Maritime academies try to learn from recent attack
Saturday, April 18, 2009
BOURNE, Mass. -- Would-be sea captains must master navigation, emergency repairs and boat building. Now maritime schools are debating whether their students need more training to combat the old scourge of piracy.
Following last week's attack on the Maersk Alabama, the first U.S.-flagged vessel captured by pirates in about 200 years, two maritime academies are considering changing or expanding their anti-piracy training for future seafarers. Meanwhile, experts attending a national summit Friday at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy discussed the spike in attacks off the Somali coast, improving tracking ransom payments to identify pirates and the possibility of arming sailors.
The discussion hit close to home. An academy graduate, Capt. Richard Phillips of the Alabama, was held hostage in a lifeboat for five days. He was freed Sunday when U.S. Navy snipers shot and killed his captors. His second-in-command, Shane Murphy, also graduated from the academy.
"You've now got vessels passing in harm's way and, you know, not since World War II were merchant seamen's lives in ... as much jeopardy as they are today," Bradley Lima, the academy's vice president of academic affairs, said in an interview.
The threat is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, said Peter Sarnacki, who teaches engineering at the Maine Maritime Academy and attended the piracy discussion at Friday's summit on maritime education. The ransom business earns Somali pirates millions of dollars, money that allows them to grow bolder.
"They have a business plan," he said. "It's very sophisticated, and it's only going to get more sophisticated."
As pirate attacks escalated off Somalia, the Maine Maritime Academy started developing a new course to teach its students nonlethal ways to thwart pirates, said Ralph Pundt, chairman of the marine transportation department. The instruction might take place on training cruises or in land-based simulators.
"I'm sure there's going to be more pressure to get it done," Pundt said in a phone interview.
Massachusetts Maritime is considering adding a course allowing students to conduct case studies on pirate attacks, such as the capture of the Alabama. The course may become mandatory, Lima said.
Mass Maritime already offers a maritime security class, although it has focused more on terrorist and other conventional threats. While at sea, cadets practice tactics for thwarting pirates, such as keeping vigilant watches, using a ship's wake to swamp pirate skiffs and thwarting them with high-pressure fire hoses.
Last month, the school started teaching interested cadets how to shoot handguns, a shotgun and two military rifles. Firearms training is mandatory for cadets entering the U.S. Navy's cargo service, but the course is offered to all students.
During Friday's summit, educators and industry leaders seemed frustrated by the most recent attacks off the Somali coast. Kaveh Haghkerdar, a professor of engineering at Maine Maritime, questioned whether industry or the government could invest in high-tech ship surveillance systems for vessels that have difficulty keeping a 24-hour lookout.
But even alert crews can still be victimized, said Douglas Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarer's Rights at The Seaman's Church Institute. The crew of the Alabama had repelled one pirate attack and drilled frequently on the threat.
"They were still taken," he said.
Stevenson said more research is needed on how to help sailors taken hostage by pirates once they return home.
"After they come back, they disappear," he said. "Where do they go for help?"