The pirates audacious enough to raid an oil tanker off Iraq -- where the U.S. military patrols -- were anything but the stuff of romance and legend.
The three men boarded armed with machine guns and knives, according to a recent report by a shipping industry agency that tracks piracy. They tied up two crew members and took three others hostage before ransacking the master's cabin and escaping with the ship's safe.
Piracy is happening with disturbing frequency in the 21st century, as evidenced by incidents recorded by the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group that is part of the International Chamber of Commerce.
The locations are exotic -- the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, off southwest India's Port of Cochin. The pirates range from thugs armed with machetes and bars to apparently sophisticated bands.
Arild Wegener, a director of the Norwegian Shipowners Association, noted a slight decline in incidents this year compared with last, but said pirates seemed "to apply more violence and be more ruthless" in their behavior.
"Kidnapping has become more prominent," Wegener added. "The pirates are also better equipped."
It's not just major shippers who are at risk, said Klaus Hympendahl, a German yachtsman who maintains a piracy information clearinghouse on the Web and has written a book chronicling attacks on private yachts.
When he sailed around the world in 1986, Hympendahl's only worry was the weather. Now, he cautions yachters to check the security situation along their route before they set out.
"The situation has changed completely," he said, blaming in part an increase in the number of wealthy people setting out to sea. Their well-equipped boats attract pirates looking for cash and gear.
The 1,880-mile coast of Somalia, which has had no effective government since warlords ousted a dictatorship in 1991 and then turned on each other, has emerged as one of the most dangerous areas for ships. Somali pirates have a growing reputation as well-organized, trained fighters with knowledge of the sea -- perhaps remnants of the country's navy or coast guard.
Somali pirates are not only attacking near shore but more than 200 miles into the Indian Ocean, said John Muindi, the U.N. International Maritime Organization's regional coordinator for eastern Africa.
One of the boldest attacks was on Nov. 5. Two boats full of pirates approached the Seabourn Spirit, a cruise ship carrying Western tourists, about 100 miles off Somalia and fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.
The Seabourn crew used a weapon that directs earsplitting noise at attackers, then sped away. None of the passengers, most of whom were American, was hurt, but one member of the 161-person crew was injured by shrapnel.
The next day, a cargo ship in the area also was fired on with rocket launchers and machine guns. It sped away.
Somali pirates have even hijacked three cargo ships carrying U.N. food aid for Somalis, all owned by Kenya's Motaku Shipping Agency.
The hijackings "really shook us," said Karim Kudrati, Motaku's managing director. The company secured the release of two vessels, but a third has been held since early October as negotiations over ransom drag on.
Kudrati said relatives of the crew come to his offices seeking news.
"I tell them we have to be patient, people are working on it and we have to hope they will be released soon," he said. "You can see tears in their eyes when they come and talk to us."
In its most recent worldwide report on piracy, the International Maritime Bureau reported fewer attacks overall for the first nine months of 2005 compared with the same period last year. But there were trouble spots, it said, citing Indonesia and Somalia. An increase in serious attacks off Somalia -- 25 in the last six months -- followed a quiet spell of nearly two years.
Ali Mohamed Gedi, prime minister of a transitional government struggling to impose order in Somalia, last month called on neighboring countries to send warships to patrol his coast, Africa's longest.
Countries in the region say they realize the problem is serious but that they have not yet discussed how to respond. Kenya, heavily involved in attempts to stabilize Somalia, would likely bear the brunt of the duties. Internal political crises elsewhere in the region, such as in Ethiopia, could pose problems.
Pirates "have to be tackled by people who are also armed like them or more or better than them," Muindi said.