* Rough seas could cut pirate attacks off Somalia
* But bad weather may only push pirates further afield
By Abdi Sheikh
MOGADISHU, April 25 (Reuters) - Rough seas in the coming months in the strategic waterways linking Europe and Asia may cut pirate attacks as the monsoon season’s choppy waters trounces their tiny skiffs, analysts and pirates say.
Sea gangs have upped assaults on ships passing through the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean since February when better weather allowed them to hijack more vessels and take more hostages despite foreign navies patrolling off Somalia.
"The sea is calm now, but it will be terrible to sail especially in the Indian Ocean by May," pirate Farah Hussein told Reuters by telephone. Pirates have made millions of dollars seizing ships and taking crews hostage. After a brief lull earlier this year, gunmen continued their onslaught.
"Once we go into June, the south west monsoons will come in and that affects the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, and we may see a reduction in attacks," said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).
Weather analysts say the June-July-August season has the worst weather for pirates while December-January-February is less extreme, but still bad.
"The rest of the year is generally okay, but occasionally we have (bad weather)," said Peter Ambenje, acting deputy director at Kenya’s meteorological department.
Pirates usually operate smaller, lighter vessels, maximising their advantage of speed, agility and weapons to capture much larger ships. But that exposes them to the vagaries of weather as their craft usually cannot handle rough seas.
Sea gangs on average allow 30 to 45 minutes to try and attack a vessel, according to the IMB. They have become better equipped, using satellite navigation systems and operating from mother ships to increase their range.
Some observers and pirates say bad weather may only push the buccaneers further afield in their hunt for booty.
"As the monsoon season kicks in, the potential effect of that is that attacks are likely to be pushed further south," said Tudor Ellis, sales and business development manager with UK-based global business risk consultancy Drum Cussac.
Pirate Farah said: "Our attacks on ships will probably decrease in the coming month. But we might go to the Gulf of Aden to carry out our mission."
The London-based IMB watchdog said piracy incidents nearly doubled in the first quarter of 2009 almost entirely due to Somalia. There were 18 attacks off Somalia in March alone.
"There seems to be a limit on how many ships can be held by the pirates at any one time — so the pattern has tended to be to ‘stock up’ when the weather is good and run down ‘stocks’ when the weather is bad," said a spokesman for Intertanko, whose members own the majority of the world’s tanker fleet. (Additional reporting Jonathan Saul in London and Jack Kimball in Nairobi; Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Richard Balmforth)