Pirates Attack Cruise Ship Off Horn of Africa

Times Staff Writer

Pirates attacked a luxury cruise ship off the Horn of Africa on Saturday, waking passengers with a sunrise fusillade of grenades and gunshots before the ship’s crew outran the two boats carrying the assailants, the Miami-based cruise line reported.

None of the 151 passengers aboard the Seabourn Spirit were injured in the 5:30 a.m. assault, but one crewman was hit by shrapnel and the ship sustained minor damage, Seabourn Cruise Line spokesman Bruce Good said in Miami.

Charles Supple, a retired Palm Springs physician on board, gave an account of the showdown in an e-mail to his son in Sacramento shortly after the vessel reached safer waters. The ship was en route from Egypt to Kenya and was sailing off the coast of Somalia when “all hell broke loose,” he said.

The north coast of Somalia has been beset for years by pirate attacks on cargo ships, including several recent raids on vessels carrying humanitarian aid to the strife-torn region. But Saturday’s attack was a rare assault on a leisure vessel.

“The captain came on the loudspeaker, telling everyone that there were ‘unfriendly’ vessels on the starboard side and to stay in our rooms. The plink of bullets on the side was very noticeable,” Supple, 78, said.


Supple said he had grabbed his camera and was peering out his stateroom window when he saw a pirate with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher “aim seemingly at me and fire. What a flash! I dove to the other side and the rocket hit two decks up and two staterooms forward.”

The pirates, four or five in each of the 25-foot boats, continued firing and trying to board the ship.

The captain ordered all passengers to assemble in an interior lounge for safety, and the ship accelerated, Supple recounted, in what appeared to be an attempt to ram the assailants. The ship then took off at full speed, he said.

“After 10 minutes or so, though it seemed like hours, we managed to pull away, as I think they were running out of gas to make it back to the shore,” Supple said of the masked gunmen. “We suffered many broken windows, and the rocket I saw stuck in the side, leaving a big black area from the explosion, but no major damage.”

Cruise industry officials praised the swift response of the 161-member crew and its Norwegian captain, Sven-Erik Pedersen. But they added that a thorough review and discussion about future operations in that area of the Indian Ocean would be undertaken.

“This reaffirms some of the precautions we’ve taken in the past as relates to staying away from certain areas,” said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, an industry association based in Arlington, Va. “But the fact that gunfire and pirates got close enough to even peripherally injure people, that’s a lot closer than we’d like them.”

Crye noted that the attack took place 70 miles off Somalia, a distance usually considered safe from the bands of thieves preying on the area.

Just two days earlier, the World Food Program had warned that piracy around Somalia was cutting off the flow of aid to the region because ship owners were demanding armed escorts.

Good said the cruise line did not know anything about the attackers, but officials presumed their motive was robbery.

The Bahamian-registered Seabourn Spirit was on a repositioning cruise, moving from the Mediterranean Sea through the Indian Ocean and eventually to Australia and New Zealand, where it will sail during the winter, Good said. Most passengers were on a 16-day trip from Alexandria, Egypt, to Mombasa, Kenya.

Supple and his girlfriend had been on board since mid-October and planned a safari after the Mombasa port call, his son, Chuck Supple, said.

Asked whether he expected his father to break off his travels scheduled to last until mid-December, the younger Supple replied: “Not my dad! He’s quite intrepid. I’m sure he’s got great pictures.”

The Mombasa stop was canceled and the 440-foot Spirit sailed for the Seychelles, where Kenya-bound passengers would be put on a chartered flight to resume their itineraries, Seabourn officials said.

After allowing police to inspect the vessel and gather evidence, the ship will resume its course for Singapore, Good said, noting that the damage was mostly cosmetic and “nothing affecting its seaworthiness.”