If anything has brought the merchant shipping industry into the light of popular culture over the last two years it's been the pirates of Somalia, who have during that time hijacked 94 vessels, held an estimated 1,800 people hostage, and extracted something close to $200 million in ransom from ship owners around the world. They've attacked virtually every type of sea craft there is -- polished European sailing yachts, dilapidated Vietnamese fishing trawlers, bone-white promenade-deck cruise ships sailing out of Miami, break-bulk stick freighters chugging out of the Port of Singapore, high-riding container ships owned by spruce Scandinavian industrial conglomerates, low-riding dry-bulk carriers, Ro/Ro car carriers and very-large crude carriers -- the VLCC supertankers that weigh more than 300,000 tons fully loaded -- owned by Armani-draped Athens shipping magnates. The pirates are, by and large, fearless. Once, a gang had enough temerity to assail an American supply ship, the Lewis & Clark, then carrying fuel, ammunition and sailors' mail for the warships of the United States Navy. (The attack was thwarted.) So dense is the action that the crew of one ship -- the MV Horizon -- witnessed the hijacking of a second ship, the MV Titan, while both vessels were navigating pirate waters in the Gulf of Aden in March 2009. Four months later, in July, as it steamed through on a return voyage, pirates captured the Horizon. Nearly every major shipping company has experienced a run-in with Somali pirates of one kind or another: DryShips' ( DRYS) Saldanha, carrying coal to Slovenia, was captured in February 2009, released for some millions in ransom that April; Navios Maritime Partners' ( NMM - Get Report) Apollon
The success of Somalia's pirates has given rise to a certain kind of portrayal in the Western media. "Cutthroat Capitalism," reads the title for a piece in Wired. "They've come up with a good business model ... with a low cost of entry," writes the foreign relations expert in The Wall Street Journal. Piracy's "flashy new-money culture" has become "entrenched," declares a dispatch in The Washington Post. A new neighborhood of "huge homes" rises in an otherwise miserable hut-and-shack village in Somalia, reports The New York Times. The neighborhood is called "New Boosaaso" and the "minicastles" there cost "several hundred thousand dollars." An intrepid Reuters' stringer goes into a pirate stronghold -- "stronghold," with its whiff of the medieval, being a favorite word to describe the places where Somali pirates live -- and comes out with the news that there exists a kind of bandit stock exchange; it's possible -- so the story goes -- to buy shares in a gang of pirates. If your company of corsairs returns to shore with a ransom: dividend yield.