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Published: February 2009Modern Piracy: The Lawless Sea
Pirates Map

A Brief Trip to Pirate Island

An inside look at the rise of modern-day swashbucklers.

Text by Alex Perry, adapted from his new book Falling Off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization (Bloomsbury USA).
MAP: The collision of wealth and poverty around narrow sea passages creates an environment ripe for piracy. The good news: Private yachts are rarely targeted (there were only five such cases reported worldwide through November 2008). The bad: Tankers are being hijacked in record numbers. East Africa's Gulf of Aden, the Niger River Delta, and the Strait of Malacca recorded the most incidents of piracy in 2008. Each is a major trade route near impoverished shores. Source: The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre. Map by Jason Lee; Skull by Aaron Ashley

As the pirate captain waits for his next sortie, he tells the story of his last. A crew member on a Thai palm-oil tanker working for the captain gives him the layout of the freighter and an exact time and place to hit it in the Singapore Strait. The captain phones the boss of a Hong Kong triad, an organized crime syndicate, who agrees to pay him and his crew $9,000 up front, another $50,000 on delivery of the stolen ship, and arranges fake papers for it under a new name.

On the appointed night, two speedboats race west out of Babi Island off the northern tip of Indonesia, within sight of the Singapore skyline. After an hour or two, they cut their engines and wait, bobbing in the swell of passing vessels near the world’s busiest shipping lane. The pirates are split into two groups, one in each boat. In the first are the captain and his men, all experienced sailors with years in the merchant navy. In the second is the muscle—specialist boarders known locally as bajing loncat, literally "jumping squirrels." In their boat, the boarders assemble their 65-foot boarding poles, called satang, tying lengths of bamboo together with twine and attaching a hook to the end of each one. They also use twine to make sword belts and rudimentary handcuffs.

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