Thursday, February 8, 2007

Jolly Roger in the Straights

On a Saturday night in Mumbai we met two guys at our table who were deck hands on global oil and container tankers. What began as an awkward drinks-for-four, two Americans and two Indian locals, quickly became an in-depth discussion about life married to the sea.

It's not often that you can compare favorite Ipanema joints, and hear an explaination about the process by which an oil tanker passes through the Panama Canal, but it's even less often that you get to talk about PIRATES, especially in Bombay. I'm not talking Johnny Depp, but veritable swashbuckling buccaneers... except maybe without the anachronism of the sword.

As deck hands they're given an assignment from Mumbai, flown to the necessary port (let's say Dubai). From there they board the ship and begin cruising in stints, 4 months for oil tankers, 6 months for container ships. They're modern mercantalists, shuttling goods around the world, beans from one location, jet fuel to another. On routes from Mumbai to East Asia, the only viable passing point is through the Straight of Malacca, the notorious stretch of ocean between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. The straight narrows between Malaysia and Indonesia until Singapore, at which point the tanker can proceed East to it's port of call, say Manila.

When the tanker is in the Straights, there are a number of tactics they employ to avoid the Jolly Roger. By sticking close to shore, boarding up the hull, sailing full-steam, and expelling jets of water off the port and starboard sides they can deter pirates for the small window of time during which the tanker is vulnerable. The deck hands said there are never more than 20 or so guys on a tanker, so it's easy to see how a few modern Captain Cooks could commandeer a stockpile of jet fuel... marooning our friends on some Lost island paradise, or worse, sending them to Davey Jones' locker... shiver me timbers!

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