarmed, and frustrated international shipping associations and insurance groups can only plead for greater protection from port police and coastal countries--often developing nations least able to patrol vast ocean areas.
"Quite honestly, we don't have a good response to vessels that are under attack," the International Maritime Bureau's Ellen said. "There is no maritime police service that can get to you in time. . . . Unless law enforcement gets involved, it's going to get worse and worse."
Shipping officials warn captains to alert their crews, post extra night guards, hang floodlights over the side and prepare fire hoses to repel boarders. Radar is usually useless since pirates often approach in small wooden speedboats or motorized outriggers.
"They view these ships as easy targets," Takarski said. "One reason is technological advances. Crew sizes are greatly reduced. At night, they only have one or two crew on deck. And speedboats give them (pirates) a fast way onto the ship and a fast way off."
No one knows the real cost of piracy since shippers often do not report crime, being wary of higher insurance premiums. There is also a question of definition. Most attacks occur in coastal waters or in disputed boundary waters, outside the reach of international law. Under the Law of the Sea treaty, piracy is technically defined as an act that occurs on the high seas for private gain.