Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Global News Blog

To stop pirates, do ships need firepower?

Most merchant sailors are not trained to use weapons, but some maritime educators say that is changing.

By Mark Clayton and Bridget HuberThe Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2009

After pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama, the unarmed crew did the unthinkable: They fought back and, apparently, regained control of the huge and lumbering container ship.

Skip to next paragraph

Recent posts

It’s not yet clear how the American crew was able to do it. Neither international nor US maritime regulations require shipboard crews to be trained in the use of weapons. But at least some of those aboard are known to be among a relatively small number of US merchant sailors who’ve been trained in weapons and defensive tactics at maritime academies.

In the wake of Wednesday’s incident in waters of Somalia, all aspects of security training for merchant marines are likely to be reexamined and, probably, intensified, say educators at the nation’s maritime academies.

“I can almost guarantee there will be a major review of course curriculum after this incident,” says Glen Paine, executive director of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies in Linthicum, Md.

That academy, which offers graduate training for seamen, is among the few that offers limited weapons training to meet requirements of the US Military Sealift Command, which requires weapons training for ship officers and other crew.

Most US maritime academies do not offer weapons or force-on-force training. That’s because most shipping companies follow a long tradition of merchant vessels remaining unarmed – which makes them easy prey for pirates, but prevents bloodshed and damage to the ship.

Except for using fire hoses and axes to try to prevent pirates from boarding, merchant crews have few options except to surrender. Many shipping companies remain opposed to weapons training for crews, but that could change, educators say.

“We’ve elected to do [marksmanship training],” says Capt. Thomas Bushy, vice president of marine operations and master of the training ship Kennedy, at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay. “There’s a small probability that some companies may start to equip their vessel with firearms. So if they do, we want to make sure that the students have that training.”

Some shipping companies that serve the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command, including Maersk, are required to have crew members trained to use weapons. Of six merchant maritime academies in the US and other union-run educational institutions, at least two – the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the union-run Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies – provide training in defensive tactics and weapons use.

Most US maritime academies graduate perhaps 200 students a year – for a grand total of about 1,000 to 1,200 new merchant marines per year, says Mr. Paine. Some 20,000 US mariners work in the shipping industry. Among those, a fraction have had weapons training.

In all likelihood, one of them is Shane Murphy, chief officer of the Maersk Alabama and a 2001 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. It could not be confirmed if he has had weapons training, though it seems likely given Maersk’s service to the Military Sealift and company comments.

“All the crew members are trained in security detail in how to deal with piracy,” Maersk CEO John Reinhart told reporters Wednesday in a press conference. “As merchant vessels, we do not carry arms. We have ways to push back, but we do not carry arms.”

Read Comments

View reader comments | Comment on this story