Danish Sailor Talks About Ships Full of Guns and Seas Full of Pirates
The Danish government officially supports democracy across the world, yet Danish shipping businesses are among the world’s most active in transporting weapons from Europe to dictatorships and rebels alike.
Amnesty International documented Danish transports of rubber bullets and tear gas to the Egyptian regime even as it was still aggressively trying to stop the Arab Spring from taking off and the first protesters went “missing.”
Weapons are a profitable business, but some of the people involved in it get a bit of a sour taste from it. One such person is a sailor who on the promise of protecting his anonymity agreed to talk about his numerous trips with ships full of guns, cannons and ammunition. The sailor is so eager to tell his story, he interrupts the very first question asked.
You have told me you worked as a sailor on boats which you suspected had some cargo of weapons from Europe to…
It’s not a suspicion. The captain has been laughing, saying ‘Weapons again’, as he looked at cargo papers.
The now-retired sailor details his experiences with suspicious boxes and lax authority control. Labels on cargo boxes and even the cargo papers would often be more vague than advertising weapons. For example, a huge box with half a cannon would say “machine parts” or something similar.
Some boxes were huge, probably containing cannons, others were smaller, probably containing ammunition or missiles.
Did you ever see any weapons?
No. Some types of cargo are loaded as they are, timber for example. But the loads the skipper said were weapons were always firmly packed in solid boxes. Of course, we never opened them.
And you sailed with these weapons from where?
Mostly from Italy. A lot of weapons are sent out from Italian harbors. This is a well-known fact. I suspect, for example, that Sweden is hiding their weapons export by shipping from Italian harbors. It is easier for them to transport weapons on trucks to France, Spain and especially Italy. Then sail it from there. Inside the EU there are no border controls. If it was shipped from a Swedish harbor, it would be obvious that Sweden is exporting weapons. The Italians don’t mind, they just want money.
According to openly available public data, Italian and Swedish businesses officially exported light arms worth near 300 and 47 million Euros respectively in 2010 (add to that exports of heavy weapons, such as cannons and missiles). Swedish shipping companies do not figure on the lists of arms transporters.
Where did you sail the weapons to?
Primarily The Persian Gulf. The Emirates, Doha, Qatar, Oman. I imagine they re-sell it to various groups. Afghanistan, whatever.
You never went to African ports?
Not with weapons. But I did go to Morocco with Swedish timber. But that’s a different story. I have been on boats full of weapons in the sea off Somalia. In pirate haunted areas.
When did you start sailing and when did you stop?
I have worked for a number of different Danish shipping companies. Only one of them took weapons. The others stayed away from it: they were too proud. But this one company has later been made infamous for it in the press.
I would guess between every third and every second cargo has been weapons. I only worked for that company in 2002 for eight months. You can transport quite a bit in that time span.
But I have sailed with many things. Cocoa from Holland to Russia, for example. Small companies take whatever cargo they can get. Else they wouldn’t survive in the business. It is bad business to go somewhere with an empty hull. Agents always try to find something to carry, if a shipment of weapons is there, you take it. Most small companies don’t have an opinion on it.
What kind of boats were used?
Coasters. About 70 to 80 metres long, about 15 to 20 metres wide, I guess. Smaller coasters. The boxes are stored below deck, they are old fashioned boats. Probably built around 1980.
How much can such a boat carry?
I don’t remember the capacities exactly. A 70-metre-long coaster cannot carry that much, but it’s a lot more than most people imagine. I remember on one of the boats we calculated it could carry the weight of 850 Morris Mascot cars. The actual cars wouldn’t fit, though. It is a pretty good number of tonnes of ammunition, for example.
How large is the crew?
Five. We were all Danes, but I heard that has changed. Two sailors, a cook, a mate and a skipper. On smaller ships an engineer isn’t even required anymore. The rules have been relaxed to keep the smaller companies alive.
Where exactly did you load the weapons and did everything go smoothly every time?
Italy. Bari or Genoa. Every time. It would take a day or two to fill up the boat. The bigger the boxes, huge cannons for example, doesn’t take very long to fill up a ship. Us sailors can even tie down the first containers as the last are loaded with the crane. Often we weren’t even allowed on shore. Sometimes when you have been sailing for a month, you just want to go into a city and get a nice meal or something. But often you just get there, unload, load and sail again right away. Unless, sometimes when you get to a European port on a weekend the workers have left and nobody will be there to help unload until Monday morning. Then you can go to the city.
What I was thinking was, did you ever have to wait for control or inspection to take place?
We never had any authorities come to check the cargo. Everyone knows there are weapons being shipped. Governments don’t want to know too much because this business is making a lot of money. It keeps the smaller shipping companies alive. All customs officers know about this. I imagine there might even be bribery involved in some ports – I haven’t seen this myself but I know it’s not uncommon.
Then when you unloaded the cargo in Arab countries, were you ever troubled with inspections?
I never noticed. I have never experienced any delays because of authorities.
Did you ever have trouble with anyone else, pirates for example?
The company I worked for had a hostage situation that took a long time to solve. They got the hostages out by paying a ransom. They were held somewhere on the Horn of Africa, down by Somalia. I have seen pirate ships from my ship, yes. I got an earful from skipper for waving to some pirates. I was called to report on bridge and told to never do that again, hah hah. But they were waving to me and I thought they were fishermen.
Why didn’t anything happen?
I guess we were too close to land, too close to port for them to take up pursuit. There was a lot of other traffic too. I think they prefer to attack on open sea with no other ships close by.
How come your skipper was sure they were pirates?
The type of boat. They use long, fast boats. And he was looking at them in his binoculars, so… You always look out what else is going on.
On 12 January 2010, six hostages were taken from the boat Leopard owned by Shipcraft. Although the company somehow got its ship back, the hostages are still held in Somalia.
What did you think when you saw another ship from your company had been boarded?
Before answering he puts a cigarette paper on the table, opens his pouch of Bali Shag tobacco, pinches a measure of the dried, hashed leaves onto the paper and rolls another cigarette. With decades of routine and in the space of seconds. But despite the anger in his stare, his answer is calm.
Oh bloody hell. Good thing I don’t work there anymore. I follow the case with Shipcraft. I wanted to attend the demonstration but didn’t have the time. I would really have liked to show my support, I want Shipcraft to get their wallet out. And why isn’t the Danish government pressuring the shipping company? The hostages have been sitting in Somalia for a year and a half or two years. God dammit get them out. We are one of the riches countries in the world, get those people home. Put pressure on the Somali government in a bloody hurry. The government and Shipcraft are weaklings, but I guess that’s just how the world works.
If pirates had attacked your ship, what could you have done?
Nothing. Not then. I think now they are allowed to bring guards. Perhaps we could have tried outpacing them but other than that there is nothing you can do.
Didn’t you make good money for such a dangerous job?
It’s a job that isn’t that good, in my opinion. You can’t go home to sleep every day. You sign a contract for six months at a time but they can keep you for seven if they want. No paid vacation. I don’t know how it is now, but then we made about 17,000 Danish kroner [$3,000] per month plus overtime payments. At home, in construction work you can make the same money and fuck your wife every day, sailors can’t, hah hah.
So, you would have like a bonus to your salary for the risk?
You can get that if you get close to an actual war. We were sailing close to the borders to such areas. Somalia is not a war zone. You don’t get a bonus for a couple of pirates in the waters. I don’t think the bonus is that large anyway. Not compared to spending your life on the seas. You have to spend eight or ten months per year on sea, so let’s say you do that for 20 years… That means you haven’t had more than a couple of years at home. You have to find a tolerant wife and you can’t raise your kids. In my opinion, the pay does not make up for the drawbacks. I want to visit my friends, I want a life. There is plenty to do on board while at sea – painting, fixing the engine, cleaning – but when the chores of the day are done, you are still on board. You are never really off duty.
When you know weapons trade is big business, what do you think about the low pay?
I don’t know. I agreed to it, I chose it. It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t my type of job.
For more information about and statistics on the global arms trade see the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute website / Monitoring international arms transfers and (for visualised light weapons trade only) the “armsglobe” on ChromeExperiments.com. Figures in the article are from these sources.