Ever since the very old problem of piracy began cropping up off the shores of Somalia, tech geeks have offered ever more advanced ways of foiling the sea brigands. Ship owners can now fend off hijackings with puke-inducing chemical sprays, ear-splitting sonic blasters and anti-pirate lasers. But this week a ship’s crew foiled a hijacking with help from a decidedly older technology: a message in a bottle.
On Monday, the crew of the Italian cargo ship Montecristo contacted NATO forces by sending a message in a bottle after pirates stormed their ship. As pirates began to board, the sailors locked themselves in a room called a citadel. When the hijackers disabled Montecristo’s communications, the crew was forced to innovate. They wrote out a distress message, stuffed it in a bottle along with a flashing beacon and threw it out a porthole into the ocean, where it was later picked up by a nearby NATO ship.
Montecristo’s crew had already radioed a distress call before holing up in its citadel, bringing the NATO ship into the vicinity. But the crew’s bottled message wasn’t simply a redundant cry for help; it told NATO officials that the crew was safe.
As piracy has become more violent over the past year, pirate hostage standoffs have become increasingly sensitive — and sometimes lethal — affairs. With the knowledge that the crew was secure in the ship’s citadel, NATO ships were able to approach Montecristo and mount a rescue operation without fear that the pirates could take any hostages.
The use of locked, sometimes armored, citadels has already foiled a number of hijackings this year. They’re now a recommended part of shipping industry best practices. But their increased use may be spurring pirates to think about ways to minimize their effectiveness. In September, pirates set fire to a ship, in what the crew claimed was an attempt to force them out (although other reports describe it a parting act of frustration).
You may be safe inside a citadel, but if pirates disable your ability to communicate that to nearby navies, it can limit their willingness to mount a more aggressive rescue attempt. It’s a handy reminder that if you’re going to build a citadel on a ship, better to stock it with its own communications system in case the crew forgets their radios — one that’s a little more reliable than empty bottles and stationery.