LONDON Multi-million-dollar superyachts sailing from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean for the European summer could be the next high-profile target of Somali pirates, security experts say.
The luxury craft, many measuring more than 100 meters (330 feet) and owned by some of the world's wealthiest people, tend to spend the northern hemisphere winter in the Indian Ocean or the Caribbean before relocating to the Mediterranean to host their owners and friends.
Those moving from tropical islands such as the Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives need to sail through the Gulf of Aden to get to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, taking them through the Somali coast's pirated waters.
As the weather off the Horn of Africa has turned calmer in recent weeks, attacks have risen dramatically, with all vessels, from small merchant ships to supertankers, vulnerable. Motoryachts owned or chartered by the mega-rich could be next.
"The pirates have really increased their capability, they've got better, faster boats with longer ranges, and they're able to operate at night up to 300 miles off the coast," Crispian Cuss, a security specialist with Olive Group, told Reuters.
"If a superyacht comes through their area of operation, then they are just as likely to go for it as anything else. They would be delighted to have that. It would be rich pickings."
Scott Lidbetter, the head of Veritas International, which provides specialist maritime security advice, has seen a surge in demand in recent months as piracy has spiked.
As well as training skippers and crew on how to respond to attacks, Veritas provides escorts for superyachts and luxury ships and advises on the use of technology such as high-pressure hoses and LRADs -- long range acoustic devices -- that have in some cases been successful in fighting off pirate assaults.
While the speed of most superyachts -- broadly defined as anything over 40 meters in length, of which there are about 1,000 in the world -- gives them the edge over 20-knot pirate skiffs, range and surprise can still work in the pirates' favor.
"The pirates now are getting more prepared to go further east (of 60 degrees longitude), which brings vessels moving from the Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives into target," Lidbetter told Reuters.
"They are getting very good intelligence on vessels that are either coming through the Suez Canal or the Strait of Hormuz, and there's a degree of targeting going on."
Pirates have attacked superyachts in the past -- French vessel Le Ponant was seized in early April as it was sailing without passengers from the Seychelles to the Mediterranean -- but there are no reports so far of any megayachts, such as those owned by Russia's billionaires, having been threatened or approached by attackers.
Richard Thiel, the editor and publisher of Power and Motoryacht Magazine, said the piracy threat for superyachts had always been greatest in the South China Sea, but conditions off Somalia made it a severe danger spot.
"It's definitely possible," Thiel replied when asked if an attack on a superyacht is likely.
The threat is not only prompting mini cruise ships to sail faster and wider of the Somali coast, but it has also prompted some superyacht owners to take armed guards on board.
Carrying arms on non-military vessels puts ship owners in complicated legal water, but some see it as necessary in order to protect themselves.
"If there is a change of behavior at all in recent weeks, it's the increased desire to have weapons on board," Lidbetter said, emphasizing that only trained security specialists were ever likely to be carrying them.
(Editing by Stephen Wood)