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.
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But, as was seen with the Maersk Alabama, defensive measures aren't always enough to keep pirates from hijacking ships. All mariners are trained to standards spelled out by the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2004, says Glen Paine, executive director of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, which is operated by the Masters, Mates, and Pilots Union, of which Phillips is a member.Skip to next paragraph
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Once pirates board, "the plans kind of stop," says Mr. Paine. "There's no legal mandate on whether you have to fight or not. That's left up to the company."
Merchant marines are not trained to negotiate with pirates, and, for the most part, shipping companies train their employees to give pirates what they want, says Kathy Metcalf, director of maritime affairs for the Chamber of Shipping of America, who coauthored the best-practices document. "The basic tenets of the companies' antipiracy plans are you try to prevent the act in the first place, you evade it as best you can, but once the pirates board or are in control, you offer no resistance."
The piracy threat appears to be driving some mariners into other lines of work. By 2015, the shipping industry predicts a labor shortfall of 15.7 percent as more crew members refuse to sail in the Gulf of Aden, according to Ms. Metcalf's antipiracy report.
The Maersk Alabama incident has prompted heated debate about whether mariners, who are civilians, should be armed.
A few years ago, MMA began offering small-arms training to its cadets as an elective, based on the advice of a couple of shipping companies that said they may begin to arm merchant marines, says Murphy.
Still, he doesn't necessarily advocate arming mariners. Firearms could easily escalate a hijacking situation, he says. In the case of the Maersk Alabama, "the use of weapons would have been excessive and inappropriate," he says.
BIMCO is categorically opposed to arming mariners. "It would be a nightmare," says Mr. Noakes. Among the arguments against arming mariners are worries that it would escalate the violence of pirate attacks and create a liability issue for shipping companies.
Another option is posting armed security guards on ships. Noakes says his organization "is not keen" on this approach, while Metcalf says, "We are not against a ship owner having the option to use armed gangs, though we would never support it being made mandatory," says Metcalf.
As piracy continues to evolve, Metcalf says shipping companies' response to the issue is likely to change, too. The current situation, "makes for a different landscape that calls for some new thought processes," she says.
Murphy, however, says he doesn't foresee any major changes to his curriculum after the Maersk Alabama incident. He does, however, hope that the hijacking serves as a wake-up call that governments must confront the root causes of piracy.
The Somali pirates are criminals – not terrorists – who are driven to these situations by the chaos and suffering in their country, says Murphy. "They're doing this because its one of the few ways they can earn a living, reprehensible as it is.... The root cause of piracy is poverty and the desperation of the people. That's something far beyond our capabilities to handle."
Murphy and his cadets seemed comforted by the Obama administration's handling of the hijacking incident. "I am very happy to say that we didn't leave one of ours behind," Murphy tells the class.
Pirates won't deter Murphy's student, Wayne, from her dream of working on ships, "It's not going to change my mind," she says. "If anything, it makes me prouder to go out there and do my job."