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Pirates on the lower Danube

Picture of Pirates in Hollywood

To be informed about the situation on the Europe's rivers, I enrolled on all different kind of news aggregators. I thought this would be a good way to keep you up to date about the waterlevels on the Danube or other interesting events for river cruises in Eastern Europe. So I was quite puzzled when among the first news in my mailbox around mid Janurary 2012 were articles about pirates on the Danube river. When I hear the term 'pirates', I like to think of old Erol Flynn movies or Lucas Arts computer games (and thats how I chose the pictures for this article). Don't get me wrong, I know about EU NAVFOR Operation Atalanta in Somalia at the Horn of Africa. And I know that pirates are still a problem in the Street of Malacca in Asia. But it seems, as during the last few years, this profession came back to Europe. Especially in Eastern Europe locals in small motorboats try to raid cargo vessels (and sometimes succed). Therefore let me try to give you a detailled account: First we cover the juridical definition and terms, followed by a list of attacks and an analysis of attack patterns. Last but not least the article deals with the impact of these acts of piracy on river cruises. And here I spoil the whole article: There are absolutely 100% none.


Actually these transgressions are not acts of piracy if we define piracy according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) from 1982. In article 101 the UNCLOS says:

Piracy consists of any of the following acts:
(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

Rivers are always within the jurisdiction of a state. Even if a river defines a border between two states, one side of the valley line of the river bed falls under the jurisdiction of State A and the other side under the jurisdiction of State B. That would be the case along the Rhine between Germany and France, or the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria. So according to the UN these actions could only be categorized as "river robbery". Besides that, it also does not distinct between Territorial Waters, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and High Seas. So in that way, the UNCLOS falls back behind the Piracy Act from 1698: "all piracies, felonies, and robberies committed in or upon the sea, or in any haven, river, creek, or place, where the admiral or admirals have power, authority, or jurisdiction, may be examined, inquired of, tried, heard and determined, and adjudged". As you can see, Wilhelm III did not really care, where his ships were attacked, it mainly concerned him that people dared to attack them. But there is a second modern, maybe more useful definition to define actions committed by rackets within countries without a properly working executive. The International Commerce Chamber's International Maritime Bureau (ICC IMB) defines “an act of boarding (or attempted boarding) with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the intent or capability to use force in furtherance of that act.” This definition can be used for attempts to board cargo ships on rivers, and it avoids the problems that would arise in the following scenario: Pirates attempt to board a supertanker while it is crossing the 3 miles zone. According to UNCLOS, if the pirates attach their hooks outside the 3 miles line to the ship its piracy, otherwise its theft / robbery. If you are really interested in these differences, read more here. Though the ICC IMB definition is the most advanced, their Piracy Reporting Center unfortunately only covers the high seas. For simplicity, I will now call these persons pirates, no matter if they were actually river robbers (or river thieves if they did the illegal unloading of cargo at night). It just sounds cooler.

Cornelis Vroom painting

List of Incidents

There are 3 different zones marked on the map:
* If not mentioned otherwise, 'Romania' is a synonym for the Danube stretch between Galati and Borchea / Braila / Bala, close to the Danube Delta (Km 250 - 350). This is labeled in red on the map.
* As you can see, there is a second red area with a lower opacity stretching from Cernavoda to Constanta along the Black Sea Canal. There were no pirate attacks reported, but a spokesman of the german company Väth Würzburg denounced this area as 'extremely unsafe'. Oddly enough, another spokesman of the same company told a german newspaper that their 'ships sail on the Danube for many years, and [they] have never had a problem with the alleged pirates' (Source). Due to these inconsistent statements and as no other source reported incidents on the Black Sea Canal, I marked it in a brighter color.
* The term Serbia refers mainly to the stretch between Belgrade and Smederevo.
* Pirate flags mark cities that were mentioned in articles. Every city that is cruise-able is marked with its regular symbol as you know it from the Interactive Map.

I gathered these data mainly from blogs and eastern european newspapers. There might be some mistakes due to google translate (e.g. ship names are wrong). And as I did not want to overload the article with dozens of links, I give credit by linking to the most important sources in the continuous text. But you will easily find more information by typing "Pirates Danube River Thieves" etc. into google or bing. I am not really happy with second hand data, so I asked all national shipping companies and the 'Bundesverband der deutscher Binnenschiffahrt' (National Association of German Inland Navigation) for a complete list of attacks on their ships since 2001. German and austrian officials stated that these acts of piracy are no threat for ships from their countries. Unfortunately none of the eastern european companies answered my questions, and I am not going to postpone the release of this article any longer. If they do (I doubt it), I will include their data and update the list. Still, I think it will give you an idea about stolen cargo, owners etc. right now.

Pirate Incidents
Year Ship Name Registry Area of Attack Goods stolen
2006 Petr Beron Bulgaria Romania Spotlights, money, valuables
2010 Croatia Serbia
2010 Star Ferry Ukraine Romania 2 tons of metal, personal belongings
2010 Captain Antipov Ukraine Romania
2011 Captain Zhydkov and Barge UDP-1615 Ukraine Romania 3 tons of corn
2011 Chelyabinsk and UDP-1615 Ukraine Romania 3 tons of maize
2011 Harmony Croatia Serbia Flaps for 100.000 $
2011 St Apostol Andrey Bulgaria Romania 1 ton of barley
2011 Sloboda Croatia Serbia Cables and navigation devices
2011 Zorianyi Ukraine Romania
2012 / 01 / 04 Perm and UDP-1724 Ukraine Romania Rope coils, cables, personal belongings
2012 / 01 / 07 Captain Babkin and UDP-SL-011 Ukraine Romania Alcohol, cigarettes, fuel, money

Not included in this list are 38 attacks by serbian pirates on ships owned by Bulgaria's national river shipping company - It could have been the same group, that attacked the Sloboda, as the serbian police investigates against them in multiple attacks on ships on the serbian Danube. This is just a guess, but the attacks all took place in the same area of Smederevo. Soon after the bulgarian report, the head of the serbian port authorities claimed multiple attacks by bulgarian pirates on serbian ships. That sounds a bit like a diplomatic Tit for Tat.


As you can see, most of the attacks took place on the narrow stretch upstream of Galati. Usually river pirates focussed on barges tied to a ship. Sometimes they distracted the crew with a fisher boat that pretended to sell goods while the barge was boarded from the other side and unloaded. More often, ships and / or barges that moored over night where in the focus of thieves. 'No one hear[d] anything during the night. It is just three of us working 12-hour shifts, so we do not have a night guard'. All ships involved were owned by eastern european companies. They tried to steal cargo, grain, cables (most likely to strip the copper) and ropes. Plunder Bunny'The fact that ropes and other useful objects are stolen from ships going east also in other countries, such as Serbia, is something the inland shipping companies meanwhile take for granted' (Source). If they were confronted by the crew, the pirates also demanded money, but it seems that they did not search ships for money in the first place. As read in the articles, weapons of choice were usually knives or just to outnumber the crew by manpower. Some sources mention baseball bats, none reports the use of firearms. But usually the pirates tried to avoid the crews at all, as they attacked ships that moored or barges (and not the towboats). They obviously wanted to minimize contact to the crew. In a few occasions, the pirates were repelled by the crew. 'Romanians attack. It's for hovoru hear. With kind - local grabber. - Told the sailor. - They pidplyvly on motorboats. Throw hooks to catch per vessel. We began to reflect. Grabbed axes, began to cut the cables which are attached hooks." (Google Translation of Ukrainian Newspaper.) Now that sounds more like the Golden Age of Piracy, doesn't it? Still, no newspaper mentioned parrots, hooks or crew members walking the plank. Very disappointing indeed.

Is the cargo really worth the action? It is hard to imagine, that it pays off to gather a few friends in order to steal scrap metal from bypassing ships. Even if one keeps in mind that - though they are rising - living costs in Eastern Europe are much lower than in the western hemisphere. But it does. According to one of my yugoslavian friends, the prices for scrap metal and copper are quite close to what is paid on the western european market. Ferrous scrap metal sells for est. 150 - 380$, while copper is up to 7000$ per ton. With the grain prices rising over the last few years, it seems to pay off to steal other cargo for non personal usage. You can check the prices: Black Sea Grain and Scrap Metal. A higher level of organisation can be assumed for the theft of flaps - you need contact to other ship owners who do not ask questions.

Now, it does not matter if we call these phenomena 'piracy', robbery, theft or looting. In all these cases we took for granted, that the locals acted against the will of the captain and the crew. Perhaps that approach is false. Maybe most of these cases were just insurance fraud:
'The sailors sell fuel from the ship’s supplies, as well as anything valuable from the ship, and after returning to their country, they talk about attacks and robberies, in order to hide the missing goods and receive insurance coverage. This ‘business’ has been flourishing ever since the time of the sanctions, and the cooperation is so advanced that most of the captains call their ‘business partners’ on the phone when the ship comes alongside a quay,' a source from the river police told the newspaper.
The 'time of sanctions' refers to the 90ies post civil war situation and the Serbia Sanctions Case. Now lets recall the situation: Crews on cargo ships are down to 3 members who work 12 hour shifts - in other words: These crews are most likely underpaid but definitely overworked. They sail through an area where there is no police boat within the next 60 miles / 100km and where it seems as romanian ships don't have to be registered at all. I can imagine that this situation provides a certain motivation to come to an agreement with a few locals in order to share the booty.

About 10 years ago, while there were still pontoon bridges (e.g. at Novi Sad) across the Danube due to the civil war damage, there was another scheme, that was mainly focussing on western european ships. Corrupt customs officer kind of 'invented' new control critera for ships and threatened to delay their passage. That can be summed up as: Pay the bribe, that's cheaper than to pay the fine to your customer for not delivering in time - A modern kind of waylaying.

A security issue for river cruises?

After reading the last paragraph, I am sure you can answer this question yourself. Just to make sure, I would claim no, for several reasons:

* These attacks focus on freighters an barges (hence all the 'convoys' and UDP ... names in the list). Only one attack occurred on a ferry (while passengers were controlled by police officer and not on board.
* All reported attacks (except one) did not only focus on freighters, but on ones owned by eastern european companies. Looks as if the pirates do not want to get to much attention by the European Union. If a gang gets high spirited and draws too much attention on them, the authorities do react: Several arrests were made in connection with the attacks on the croatian ship Sloboda.
* The pirates go after cargo in the first place, not after money.
* A cruise ship has around 150 - 200 guest and crew members aboard, so the most popular method of these pirates, to outnumber the crew by manpower does not work.
* Last but not least, most cruises down the Lower Danube from Amsterdam or Budapest go only as far downstream as Ruse or Oltenita to disembark (and visit Bucharest). That is still another 120km / 80 miles upstream of the Borchea area.
* When asked by an austrian newspaper Lüftner cruises claimed, that not a single incident occurred on on of their cruises.
And seriously: There wouldn't there had been statements by the companies OR notes on cruise critic?

If you go through that checklist, you see that there is absolutely no threat to cruise down to the Danube Delta and enjoy your time in area that is on the UNESCO WHC list (video link). In fact, I should have never used the term 'Pirates' at all. As said: No hooks, no parrots, no poor souls walking the plank. Still, I hope this article gave you an insight in a underdeveloped area and the small crime situation in Eastern Europe. On second thought you could use your newly gained background knowledge to brag about your luxurious dangerous trip on the Danube. Just hope your friends don't google this text. Seriously, lets hope the situation clears up for shipping companies in these areas as the countries are getting more and more integrated into the European Union, and that the words 'river pirates ahoi' promise fun again like in the 1950ies:

Did you experience any confrontation on the Danube? Please leave a comment