Passage through pirate-infested waters

by Gary Francoeur

Naval Reserve intelligence officer JL Savidge (Photo: Sarah McNeill)

The waters off Somalia are some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. They’re also among the most dangerous, with attacks by marauding gangs of pirates surging dramatically in recent years. Armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, these modern-day blackbeards use speedboats to sneak up on passing ships and demand multimillion-dollar ransoms for the safe release of crew and cargo.

JL Savidge, BA’97, knows the dangers of sailing these seas better than most. A Naval Reserve intelligence officer with the Canadian Armed Forces, she spent six months in the pirate-infested waters as a crew member aboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Ville de Québec warship. In her new book, Hostile Seas: A Mission in Pirate Waters, Savidge provides a personal account of life on the navy frigate and the role she and others played in protecting vessels carrying vital World Food Program aid to Somalia.

“The mission – doing our part to ensure that food aid reached the people who desperately needed it – was a worthy one, and there’s a real sense of purpose, a feeling of truly mattering, that develops by being part of something so special,” Savidge says.

The Ville de Québec had initially left Halifax in July 2008 for a NATO counter-terrorism mission in the Mediterranean Sea, but after a string of pirate attacks were reported off the Horn of Africa, it was soon rerouted to those waters to ensure that food and other vital supplies made it safely to Mogadishu, Somalia’s war-scarred capital.

But warding off these brazen buccaneers is no easy feat, and it was Savidge’s job, as the ship’s intelligence officer, to acquire and accrue useful data on the threat, determine potential attack patterns and predict where pirates might strike next. Her close scrutiny paid off: only one food ship, the As Salaam, was attacked under the Ville de Québec’s watch, and the quick reactions of the merchant vessel and the navy frigate quickly foiled that attempt, in part by dispatching a Sea King chopper to scare the hijackers off before they could board the vessel.

Despite these bursts of excitement, life at sea can also become strangely monotonous. Cramped living spaces, lack of privacy and weeks without setting foot on terra firma can all translate into cabin fever, Savidge points out.

“The days flow together. Long periods of work, nearly indistinguishable from the next, are sewn together with short reprieves spent in my rack and punctuated by attacks on shipping,” she recounts in her book.

But none of that fazed the veteran Savidge, who first joined the Canadian Naval Reserve as a 17-year-old looking for a summer job. She wanted to make a positive difference in the world, and was immediately hooked by the camaraderie and the opportunity to push herself beyond her comfort limits. She hasn’t looked back since, continuing as a reservist throughout her McGill studies and alternating between military and civilian work with non-governmental organizations ever since.

That level of experience has appeared to make Savidge an effective pirate repellent. By the end of their deployment, the crew had successfully escorted a total of 10 vessels loaded with enough food to feed 400,000 people for six months.

Thanks to counter-piracy operations conducted by the Ville de Québec and other warships, as well as improved security measures aboard merchant vessels, there has been a drastic reduction in the number of attacks in recent years. According to statistics compiled by the United States Navy, there were just 32 piracy-related incidents off Somalia’s coast in 2012 – a far cry from the 181 incidents reported in 2009.

Courtesy of Dundurn Press

Savidge says the mission allowed her to gain a more balanced perspective on piracy and the social and economic conditions that can turn young men into such desperados.

“It’s much more complicated than a person simply being good or bad,” she says. “Rather than judge them, we need to put ourselves in their shoes and examine the factors that led to these decisions, such as lack of opportunity, having a family to support, or just being young and without purpose in life.”

Once back on Canadian soil, Savidge set to work writing Hostile Seas, a project that has taken almost five years to complete. She is donating her share of the proceeds to support the Victoria International Development Education Association’s Orphan and Vulnerable Children Education Program.

Savidge has since taken on another big job for the Canadian Navy, participating in maritime security efforts for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. She is currently based at the National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. But will she volunteer for another military deployment?

“Absolutely,” she says, without hesitation. “I feel lucky to have the opportunity to experience different parts of the world and live the naval lifestyle.”

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