SAILORS are turning their boats into floating fortresses as authorities warn of a surge in violent attacks by pirates north of Australia.
Yachties are arming themselves with military assault rifles and 12-gauge shotguns as protection against raids by ocean bandits, a Sunday Mail investigation has found.
Other boat-owners are hiring armed escorts to protect their crews and possessions on potentially dangerous routes into Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Papua New Guinea.
The guards are being told by bosses to "shoot first, ask questions later", such is the deadly threat posed by the pirates.
The warning followed an attack this month when 12 bandits peppered the luxury cruise liner Seabourn Spirit, carrying Australian tourists, with machinegun fire and blasted it with rocket-propelled grenades off the Somali coast.
In the nine months to September, 205 attacks were reported worldwide, including 61 in Indonesian coastal waters.
Almost 260 crew members were taken hostage, 10 were kidnapped and 12 are missing.
An Australian Customs source said firearms had become a "necessary evil" for yachties travelling through known troublespots, being the only authority recognised by pirates.
"Everyone knows the sound of a shotgun going off, it's like an international language," the Customs official said.
Cargo ships and tankers have also been hit, but smaller private boats travelling alone are favoured targets for pirates known to lure unsuspecting yachties into a trap by setting off bogus flares.
An increasing number of private security companies -- often staffed by former military or elite special forces -- are offering anti-piracy services to yacht and ship owners, a study by the Asia Research Centre at Western Australia's Murdoch University found.
Report author Carolin Liss said a manager of a private security company which provided armed escort for a yacht in Indonesian waters admitted he told employees: "Shoot first, ask questions later".
Ms Liss said: "The vast majority of pirate attacks in Asia today are simply hit-and-run robberies committed by what can best be described as common sea robbers.
"Such attacks are often brief affairs, lasting no longer than 15 to 30 minutes, and require a minimum level of organisation and planning.
"In cases in which the pirates confront the crew on board directly, these simple robberies can involve a high level of violence."
Former professional sailor Ron Driver said most yachties travelling through international waters now carried guns.
He said pump-action shotguns and AK47 and M-16 rifles were their weapons of choice.
Some yachtsmen had also resorted to scattering sharp tacks along their decks when asleep to stop pirates from sneaking aboard the craft.
Mr Driver, now working for the Australian Customs and National Marine Unit, said he had a no-guns policy during his years at sea, but would now not be able to survive without one.
"I would carry a firearm now if I went back," he said. "But if you pull it, you've got to be prepared to use it."
In April last year, a Queensland couple were held at knifepoint by five armed men who boarded their 12m yacht which was moored at Rabaul in PNG. The couple, in their 50s, escaped unharmed, but were robbed of jewellery and cash.
Two months later another Australian yacht was attacked and robbed at Cape Gerhards, also in PNG.
The former Israeli army commando skipper of a luxury yacht owned by an Israeli billionaire was fined $11,000 in a Cairns court this month for failing to declare two high-powered shotguns on arrival in Cairns from Noumea.
The skipper, Yoseph Catalan, 48, was forced to relinquish the Winchester 12-gauge shotguns which he said were for protection against pirates. Mr Catalan said the yacht Nazenin IV, owned by tycoon Rahmi M. Koc, and its crew were now dangerously exposed as they headed towards Singapore unarmed.
"Everywhere is dangerous," he told The Sunday Mail after leaving Cairns.
"If something happens we will need to negotiate. (Danger) is the nature of the beast."
Maritime Union of Australia secretary Paddy Crumlin said piracy was flourishing due to a lack of regulation in international shipping zones.
"All the main trade routes via South-East Asia are notorious for piracy. It's rife," he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has issued a standing caution advising of the risk to Australians intending to sail to Indonesia, India and Bangladesh.