When Cunard Line’s flagship, Queen Mary 2, recently sailed through the Gulf of Aden, a notorious spot for Somali pirates, the ship carried a little extra protection for the 2,600 passengers onboard – an elite squad of armed former Royal Marines from the United Kingdom.
Fortunately, QM2 arrived at its destination of Aqaba, Jordan, without incident.
The story about the former Royal Marines sailing onboard QM2 was first reported over the weekend by the U.K.'s Daily Mail. Cunard acknowledged the situation Sunday when Travel Agent asked for a statement.
“This isn’t a new policy and is standard security practice in certain regions, based on the recommendations of relevant national authorities," said Jackie Chase, Cunard's director of public relations-North America. "As always, the safety and security of our guests is our highest priority."
To maintain a low profile, the elite squad's members wore plain clothes onboard. Most guests weren't aware of their presence, but Cunard's goal was to be prepared for any pirate activity. The armed team boarded after the ship left Dubai, stayed onboard for multiple days during the transit, and disembarked before the ship reached Aqaba.
The Gulf of Aden is called "Pirate Alley” because of the sizable number of pirates that have routinely attacked shipping in the region.
Designed as an ocean liner, QM2 operates with electric propulsion. Its maximum speed is just over 30 knots, or about 35 mph. Its cruising speed is about 26 knots, or 30 mph, much faster than the typical cruise ship.
So if pirates were going to pick a ship to attempt to board, QM2 wouldn't be the easiest target.
Cunard also briefed passengers on other piracy prevention procedures. For example, an active duty U.K. military officer boarded QM2 to speak to guests in security briefings and to help reassure them.
During its Gulf of Aden transit, Cunard also took these security steps:
- Only essential deck lights were turned on at night.
- Guests were told not to turn on balcony lights.
- Water cannons were positioned to repel any potential attackers.
- Sonic weapons, which can cause permanent hearing loss when aimed at close range, were also readied.
- Some deck sections were closed nightly with a warning asking guests to not distract the watch-keepers, noting “they are part of our security precautions.”
- Captain Peter Philpott wrote to guests telling them that in the unlikely event of a pirate attack to move to the interior of the ship, away from decks or windows.
- Guests were also told they’d be protected by an international (U.N. mandated) task force designed to protect merchant ships.
Some cruise lines -- particularly if their ships sail at slower speeds -- have opted to avoid the region. Some now offer voyages from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean via Africa's West Coast, although that's a much longer route.
In 2008, Oceania Cruises' Nautica was attacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia; it was en route to Oman. It was approached by several small skiffs firing shots, but the Nautica's captain took evasive action and outran the two boats.
In 2005, while sailing off the coast of Somalia, Seabourn Spirit also came under attack by Somali pirates wielding machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. The Seabourn ship's captain and crew successfully repelled the attack, and the ship sailed out of the area.