Somali pirate attacks. Also, river levels affecting river cruises.

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the April 2011 issue.
Hurricane Igor pictured from space on Sept. 14, 2010. Photo: NASA

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 422nd issue of your monthly overseas travel magazine.

I had written up for last month’s column, but then had no room to include, a number of statistics on pirate attacks over the last few years. I had found it reassuring that cruise ships and private yachts were seldom targeted. A couple of weeks before this month’s issue was completed, however, four Americans were killed on their private yacht by pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

The owners of the yacht, the Quest, a couple from Southern California, were Catholic evangelists distributing Bibles around the world. Friends of theirs, a couple from Washington, were also on board when, hoping for safety in numbers while traversing the gulf, they joined a number of yachts racing from Australia to the Mediterranean. They broke away from the convoy off the coast of Oman, however, and three days later found themselves swarmed by a group of 19 pirates.

Three days later, on. Feb. 22, four US naval warships, including two destroyers and an aircraft carrier, were trailing the yacht as it headed toward Somalia. After two of the pirates boarded one of the destroyers to begin negotiations, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at it and gunfire erupted on the Quest. Naval forces quickly boarded the yacht, killing two pirates and finding all four Americans fatally wounded. They also found two other pirates who had been dead for some time.

These tragic killings demonstrate that no one can be complacent about the dangers accompanying this growing problem on the high seas. Here are the figures previously prepared for publication.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, attacks on ships by pirates rose 10% from 2009 to 2010. A record 53 fishing or merchant vessels — with 1,181 crew — were hijacked last year in a total of 445 attacks. The numbers have jumped annually since 2006, when 188 crew members were taken hostage.

In 2010, 92% of hijackings occurred off Eastern Africa’s coast of Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991. On Dec. 31, 28 vessels and 638 hostages were still being held for ransom by Somali pirates.

In the Gulf of Aden, however, attacks decreased to 53 in 2010 from 117 in 2009. The gulf (north of Somalia, south of Saudi Arabia and leading to the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean) is being patrolled by naval forces from many countries, and many ship owners have taken protective measures.

But attacks have gone farther afield, increasing in the Mozambique Channel and on the other side of Africa off of Nigeria, in the Indian Ocean as far east as 72 degrees east longitude, off of Bangladesh (mostly at Chittagong), near Indonesia and even in the South China Sea.

Cruise ships and pleasure crafts have seldom been targeted, and, but for the recent tragedy, no hostages have been killed in the last few years. ITN gathered the following information.

In 2005 there was a failed attack against the Seabourn Spirit. After two years with no incidents, in 2008 there were three failed attacks against cruise ships (MS Astor, MS Nautica and MS Athena), and the crews of two luxury yachts were taken hostage (and later released). 2009 saw failed attacks on the MS Melody and the Ariva 3 plus hostages taken (and released) on three yachts. In 2010, the SS Oceanic repelled an attack, and one yacht had crew taken and later released.

The murders aboard the Quest may spark more extreme measures by seafaring vessels in their attempts to thwart pirates.

Most travelers will not face forces that could end their lives, but acts of God can certainly put a stop to a trip. Knowing the seasonal weather patterns of a country you plan to visit is important for many reasons. The Internet offers several resources for gathering this information. Here are a few.

The website of The Best Time to Visit provides weather data broken down geographically, for continents, countries and major cities. For each, it provides seasonal and monthly figures on temperatures, rainfall, etc., as well as other advice for travelers.

The following give current global weather conditions and forecasts: The Weather Channel, the World Meteorological Organization, and, for the more scientifically inclined, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

In this issue, on page 26, Barbara Porter of Seattle, Washington, describes a situation that, over the years, other travelers have found themselves in and written to ITN about, namely, their river cruise with a tour company was canceled at the last minute or curtailed partway through because the river level was too low (for the ship’s draft) or too high (couldn’t clear a bridge). In some cases, the cruise-tour company completed the promised itinerary stops by land, employing buses and hotels — not the leisurely trip the travelers signed up for.

Often, the travelers have claimed that the tour company owners knew in advance that the river would not be navigable but said nothing to the tour members.

Several years ago, in 2006, ITN received two such letters, one from Mary Alice and Joe Hale of Raleigh, North Carolina — regarding a cruise of Provence and the Camargue with Overseas Adventure Travel (or OAT, Cambridge, MA; 800/493-6824), March 29-April 10 — and another from Mr. and Mrs. John Corson of Crowder, Oklahoma, regarding a 13-day cruise of the Danube to the Black Sea with Grand Circle Travel (GCT, Boston, MA; 800/221-2610), beginning April 27.

In each case, before leaving the States, the passengers were informed that, due to unfavorable river levels, a portion of the trip would be by bus. As Mr. Corson wrote, “Since we did not have any cancellation insurance, we left (for Europe) as planned.” The tour companies dealt with each couple individually, and ITN chose to not print the letters.

At the time, however, it occurred to me that OAT and its sister corporation, GCT, which had been operating in Europe for years, surely would have records of the dates on which cruises had been canceled and, thus, when certain rivers had been unnavigable. What if there were predictable patterns to the levels of certain stretches of rivers? At least, travelers could book their cruises with the benefit of that knowledge.

I contacted Grand Circle Corporation’s Director of Public Relations, Priscilla O’Reilly, and she graciously contacted a rep in one of their European offices, who did research and reported the findings.

Ms. O’Reilly wrote to me, in March 2007, “We’ve been running river cruises since 1997 and, while we are not weather experts, of course, we are happy to find out what we can for you and ITN readers.”

She continued: “According to my colleague, it was believed that, broadly, a high-water period occurs sometime between March and April or early May and also during October-December, while low water can occur in July-August on the lower Danube in Romania, which is a ‘wild river,’ i.e., delta and natural reserve. However, over a specific six-year period that my colleague informally researched, no such pattern occurred.

“In the six years of data that she was able to look at (2000-2006) for the Rhine, Mosel, Main and Danube rivers, high or low water had impacted some or all of these rivers to varying degrees. Some of the impacts were small, perhaps a timing change of an hour or two to the itinerary, while some were more impactful, such as when ships were unable to operate part or all of an itinerary.

“The year 2002 was a wet one, especially during July-September, while 2003 was ‘dry,’ with no rain from May through September. The year 2004 was fairly ‘normal,’ while 2005 and 2006 had periods of unusually high water. Predicting whether or not a ship will sail can be extremely difficult, as a change of as little as an inch of water can make the difference between sailing or not.”

Occasionally, I checked back with Ms. O’Reilly, and in May 2008 she reported on additional research informally undertaken by a rep in their Bratislava office on ITN’s behalf, saying, “The bottom line is that there has been no predictable weather pattern. Although weather is typically more likely to affect sailings in spring and fall than it is in summer, the past 10 years or so don’t reflect that ‘typical’ pattern.”

Ms. O’Reilly did point out, “The benefits of a spring/fall sail would be a lower cruise price, fewer tourists/lines to contend with and more access, while summer departures will cost more, with less likelihood (but no guarantee) that weather will impact cruising. In the end, only Mother Nature knows what each season and year will bring.”

I have taken this opportunity now to share the above information with ITN readers.

One thing to remember — when this situation arises, whatever the company decides to do, not everyone will be pleased, so don’t be surprised if, to prevent infighting (and for other reasons), that decision is not put up for a vote among group members.

So what options do you have when your cruise-tour’s itinerary or mode of travel is changed to one undesirable to you?

You might try to reach the company’s home office to inquire about alternative arrangements for you or some sort of compensation. Either may or may not be forthcoming.

Realize that this is a problem that affects all river cruise companies, and they lose, too, when a cruise is interrupted. They each may take a loss financially as well as to their reputation.

Is there something you could have done in advance? Specifically, do travel insurance policies exist that, had you bought one, would have benefited you if your cruise were curtailed partway through the trip? I asked ITN’s travel insurance expert, Wayne Wirtanen, to look into this.

In the end, be prepared — mentally, at least — for the possibility that any river cruise may not go as planned and you may end up on a bus tour or on an alternate itinerary. Try to go with the flow and make the best of it. So long as you and your loved ones are in one piece, how you feel about your day is up to you. — DT