Lost at sea

Piracy and the psychological difficulties it creates for merchant mariners

By Stuart Garfinkle

There is no reason for them to know what day it is. Time is kept only to manage shifts, generally six hours long. Sleep is a shift, too. The merchant mariner, the seafarer, knows what ports he has been to, and what port is next. Sometimes, if the next port is in Turkey or India, he may not know what lies beyond it. Often this is because the ship owners would rather not frighten their crews by telling them that they are to cross the Suez Canal, because this means traversing “Pirate Alley.”

Seafarers hail from nearly every country in the world, though the majority are from India, the Philippines, countries formerly part of the USSR, China, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries. Americans and Western Europeans are in the minority.

“They pay us $75 in extra pay if we agree to travel through pirate waters. This means, to me, that our lives are worth $75.” Rao is 55, from a rural community in India.1 He became a seafarer in his late teens and has climbed the ranks slowly to boatswain, an unlicensed position of authority over the other unlicensed crew, equivalent to a third mate. He is married, with four children, two boys and two girls. His current assignment is aboard a vessel carrying building supplies from southeast Africa to North America, and because of this he has crossed, and will continue to cross, Pirate Alley over the course of his six-month contract. The crew of this vessel has spotted suspicious ships three times and in one case observed another vessel captured within their visual range.

Rao is one of over sixty men I have interviewed since January 2010. In the summer of 2009, I was asked by a friend and colleague, a psychiatrist with close ties to the Episcopal Church, to speak to Father David Rider, who directs the Seamen’s Church Institute. SCI was founded 176 years ago, initially as a church floating atop a barge moored to the South Street Seaport in New York City, where seafarers, longshoremen, and others involved in the maritime industry could seek solace and spiritual guidance. For the past four years, Father Rider and the director of SCI’s Center for Seafarers’ Rights, Doug Stevenson, a retired Coast Guard commander and maritime lawyer, have been calling on the industry to protect the psychological well-being of the people aboard ships. When they saw no one heeding their call, they decided to take on the work themselves, and in the summer of 2009 they hired me to be their first clinical researcher. One of the SCI board members suggested hiring a psychologist for the job, and Father Rider, through our shared friend, added that the researcher should have a psychoanalytic background. When I was asked what experience I had with piracy or the sea, I bashfully mentioned that I like to sail. We decided to work together, and thus began the first empirical study of the psychological lives of seafarers and the impact of piracy on them.

Pirate Alley is a colloquialism for the area immediately surrounding and including the Gulf of Aden, a small body of water that begins at the foot of the Red Sea at the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and ends at the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Bab el- Mandeb is Arabic for Gates of Grief, and it was here that humans first left Africa for the Arabian Peninsula approximately 85,000 years ago. Piracy in this region is thought to date back to the birth of Islam, when in the seventh century, Muhammad and his followers emigrated from Mecca to Medina and began plundering from ships crossing the Gulf of Aden. Today, the Gulf is bordered by Yemen to the north and Puntland to the south. Puntland is formally a part of Somalia, but in the late 1990s, a provisional government formed and declared its autonomy. It has a university, Puntland State University, which offers courses in Sharia and Somali Studies and recently convened a conference to address the region’s two greatest problems: piracy and drug abuse.

Several militaries maintain a naval presence in this area, including the American, Japanese, and Indian Navies, as well as a joint naval task force of the European Union, coordinated by the Maritime Security Center—Horn of Africa (MSCHOA). Their operation is nicknamed Atalanta, named after the granddaughter of Zeus in Greek mythology, thought by some to be the only female Argonaut who accompanied Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece.

For the thousands of seafarers who cross the Gulf, almost none have been to Puntland or have met a Somali. While the Yemeni ports are occasionally used as way stations, the Somali ports neither offer any services nor are they attractive destinations for vessels because of the implied risk. Yet, for the two days a vessel typically spends in this area, most of the crew is thinking about Somalis. By the time a ship reaches the Gulf of Aden, the crew and officers have been engaging in drills for days. Drills include procedures for reporting pirate sightings, methods of evading capture, and implementing safety policies in the event of boarding. The naval forces coordinate convoys of merchant ships through this area, often protected by a single military vessel in the center of the convoy, but the pirates occasionally manage to approach vessels on the periphery of the group. The merchant vessels themselves are quite large, weighing as much as 240,000 tons, and the heavier the vessel, the slower it is and the lower its deck is to the waterline, increasing the risk of boarding.

International convention prohibits seafarers from arming themselves with weapons, so standard self-defense measures include the sounding of alarms, the use of fire hoses as repellants, and occasionally, the use of scarecrows that look like soldiers. Some companies hire private forces, like Blackwater, to provide armed personnel to protect the vessel as it moves through pirate- infested waters. Despite the bravado of some captains, often those in charge of the faster, more maneuverable ships, the seafarers are sitting ducks. The zone of piracy now expands beyond the Gulf of Aden into the eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean, and it is no longer possible to identify the point of safety. Should pirates successfully board a vessel, they will typically do so via motorboats or fishing vessels called dhows, often launched from a larger ship nearby. They will brandish AK-47s left over from Soviet trades, or shoulder-mounted missile launchers. The pirates will be as young as 17, and typically not older than 30, which is past midlife according to the 2009 World Bank, which estimates that the average Somali will live to 50. Popular consensus argues that these young people endanger the lives of others primarily out of economic necessity, and possibly at the encouragement of terrorist groups allied with al-Qaeda. The former argument is compelling, because Somalis in Puntland, if employed, can expect to make about US $500 per annum, compared to the US $33,000–79,000 they can make from their share of ransom monies, which now often exceed US $5 million per captured vessel. Most of the vessels operated by seafarers cost at least US $10 million and carry cargo worth far more than that, especially in the case of military cargo. They cost anywhere from US $30,000 to US $60,000 a day to operate. It has been estimated that piracy costs the global economy as much as US $12 billion a year.

Rao recalls how much easier his job was a decade ago, when labor negotiations were his greatest concern, and supporting his extended family was a relatively straightforward affair. With a half-smile, he admits that he enjoyed the time away from his wife, and judging her reaction to his returns, he believes she enjoyed it, too. But now everything is different. When he is in port, Rao typically is able to make one call from his cell phone home, and when he is anywhere near the Suez Canal, there is only one thing his wife wants to know. “I never tell her the truth until afterwards, and even then I leave out the details.” An example of a detail: although his job typically does not include manning a watch shift, a fellow crewmember’s illness had him covering the midnight to six am shift, which by five am was thankfully quiet. They were through the Gulf of Aden, but still within the critical area in the Indian Ocean. All of a sudden, he spotted something on the horizon of concern—five or six small dots, which he quickly identified as dhows, typically the preferred conveyance of local fishermen, but also a regular pirate attack ship. Rao alerted one of the officers, who confirmed the sighting, as well as the presence of a tanker ship in the distance that appeared to be the target of the dhows. A reporting policy in the area mandates that these sightings be reported over radio to the EU forces. Unfortunately, these radio transmissions are not encrypted and the pirates frequently listen to them, so that the goodfaith responder is likely to attract the interest, and the ire, of the sighted pirates. They decide to do nothing. The captain is notified and joins them on the bridge, while the rest of the crew assembles on the deck to watch their greatest fear befall others.

Rao knows this fear better than the rest of his shipmates, because he was once held captive. He is able to clearly recall the alarms sounding and racing to the ship’s citadel, or safe room, not yet aware that he will remain in that room for three weeks. By the numbers, he was relatively lucky when compared to seafarers who are held captive for months on end as ransom negotiations are underway. For ship owners and insurers, ransoms threaten their financial well-being. They are not indifferent to the plight of the people who operate their vessels, but their priorities demand focusing on the safe release of the cargo at a minimum of expense. These negotiations allow the industry to limit their losses and to continue their operations, which in turn is responsible for the transportation of over 80 percent of the goods that appear in stores across the United States. When Rao was held captive, his vessel was carrying refrigerated goods, including fruit. After three weeks of captivity, a ransom was paid. Like many in his situation, he recalled the scariest moment during captivity as when the ransom was dropped from a helicopter onto the vessel’s deck, and the captors began fighting each other in a sort of gang war. This is not a moment that evokes honor among thieves. Shots were fired, and when the frenzy settled, the pirates escaped and the vessel was towed to the Kenyan port of Mombassa, a regular point of disembarkation after captivity. Rao remembers spending several days in Kenya before flying home, indirectly, with three layovers, to his hometown, where his extended family warmly received him, followed by several days of an active effort to forget everything that happened.

Forgetting, as a goal, is as antithetical to psychoanalytic work as it is an inevitability. Our analysands often enter treatment with the need to remember something repressed, but Rao is not an analysand, per se. When interviewed psychiatrically, Rao denies the persistence of any symptoms. When asked from where he derives strength, he answers candidly: “From my faith in God and in hope that they will let me carry a gun.” Rao tells people that he doesn’t remember his time in captivity, but I find he remembers it vividly. He wishes to forget it so that he might grow old. When the only other psychoanalysts to consider life in the merchant marine interviewed seamen who worked the transatlantic route in World War II, they concluded: “This…deep gratification from the life at sea was apparently so intense that despite the presence of severe reactions, in many instances a lessening of anxiety and of other symptoms occurred when they returned to the real dangers of sea” (Margolin, Kubie, and Kanzer, 1944, p. 219).

When he is asked what he likes about his job, Rao waxes nostalgic, but offers nothing but a vague mention of a plan to retire soon and a hope that his sons find work as clerks in India. When asked what he intends to do when he retires, he looks blankly at me, and suddenly the cumulative impact of trauma becomes manifest in quiescence. He once dreamed more elaborate retirement fantasies, the home he might afford with monies saved from his labor, but now he derives comfort from the notion of release from nightmarish visions that are re-evoked in him each time he spots Bab el- Mandeb. Rao fosters a disorientation from time: he doesn’t wear a watch, preferring to mark the days by his shift duties and a countdown until his contract expires.

  1. This character is based on a real person, but the details presented have been modified to protect his anonymity without distorting details essential to this article.


Margolin, S., Kubie, L. S., & Kanzer, M. (1944). The nature and incidence of acute emotional disturbances in torpedoed seamen of the merchant marine who are continuing at sea. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease , 100(2), 219.