Merchant marine cadets learn real-life lessons about piracy
How to deal with attackers in order to protect the ship, its cargo, and its crew is on everybody's mind.
Buzzards Bay, Mass.
No one doodles in Capt. Joseph Murphy's maritime security class. No one sends text messages from their cellphones. The students – well-scrubbed, uniformed Massachusetts Maritime Academy (MMA) cadets – sit ramrod straight and listen intently. Today's topic: Antipiracy techniques.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a subject close to the students and their instructor. This is the first class meeting since the dramatic rescue of Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama and a graduate of the academy. Captain Murphy's son, Shane, a 2001 MMA grad, was the ship's first mate, and he spoke to the class just two weeks before the hijacking.
For mariners-in-training and the institutions that educate them, the Maersk Alabama incident brings the issue of piracy home. "Now this class just takes on a whole new meaning," says Amanda Wayne, a senior at the academy.
Most of Ms. Wayne's classmates will go on to careers as merchant marines. They will man massive ships carrying tens of millions of dollars worth of cargo. They will traverse waters where armed pirates lurk. In most cases, they'll do so as part of an unarmed crew of just 20 or so mariners.
Merchant marines' antipiracy training begins in classrooms like Murphy's and continues throughout their careers through their unions and employers. At all levels, the approach they learn can be summed up succinctly: Detect, deter, avoid.
"The best battle is the battle never fought," says Murphy before introducing a guest speaker, Capt. James Staples, a friend and classmate of Captain Phillips, who frequently works in the Gulf of Aden.
Showing slides of the hulking cargo ship he works on, Captain Staples underscores the importance of preparedness and vigilance. In areas of pirate activity, it's important to post lookouts, says Staples. Each vessel has a security plan tailored to its size, design, and speed, and all crew members should know their own role in case of emergency.
If pirates approach, ship captains can attempt to outrun them, or at least delay an attack, which would give help more time to arrive. Phillips, of the Maersk Alabama, reportedly kept the pirates at bay for five hours. "That was a feat in itself," says Staples.
A captain can also attempt to capsize pirates' craft by making a series of small turns with the ship's rudder. The move creates suction which can be strong enough to pull a smaller boat into the bigger ship's wake and turn it over, Staples explains.
How long after an attack begins should a boat put out warning signals, a cadet asks. Murphy poses the question to the class. "What's the first thing you do in any emergency?" The answer comes chorusing back: "Sound the alarm."
Most ships boarded by pirates have common characteristics. They travel at low speeds, have decks that are relatively close to the water surface, display little vigilance and have slow response times, according to a recent presentation on best practices in antipiracy by the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO) and the Chamber of Shipping of America, two industry trade associations.
The shipping industry recommends that mariners take "passive defense measures," which include the types of actions discussed in Murphy's class as well as others: blocking possible points of entry with barbed wire or barrels, and having pressurized water hoses ready when passing through areas of known pirate activity, says Giles Noakes, chief maritime security officer for BIMCO.