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.

Bridget Huber/The Christian Science Monitor
Captain Joseph Murphy, a professor of marine transportation at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, discusses anti-piracy tactics with cadets. His son, Shane, was the first mate on the hijacked Maersk Alabama and spoke to the class just weeks ago.
Bridget Huber/The Christian Science Monitor
Students at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay attend a class on maritime security. Merchant marines begin learning anti-piracy techniques in classes like these, though their training continues throughout their careers.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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