PASSENGERS on board a cruise ship off the east African coast threw plastic tables and chairs at AK-47-wielding pirates who were trying to board the ship.
Seventy-four Australians were among the 991 passengers and 536 crew on board the Melody when it was attacked about 7.35pm (Greenwich Mean Time) Saturday about 180 nautical miles north of the Seychelles.
More than 200 shots were fired by the pirates, but there was retaliatory gunfire from Israeli security guards on board the ship. Two people on the Melody were cut by glass shattered by bullets. These were the only injuries reported.
A piracy expert has warned that cruise ship operators are gambling with people's lives by sailing the waters off the Horn of Africa.
Most passengers initially thought the pirates' gunshots were fireworks, Brisbane woman Jenny Murtagh said.
An orchestra on the top deck continued to play, until a woman burst in and said pirates were attacking the ship.
"We heard pop-pop-pop-pop-pop again and this woman came screaming through the deck," Ms Murtagh said.
"She was out on the back deck and saw the Somalians try to get their ropes up onto the ship, so she was throwing the plastic deck tables at them. And then another man raced onto the deck and he was throwing the plastic chairs at them to keep them off the ship.
"(The pirates) tried to get their ropes, or their hooks, onto the boat, and they did start to climb up, but this woman threw the tables onto them and pushed them back."
As security guards fired on the pirates, the Melody's captain, Ciro Pinto, began anti-pirate manoeuvres, slowing down the 200-metre ship and entering a zig-zag pattern designed to upset the smaller pirate boat.
He said the attack left his ship with holes in its hull. "It was as if we were at war," he said.
Passengers were sent to their cabins, but the mood on board was calm, Ms Murtagh said.
"But there were some people who had a grab bag organised with their … clothes, and another couple who sat up all night in the lounge in their cabin, with their bag and a table against the door."
The Melody is being escorted by a Spanish warship to the port of Aqaba in Jordan.
Piracy expert Dr Carolin Liss, a research fellow at the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, said it was inherently dangerous for cruise ship operators to take holidaymakers into such waters. "I have no idea why cruise ships still go near that place," Dr Liss said.
"It seems to me highly irresponsible. It seems to me they are playing a game.
"If a cruise ship is ever successfully hijacked, that would make a major impact. And I think we will get there in the end if nothing is done."
Dr Liss said piracy off the coast of Africa would not stop while countries such as Somalia were still racked by poverty and political instability.
She said the continuing problems in east Africa were producing new generations of increasingly desperate young men who saw piracy as their only way out of poverty.
At least 10 vessels have been hijacked this month in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, including the freighter Maersk Alabama, whose captain, Richard Phillips, was held hostage for four days in a liferaft until US Navy SEAL snipers shot dead his captors.
It has been reported that four cruise ships intend to enter the waters, known as Pirate Alley, in the next few days.