Large Cruise Yacht Taken... - 04/09/2008

Where is Stephen Decatur when we need him?

The yacht’s “Teak Beach” stern – or “marina” as the crew calls it – is the Achilles heel of this vessel when it comes to fending off pirates.

Having once spent a month aboard Le Ponant in the Med, our ears perked up when we read last Friday that she had been taken by Pirates off the Somalia coast. She has been traveling that route each spring for years, and her young crew was well aware of the potential danger.

When we were aboard a few years ago the captain told us about running up the Somalia coast with lights off at night or falling in behind warships if possible in past years.

Because the boat is relatively slow and long, it cannot “fishtail” fast enough to keep pirates from simply hopping aboard from astern.

Other than being easy to board by pirates, Le Ponant is a wonderful way to travel. Press reports call it a “luxury” vessel, but it is actually fairly Spartan by cruise ship standards. What stands out about the vessel is the friendliness of the crew, the good French food, the ambiance of the small vessel with 80 passengers or less, and its unusual itineraries.

Attack on the High Seas

Pirates boarded the small French cruise yacht off the coast of Somalia last Friday and took its entire 30-member crew hostage, the French military and the ship's owner said.

The 32-cabin, four-deck yacht Le Ponant, "was the victim of an act of piracy early this afternoon as it was sailing between Somalia and Yemen," armed forces spokesman Christophe Prazuck said. The three-masted yacht was carrying 30 crew but had no passengers on board at the time, Prazuck said.

"As far as we know, no shots have been fired," he said.

French and US Military on the Case

French military forces in the area and a Djibouti-based US-led multinational force, Combined Task Force 150, "were able to confirm the situation and are following its evolution," he added.

France has a patrol aircraft based in Djibouti, as well as a dispatch boat.

French shipping group CMA-CGM confirmed one of its boats had been seized in the Gulf of Aden, “dead-heading” on its way from the Indian Ocean's Seychelle Islands to the Mediterranean, and that a "majority" of the crew were French.

It said it did not want to give further information "to avoid endangering its crew taken hostage."

Pirate Waters

Pirate attacks are frequent off Somalia's 3,700-kilometre (2,300-mile) coastline, prompting the International Maritime Bureau to advise sailors not to come closer than 200 nautical miles to its shore. Somalia lies at the mouth of the Red Sea on a major trade route between Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal. It has not had a functional government since the 1991 ouster of Dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.

The French navy was called on in recent months to escort World Food Programme boats through Somali waters, after two of the agency's boats were stolen.

The 290-foot, 850-tonne Le Ponant, equipped with lounges, bar and restaurant, had been due to host a cruise between Alexandria in Egypt and Valletta in Malta on April 21-22, its owner said.