The capture of a floating armory and its crew reveals a strange industry on the high seas

The crew detained in 2013.
The crew detained in 2013.
Image: AP
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A storm at sea. Potentially, false imprisonment. Boats full of guns.

The case of the Seaman Guard Ohio, a ship impounded by India for the past three years along with its crew, is one of high drama. For the men who were on board when the ship was seized, there’s been nothing exciting about the months since October 2013, and so far, no Hollywood ending. In a decision that shocked many—like the families waiting at home—the 35 men were sentenced Jan. 12 to more time in prison by an Indian court.

The strange case offers a small window into a dangerous industry few people know even exists.

The Seaman Guard Ohio is a floating armory. The purpose of its business, and that of vessels like it, may not be apparent outside of shipping circles, but inside them, for several years, it’s been accepted as a necessary way of providing armed guards to ships traversing a large swath of sea called the High Risk Area, located in part of the Red Sea and Gulf of Oman—namely, off the coast of Somalia.

The risk in the High Risk Area: pirate attack.

This became such a huge problem that in 2011, when attacks by pirates and hostage-taking peaked, the resulting ransoms totaled nearly $160 million, according to an estimate by Oceans Beyond Piracy, an NGO that studies the problem.

Floating armories provide a place for teams of guards to collect weapons for the transits they’re contracted to protect (paywall). The armories provide guards with food and accommodation. They don’t, for the most part, own the weapons onboard, but rather keep them safe, tracked, and legal. And they stay out of territorial waters. Taking weapons into state-held territory isn’t allowed—hence the existence of the armories in the first place.

The Seaman Guard Ohio, however, was allegedly in Indian territorial waters when it was picked up by the coastguard. Rumors abound as to what happened: that it ran out of fuel and was drifting; that it asked for permission to enter to shelter from a storm; that it entered to buy fuel illegally. Whatever the truth of the matter, the coastguard searched the ship and found weapons without—say sources in the industry—the adequate paperwork to explain them.

Advanfort, the American company which owns the Seaman Guard Ohio and operated a number of floating armories in the area, did not respond to requests for comment.

The evolution of an industry

Ships being chased down by heavily armed pirates figured they needed to protect themselves with armed, well-trained guards. But international law didn’t sanction ships full of weapons plying the high seas. And “littoral” states—those with a sea-border—control what comes in and out of their territorial waters. Guns are not generally welcome.

India is particularly vigilant. With a huge sea coast facing the High Risk Area, it was particularly vulnerable to attack from the sea. This sense of vulnerability was exacerbated when the perpetrators of the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai used the ocean as their point of entry to the city.

Now, the industry is changing. Effective policing of the seas by international warships, the use of armed guards, and other measures including onshore efforts in Somalia, have slashed the rate of attacks.

The High Risk Area has shrunk, according to two international organizations that, separately, decide it. But Mark Gray, whose company MNG Maritime runs armories off Fujairah (which is on the eastern seaboard of the United Arab Emirates) and in the Red Sea, told Quartz the changes have “caused a little bit of confusion, and everyone’s waiting to see what the impact will be.”

With piracy attacks falling, there’s pressure from ship owners to bring the price of guarding services down, he said. The problem with that is that just because the problem of piracy, especially from Somalia, is less manifest, the threat hasn’t necessarily gone away.

“If you live in a flood zone, and you don’t have a flood for five years, you still take out insurance for next year, and the year after, and the year after,” Gray said. “Just because the armed guards are having the desired effect on piracy, everybody thinks ‘ok we can stop doing it now.’”