Section 7: Ships under attack


A ship may come under attack with little or no warning. Effective lookouts, both visual and radar, will help to ensure early detection.

Piracy attack

Pirates carrying weapons do not usually open fire until they are very close to the ship, e.g. within two cables. Use whatever time available, no matter how short, to activate any additional protective measures and plans. This will make it clear to the attackers that they have been seen, the ship is prepared and will resist attempts to board.

In the event of a suspicious approach, or if in any doubt, call UKMTO without delay.

Approach stage

Effective lookouts may aid in identifying the nature of the attack, the threat profile of a piracy or other attack may initially look similar and it will not be until the attackers are close that the nature of the attack becomes apparent. In all cases, the following steps should be taken:

  • If not already at full speed, increase to maximum to open the distance.
  • Steer a straight course to maintain a maximum speed.
  • Initiate the ship’s emergency procedures.
  • Activate the emergency communication plan.
  • Sound the emergency alarm and make an attack announcement, in accordance with the ship’s emergency communication plan.
  • Make a mayday call on VHF Ch. 16. Send a distress message via the Digital Selective Calling (DSC) system and Inmarsat-C, as applicable.
  • Activate the SSAS.
  • Report the attack immediately to UKMTO (+44 2392 222060) by telephone. Ensure the AIS is switched on.
  • Activate water spray.
  • Ensure that all external doors and, where possible, internal public rooms and cabins are fully secured.
  • All crew not required on the bridge or in the engine room should muster at the safe muster point or citadel as instructed by the Master.
  • When sea conditions allow, consider altering course to increase an approaching skiff’s exposure to wind/waves.
  • Sound the ship’s whistle/foghorn continuously to demonstrate to any potential attacker that the ship is aware of the attack and is reacting to it.
  • Check Vessel Data Recorder (VDR) is recording.
  • PCASP, if present, will take agreed actions to warn off attackers.

Attack stage

As the attackers get close the following steps should be taken:

  • Reconfirm all ship’s crew are in the safe muster point or citadel as instructed by the Master.
  • Ensure the SSAS has been activated. If not actioned, report the attack immediately to UKMTO (+44 2392 222060) by telephone.
  • As the attackers close in on the ship, Masters should commence small alterations of helm whilst maintaining speed to deter skiffs from lying alongside the ship in preparation for a boarding attempt. These manoeuvres will create additional wash to impede the operation of the skiffs.
  • Large amounts of helm are not recommended, as these are likely to significantly reduce a ship’s speed.
  • Check VDR data is being saved.
  • PCASP, if present, will conduct themselves as governed by the RUF.

Actions on illegal boarding

If the ship is illegally boarded the following actions should be taken:

  • Take all way off the ship and then stop the engines.
  • All remaining crew members to proceed to the citadel or safe muster point locking all internal doors on route.
  • PCASP, if present, will follow procedures agreed with company and Master.
  • Ensure all crew are present in the citadel or safe muster point. This includes the Master, bridge team and PCASP.
  • Establish communications from the citadel with UKMTO and your company and confirm all crew are accounted for and in the citadel or safe muster point.
  • Stay in the citadel until conditions force you to leave or advised by the military.
  • If any member of the crew is captured it should be considered that the pirates have full control of the ship.

If control of the ship is lost

  • All movement should be calm, slow and very deliberate. Crew members should keep their hands visible always and comply fully. This will greatly reduce the risk of violence.

Experience has shown that the pirates will be aggressive, highly agitated and possibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.


  • be patient.
  • keep mentally active/occupied.
  • keep track of time.
  • reduce stress where possible by remaining physically active.
  • remain calm and retain dignity.
  • be positive (remember, authorities are working tirelessly to release you).
  • remember to leave any CCTV or audio recording devices running.
  • exactly what the attackers ask and comply with their instruction.


  • take photographs.
  • attempt to engage attackers.
  • make movements which could be misinterpreted as being aggressive.
  • be confrontational. resist.

Hijack – hostage situation

The model of pirate action off Somalia is to hijack the ship and hold the crew for ransom. It should be remembered it is in the interests of the pirates to keep the ship and crew safe.

Each company or organisation should have a policy in place to cover the eventualities of kidnap and ransom. The following principles serve as guidelines to surviving a kidnapping.


  • Remain calm and maintain self control.
  • Be humble and respectful to the pirates. 
  • Look out for your colleagues' well-being. 
  • Stay together as a team, where possible. 
  • Accept the new pirate leadership.
  • Maintain the hierarchy of rank.
  • Try to establish normal communication with the pirates.
  • Maintain personal hygiene.
  • Save water and essentials.
  • Be positive – many people are working to release you.
  • Be patient and maintain routines (including your spiritual needs, as permitted by
  • Try to keep your breathing regular.
  • Meditate and keep mentally active.
  • Respect religion: yours, your colleagues’ and the pirates.’


  • offer resistance.
  • argue with pirates or your colleagues.
  • take photographs.
  • hide valuables.
  • react emotionally.
  • take drugs or alcohol.
  • bargain with pirates for personal privileges.

In the event of military intervention

Brief and prepare the ship’s crew to cooperate fully during any military action onboard and instruct crew as follows.


  • keep low to the deck and cover head with both hands.
  • keep hands visible.
  • be prepared to be challenged on your identity.
  • cooperate fully with military forces.


  • make movements that could be interpreted as aggressive.
  • take photographs.
  • get involved in activity with military forces unless specifically instructed to.

Attack from other threats

  • Anti-ship missiles In the event or warning of a missile attack military advice should be followed. If no warning is received there will be no time to take any mitigations beyond a PA warning to the crew if a missile is spotted. It is unlikely merchant ships will be the intended target; Masters should be aware of the ship plot in their immediate vicinity and, if sea room allows, keep clear of naval and associated ships.
  • Sea mines Ships should avoid all published or identified mine danger areas and maintain close liaison with military authorities. If operating close to mine danger areas, Masters should be aware tethered mines may break free and drift into shipping lanes. Ships should manoeuvre clear of floating objects and the forward area of the ship should be kept clear of crew.
    Effective lookouts are essential. Specific advice on self protective measures when operating in mine danger areas can be obtained from UKMTO.
  • WBIED attack In the early stages of the attack it may not be possible to differentiate between a piracy or WBIED attack. Initial actions as highlighted in this guidance for the approach stage of a piracy attack should be followed. Military threat assessments may indicate areas where one type of attack is more likely than another. A speed boat with multiple people onboard is unlikely to be a WBIED as these are usually unmanned or have a solitary occupant.
    WBIED attacks may result in a breach of the ship’s hull. The use of the safe muster point is recommended before entering a citadel located below the waterline. If a WBIED is anticipated, the time to react is very short. The figure below gives an example of possible reaction times.

The threat and risk assessment will identify areas where these threats occur which, if successful, may result in an explosion (commonly referred to as
a blast). The Master should communicate to the crew prior to entering a threat area what position to take if a blast threat is detected. The Master may consider telling the crew to:

  • Lie flat on the deck, as this may minimise exposure and may reduce the impact on the body from the blast.
  • Adopt a brace position (arms/legs bent, hands holding onto something solid and feet firmly planted on the deck) to protect personnel from shock waves.
  • Move away from a particular area, such as the port side, starboard side, poop deck or engine room

Post a WBIED attack

  • Ensure all crew and PCASP are accounted for.
  • Send distress signal.
  • Survey area where the blast occurred.
  • Implement damage control.
  • Call CSO and UKMTO.

Post incident actions and reporting

The period following an attack will be difficult as companies, Master and crew recover from the ordeal. It is important that seafarers receive timely and proper medical assessments, both physical and mental, and care following an attack or hostage situation. Companies should have emergency management plans in place to manage the effects from an attack from any of the identified threats on one of their ships. These plans should include the management of a long, drawn-out hostage negotiation situation, including support for the families of the kidnapped crew.

To give the investigating authorities the best chance of apprehending the perpetrators, it is important that evidence is preserved in the correct manner. Companies, Masters and crew should refer to IMO Guidelines on Preservation and Collection of Evidence A28/ Res. 1091 and other industry guidance.

Following any attack or suspicious activity, and after initial reporting of the event, it is vital that a detailed report is completed. A copy of the report should be sent to the company, the Flag State and appropriate authorities. It is important that any report is detailed and comprehensive. This will assist with full analysis and trends in threat activity.
Without supporting evidence, including witness statements from those affected by the incident, suspects are unlikely to be prosecuted.

Protection of evidence

The collection and protection of evidence is critical.

The Master and crew can protect a crime scene until the nominated law enforcement agency arrives by following these basic principles:

  • Preserve the crime scene and all evidence if possible.
  • Avoid contaminating or interfering with all possible evidence – if in doubt, do not touch and leave items in place.
  • Do not clean up the area, including hosing it down. Do not throw anything away, no matter how unimportant it may seem.
  • Take initial statements from the crew.
  • Take photographs of the crime scene from multiple viewpoints.
    Protect VDR for future evidence.
  • Make a list of items taken (e.g. mobile phones with numbers).
    Facilitate access to the crime scene and relevant documentation for law enforcement authorities.
  • Make crew available for interview by law enforcement authorities.


The quality of the evidence provided and the availability of the crew to testify will significantly help any investigation or prosecution that follows.

Following any attack or incident the investigating authority will be determined by external factors including:

  • Flag State.
  • Ownership.
  • Crew nationality.

Thorough investigation using all available evidence is critical.

The lead law enforcement agency will talk to the Master and crew to understand the sequence and circumstances of the event.

In a post hostage situation, law enforcement authorities may ask to conduct post-release crew debriefs and to collect evidence for investigations and prosecutions following captivity.

Seafarers should always be treated with respect and as victims of crime.


INTERPOL has a secure website to provide support to ship operators who have had their ships hijacked. INTERPOL’s Maritime Task Force can assist in taking the appropriate steps to preserve the integrity of the evidence left behind at the crime scene. INTERPOL has a Command and Co-ordination Centre (CCC) that supports any of the 188 member countries faced with a crisis or requiring
urgent operational assistance. The CCC operates in all four of INTERPOL’s official languages (English, French, Spanish and Arabic) and is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is recommended that ship operators contact INTERPOL within three days of a hijacking of their ship.
INTERPOL may also be consulted to discuss recommended practices for the preservation of evidence that could be useful to law enforcement agents pursuing an investigation. Contact details are: [email protected]; +33 472 44 7676.

Seafarer welfare

Seafarers and their families often have difficulty in expressing the need for assistance or even recognising that they need assistance following exposure to a security threat. The company should monitor the health, both physical and mental, of those exposed to piracy and other maritime security threats and if necessary provide independent support and other assistance, as may be appropriate. There is a range of humanitarian programmes aimed at assisting seafarers and their families effected by piracy or maritime crime, including the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network and The Mission to Seafarers. See and