Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Oil Tankers Work

Fully Loaded Oil Tankers: A Prize for Present-Day Pirates
A parachute floats down to hijacked oil tanker MV Sirius Star, nearly two months after it was attacked by pirates off the coast of Kenya.
A parachute floats down to hijacked oil tanker MV Sirius Star, nearly two months after it was attacked by pirates off the coast of Kenya.
U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Generally speaking, petroleum products like gasoline may not cost much at the pump, but the cargo of a fully laden tanker can be worth tens of millions of dollars. This fact has attracted the unwanted attention of pirates that attack tankers at sea and hold crews and cargo hostage for big ransoms.

Modern-day pirate exploits leaped into the public consciousness in November 2008, when pirates off the coast of Kenya seized the Liberian-flagged MV Sirius Star supertanker as it carried a payload of 2 million barrels of oil. The pirates demanded $25 million to release the ship's crew. A rash of similar piracy incidents in the treacherous Gulf of Aden had shipping companies and the navies of industrialized nations scrambling to improve high seas security [source: Paphitis].

Pirate attacks increased in early 2009, particularly in the Gulf of Aden region. However, by then, the bandits were having more difficulty capturing ships due to crewmembers' growing awareness of the risks of traveling with such valuable cargo and an increase of naval ships in the area. In fact, the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko) issued a document for tanker personnel, "Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the Coast of Somalia." For many pirates, political instability and crushing poverty in their homelands make the dangerous but potentially lucrative heists worth the effort. The Intertanko guide offers several tips that have helped ships foil pirates as they sail in high-risk waters:

  • Go fast. No pirate attacks have succeeded when the targeted ship was moving at 15 knots (about 17 miles per hour or 27 kilometers per hour) or faster.
  • Be most vigilant at first and last light each day, as those are the times when most attacks occur.
  • Have an emergency response plan that includes evasive maneuvers, using the ship's wake to upset the pirate's small boarding craft, and perhaps even the use of high-pressure water hoses to deter boarding.
  • Travel in convoys with other ships and keep in touch with naval forces patrolling the area.
  • Post dummies at strategic deck locations to fool pirates into thinking the crew complement is larger and more watchful than it actually is.

It's generally recommended that crews cooperate fully with pirates to avoid unnecessary violence.

Obviously, the oil shipping trade is big business. To find out more about the business aspects of oil tankers, go to the next page.