Security guard mother ship Markab visits Cape Town

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The security guard mother ship Markab (IMO 7605691) arrived off Cape Town from Gibraltar on 30 May to take on supplies amid an increase in piracy and ship attacks off the Horn of Africa.

The Houthi menace continues, primarily targeting vessels connected with Israel, but also attacking Russian owned vessels, who are supposed to be their friends. The Chinese government has warned Iran to stop the Houthis hitting their vessels, with the majority of Chinese shipowners no longer using the Suez route, and diverting around the Cape sea route. Many vessels from the Gulf, and the Northern sub-continent, are now transiting the Gulf of Aden area further out to sea, to get outside the range of any missile looking for a target. However, moving further out into the Gulf of Aden, and Gulf of Oman, brings with it other risks.

Armed criminal gangs whose activities were severely curtailed due to naval forces sent to the region, have seen an opportunity to take advantage of the confusion brought about by the Houthi to once more prowl the Gulf of Aden, and the Gulf of Oman, looking for easy pickings, in the hope they can be boarded, and taken back to Somali waters to be used for ransom purposes.

The casual maritime observer would have noticed there are many vessels sailing to, and from, these troubled waters who instead of transmitting a destination on their AIS rather state ‘Armed Guards Onboard’, which is normally sufficient to allow them to transit the region safely.

It is obvious, that due to the many laws that various countries uphold, in respect of merchant vessels having arms and ammunition onboard, and that some voyages are very long with just a few days spent in the danger zones, that it makes more sense that security guards would both board, and depart, a vessel just before entering, and shortly after departing, an area that needs them to be on board.

For that you have to have a number of security guard mother ships, patrolling the region rather like the pilot vessels of old, and that meet up with vessels, at predetermined points, that require the services of some of their security guards, but just for a few days. The recent history of diverts of every shape and size, arriving into Durban and Cape Town, as they work their way around the Cape, rather than heading through the Southern Red Sea, means that it would be only a matter of time before a security guard mother ship also turned up.

On 30 May, at 14:00 in the afternoon, the Markab arrived off Cape Town, from Gibraltar, and entered Cape Town harbour. She proceeded into the Duncan Dock, and went alongside the outer Eastern Mole berth, which meant that she was here purely for logistical purposes, of uplifting bunkers, loading stores, or taking on fresh provisions.

Built in 1978 by A Vuijk & Zonens Scheepswerven BV at Capelle aan der Ijssel in Holland, Markab is 59 metres in length and has a gross registered tonnage of 871 tons. She is a diesel electric vessel and is powered by three Stork Werkspoor DRO 216K generators providing 467 kW each, which provide power to a Smit Holec motor providing 1,060 kW, and which drives a fixed pitch propeller for a service speed of 12 knots.

One of three sisterships, collectively known as the ‘M’ Class, Markab was built as a pilot tender operating for the Maas Pilots of Rotterdam, under the ownership of Nederlands Loodswezen BV, of the Hook of Holland. As built she had full onboard accommodation for 49 persons, including for 18 pilots, who covered the Rotterdam-Rijnmond pilotage area.

For offshore pilotage purposes, the modern era of placing pilots onboard vessels, or picking them up from vessels arriving from, or departing to, the English Channel is now often completed by helicopter, with a major pilotage helicopter base operating from Pistoolhaven, at the entrance to the Europoort of Rotterdam, as well as by fast Pilot Launches. As such, the three pilot tenders were retired in 2012, and sold on for further service in 2013.

She was converted for use as a security guard mother ship for operations in those regions where piracy was rampant. Her conversion included her helideck being converted for use as additional accommodation, offices and workshops. Her internal accommodation was converted to allow for up to 110 security guards to be carried, with additional liferaft launchers fitted to allow for this huge increase in onboard personnel. All three of the ex pilot tenders now operate for the same owner as security guard mother ships.

For her personnel changes at sea, Markab has two large pilot launches, mounted on heave compensated davits, plus a Fast Rescue Craft (FRC). She has an impressive endurance of 44 days, over a range of 6 500 nautical miles. She is normally based in the Gulf of Oman, and holds normal station at 25° North. One unusual permanent member of her crew, which is almost unique for a merchant vessel, is that she has an onboard armourer, whose job it is to maintain, service, and repair any guns and weaponry that is carried as part of the work of Markab.

Owned by Ambrey Ltd, of Hereford in Herefordshire in the UK, Markab is operated by Ambrey Markab Ltd and managed by Ambrey Markab Management. Ambrey was established in 2010 to provide marine security services, utilising well trained, and reliable, security guards. The security guards provided by Ambrey would be fully armed and contracted to shipowners for service onboard merchant vessels in areas of the world where piracy was prolific. Ambrey operate no less than nine owned security guard mother ships, with a further six on charter, and employ over 450 marine security guards and mother ship personnel, operating in the Middle East, West Africa, East Africa, and North Africa.

The voyage to Cape Town of Markab from Gibraltar took a leisurely 31 days, at an average speed of 7.6 knots, and covered a distance of 5 298 nautical miles. To indicate her diversion from the Red Sea, her voyage to Gibraltar had started from Suez, after she exited the Suez Canal. Her stop in Gibraltar was swift, only 6 hours, which indicates a bunker stop, and possibly a crew change stopover, before she headed south to Cape Town, and where a similar stopover appears to be underway, due to the length of her current stay in the Mother City.

On departure from Cape Town, Markab is scheduled to call at Victoria, in the Seychelles, before once more returning to her operational area in the Gulf of Oman. Whilst on station, her normal base port in the region is Djibouti. Her last three months will have seen her circumnavigate the continent of Africa, all thanks to the Houthis. For the nomenclature aficionado, Markab is derived from the Arabic verb ‘To Ride’, which is very appropriate.

Written by Jay Gates and republished with permission from Africa Ports & Ships. The original article can be found here.