So, I’m up in the middle of the night, as usual, after a shitty day at work, and I want to talk to you about pirates.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.

“Pirates? Like Johnny Depp in the superb feature film, Pirates of the Caribbean? Those pirates? Pirates rock! Yeah!”

Well, my current reading says otherwise. I knew that maritime piracy was still an issue, vaguely, but John Burnett has made it a reality for me. He was pirated on his sailboat in southeast asia and his reaction to the experience, very sensibly, was to research piracy in depth. What he discovered is that international shipping is plagued with piracy. Which is not really tracked, because it’s often not reported. There is an organization that investigates piracy, but it is underfunded. It also has no real power, because most cases of piracy occur in international waters, where no one really has jurisdiction. It’s a free for all out there–there are also commando organizations that will go rescue your ship if it is overtaken by pirates–assuming you know that pirates have hijacked it, and you know where your ship, you know, is. A lot of times, ships simply…disappear. Companies have a cold and hard economic view about investigating piracy, and they assess their need to apprehend the culprits on a descending scale–contents of the ship, value of the ship, and, oh yeah, the crew.

The bulk of the book is about his trip on a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) which he accompanied while it shipped oil in the Indian Ocean, because he was curious about the measures being taken to deflect piracy. He bounces back and forth in time rather a lot, from interviews with people in paramilitary organizations to UN officials to musing on the economic miseries of Southeast Asia.

A few words about VLCCs. They are, as the name suggests, very large. So large, in fact, that they cannot dock in most ports, and rendezvous with smaller oil tankers in open waters to exchange their dead dinosaur payload. Supertankers are huge. If one goes, the Exxon-Valdez would look like peanuts. Think Empire State Building huge. Think the biggest man made thing you have ever seen. Their stopping distance is measured in miles.

So anyway. Here our pal John is, on a VLCC belonging to an undisclosed oil company. Despite the size, the ship is so automated that the crew is small–about 17 people. The first thing he learns is that VLCCs are designed for carrying oil, not deterring pirates. Apparently, despite their epic size, they would be insanely easy to board and take over. Their automated nature might even prevent them from crashing into anything for twenty minutes or so. That’s a good thing. If a supertanker crashed into anything, it would result in an utter and probably unsalvageable disaster. VLCCs are slow. They are hard to secure. They are filled with oil. The best anti-pirate device most of them have is fire hoses. And lights.

The thing about piracy is–pirates use small, highly rapid boats to attack. Most of them are young, and most of them are poor. They are not looking to steal oil. They are looking for cash and goods. However, they are motivated by desparation. Sailboats and the like make easy targets, especially given the expensive equipment that is often aboard. Tankers make lucrative targets because large amounts of money are often kept in the safe. In general, company policy about pirates is: let them take whatever they want, don’t fight them, and save the ship if you can. With VLCCs, this is extremely important, because of the above mentioned unfathomable ecological disaster. There’s also the thought which has recently occurred to the sorts of people who think about these things, and that is this: terrorists could totally hijack a supertanker and threaten to blow it up near a major city or fishery. Kaboom. Economic disaster. Rock on Chicago.

Not fighting pirates appears to be a crucial thing. Because, you see, pirates are often better armed than the ships they attack. This is partially because many of them belong to the military. Yes, that’s right. In Indonesia especially, apparently, sailors are sent out by their superiors and ordered to return with money or goods if they want promotion. So they’ve got powerboats, they’ve got AK47s, and they’ve got poverty. A volatile mix, if you ask me. People are killed by pirates every day because they made unwise decisions, if we are to believe Mr. John. And the state of the world’s economy is being threatened by piracy, not because it’s some huge organized deal, or because pirates are that savvy, but because they could choose to hijack the wrong oil tanker and cause it to blow up.

I’m not really sure what the point or mission of his book is, really. I mean, sure, he’s raising pirate awareness. But so far he hasn’t offered any suggestions on ways to end piracy. Like…I don’t know…making the third world a less shitty place to live for a greater percentage of its inhabitants. Or, uh, not using so much oil. Still, it’s interesting reading. In a world where piracy seems like a myth, or something to idolize, he’s making a good point. Even pirates of yore weren’t very cool guys, when you think about it. But modern day pirates are alive and real, and they will fuck you up. Big time.

So, kids, pirates aren’t cool.