Sunday, 17 January 2016

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, It's a Pirate's Life For Me (Night's Black Agents)

Spare a thought for former sniper Ray Tindall and his mates, arrested by the Indian authorities and currently spending what could be a very long while in jail. Tindall is one of six Britons working on behalf of anti-piracy organization AdvanFort, of a total of 35 crewmen of various nationalities sentenced on illegal weapons charges to five years hard time, in the MV Seaman Guard Ohio incident.

AdvanFort describes itself as "a leader in providing comprehensive maritime shipping solutions for the commercial shipping industry." There really is something about corporate speak that sucks the fun out of everything, up to and including adventure on the high seas. However its Frontline Tales from the High Seas is worth a look, even if the writing sometimes descends to Wascally Wabbit High Pulp.

The MV Seaman Guard Ohio is a private security ship. Operating off the African coast, an October 2013 storm brought the Ohio into Indian territorial waters. When the authorities searched Ohio, they found cashes of prohibited weapons that, according to the Indian government, the crew had no permits for. There is considerable dispute about this, and at one point the Madras High Court dropped all charges. However that doesn't seem to have satisfied the powers that be.

The crew spent nine months in jail before being bailed, and have been unable to leave India. It seems that their current dilemma is the result of some kind of legal gymnastics. After the High Court quashed the charges in 2015, it asked the sessions court to determine whether or not the weapons were part of the normal armament of the vessel. If they were, then the Ohio was exempt from India's Arms Act. Things seem to have gone south rather swiftly after that, and now the Ohio's crew face jail time again as a result of the sessions court ruling.

"The [court] ignored every one of their own Indian laws, every one of the international laws, and decided to prosecute and jail us," Tindall said. "There's no grounds for what they have done."

You might almost think that someone with influence in the Indian government was very upset with AdvanFort for some reason.

The area Tindall and his mates were supposed to be patrolling is  sometimes referred to as Pirate Alley, but more commonly known as the Gulf of Aden. It's not cheap to hire a company like AdvanFort to help keep your oil shipments safe; one source has it at $50,000 per journey. That's aside from incidental costs, like the increase in your insurance premiums for starters. India has a vested interest in the Gulf, as it gets $50 billion worth of imports and sends $60 billion worth of exports through the Gulf annually, quite apart from the massive oil tankers that go through the Gulf each month.

Although hiring outside security contractors is a generally accepted practice, it's not a practice everyone's happy with. Many of the people these contractors hire are ex military or special forces, and while they certainly know what to do when it all kicks off, some of them may not be as well behaved in port, which is why many port cities refuse to allow them to disembark with weapons.

Incidentally for those ships too small or insignificant to merit a personal bodyguard - private yachts, small freighters and the like - but also too foolhardy to do the easy thing and just not go to the Gulf,  standard practice is to ship with weapons aboard, often hidden so the customs people don't see them. And that's how you get a very cheap holiday in Somalia, the country you will never be able to leave. Not unless someone pays the ransom, anyway.

It used to be said that Soviet ships were bad news for pirates, because their crews tended not to give a tinker's cuss about customs regulations, or international law, and were often armed with AK-47s which make a very nasty mess out of your average pirate skiff. However this was in the bad old pre-Putin days; no doubt peace and love prevails now.

Piracy doesn't stop with kidnapping and ransom. To illustrate this, consider a very nasty case from China back in the late '90s. A 17,000 ton freighter, on its owners books as the Hai Sin, was sold to a scrapyard in Guangdong. The breakers searched the ship before taking her apart, and found a locked refrigeration cabinet in the hold that nobody had touched in years. When they cracked it open, the stench was like nothing on earth. Eventually, after searching through the slurry on the floor, they found ten skulls, but no personal effects of any kind. Forensic examination showed that the remains were Caucasian, with no signs of violence. Presumably the men had been herded into the refrigeration unit and left to die. The remains were never identified.

In this instance, the target was the ship itself. Whoever had taken it, whenever they'd taken it, had forged a completely new identity for her. Probably the paintwork had been changed and some minor work done to alter its appearance, while the paperwork was diligently forged. Then she was passed on from one syndicate to another, each of whom used her for whatever purpose they saw fit. All the while the original crew were still in the hold, long forgotten, until her last owner decided to make a few bucks by scrapping the Hai Sin.

Often the final fate of a ghost ship like this is some complicated insurance fraud. The rusty old bucket is loaded up with 'valuable' cargo and wrecked somewhere. When the Mary Celeste was still afloat, that crime was called barratry.

Or you could try a bit of sanctions-busting. When South Africa was still under apartheid, for example, one popular pastime was to smuggle South African crude in ships that did not legally exist. It reduces the risk to all concerned if the ship isn't really a ship, since if some interfering busybody does detain her in a foreign port the syndicate behind it all can cut its losses and let the law try to work out which clue, among the vast array of forged paperwork and shell companies, actually points to the ship's true owner.

What about human trafficking? With your own ship, you can deliver bodies anywhere they're needed. Chinese snakeheads have been known to use this technique very successfully. One of the more notorious escapades in this line is the Golden Venture, which wrecked off of Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, in June 1993. A total of 286 immigrants were rescued, detained, and mostly deported over the next few years. It wasn't until 1997 that President Clinton finally released the remaining 52. The Venture, renamed United Caribbean, ended up an artificial reef off the coast of Florida.

So what does all this mean for a Night's Black Agents Director?

For starters, it's an excellent backstory for a player character. I prefer not going into a lot of detail when it comes to character backstory, as it tends to get in the way. However I do have a section called In One Sentence, where the character's life so far is described in, wait for it ... one sentence. So in this instance it might be something like 'Ex Special Forces who worked for an anti-pirate security company in the Gulf, until his last mission aboard a ghost ship, which ended with the deaths of all his mates.' Blessedly simple, plus there's a touch of Alien crossed with Residential Evil, which has its points.

It's not a bad way to involve extra-governmental organizations, like Dracula Dossier's Edom. Many of the places that are currently affected by piracy, or involved in the piracy fight, are former British colonies, or places where terrorism festers. Edom might have many reasons either for having been there in the past, or for wanting to be there now.

It's an atmospheric means of introducing new clues, in interesting locales. Take the Hai Sin as an example: soon-to-be-scrapped freighter turns up in a foreign port, perhaps somewhere inaccessible to Western intelligence agencies, with a hold full of corpses. Except this time rather than have the bodies completely unidentifiable, leave something useful behind; the Edom flash, for example, or perhaps some other insignia. Now Edom's got to be curious: if it doesn't have any missing people on its books, who are these poor souls? Alternatively, is this all that's left of the team sent out on Operation Ulysses many years ago? What happened, who owns the ship, and where's the Conspiracy's hand in all of this? 

Here's another: Retrieve the Jack. A former Edom hard man, member of A Squadron, takes up with a marine security agency after leaving Edom. The agency may even be a very-off-the-books Edom asset in its own right, perhaps a means of keeping an eye on China's Room 452, or its jin-gui program. Then things go wrong when the Jack, along with his crewmates, is pitched into an Indian prison on trumped-up charges. It soon becomes clear that the Jack is undergoing special interrogation, and the Indian authorities are either cooperating willingly or being coerced. How to get the Jack back, without permanently souring relations with India?

That's all for now. Enjoy!


  1. That image of a bunch of skulls and bones locked in the freezer of a derelict ship is serious nightmare fuel.

    The real world is much darker than any fiction.

  2. Agreed! I suppose one of the reasons I seek out piracy stories is that we pay so little attention to piracy now, and yet it's a very active form of crime. Whether it's someone nicking a yacht to run narcotics into the States, or a Chinese syndicate stealing a freighter for people smuggling, piracy is as much a modern fact of life as it is a dusty fact of history.