Pirate School, For the Merchant Sailor in You

The three Arrrrrs: Maritime schools tackle the seafaring menace

The freighter captain, the cop, the guy from the private security firm, the Swiss Army major, and the reporter never saw the pirates coming. They popped up seemingly out of nowhere, and with one "Getupagainstthewall!" the two buccaneers had taken control of the bridge simulator. In the commotion, the captain managed to disable the rudder, which was good news for the reporter, who didn't know how to pretend to steer the ship anyway, even with a handgun in his face.

The hostage training, put on by two representatives of SAFE Solutions, a security consulting firm that employs ex-military types, was the final installment of a two-day Piracy Countermeasures Seminar hosted in June by the Global Maritime and Transportation School (GMATS) at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), just across the Queens border in Kings Point. Over those two days, officials from government agencies, the NYPD, the mariners union, and other organizations briefed shipping industry representatives, security consultants, and members of the military on the latest news involving piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Such continuing education seminars are one way that New York's two maritime schools—the USMMA and SUNY Maritime, across the sound in Throgs Neck—are addressing the piracy epidemic that has exploded off the Horn of Africa in the last two years. The other is in the classroom, where students learn preventive measures to thwart pirates boarding the ship if outrunning them fails, and even ways to deter them using non-lethal means. Students are also at the center of a debate about who should defend crew and cargo from a pirate attack, and how. Should shipping companies hire armed professionals? Should the military step in? Should the mariners themselves be armed?

The return of the days of pirates was "hard to conceive," Philip Gosse wrote in The History of Piracy in 1932, a time when it appeared as if the modern nation-state had killed off high-seas piracy. The Barbary Coast of North Africa had long ceased to threaten merchants and the U.S. Navy; Gosse noted the "last white man" executed for piracy in the United States was a slave ship captain, Nathaniel Gordon, who was hanged in Lower Manhattan's Tombs jail in February 1862.

Nearly 150 years would pass before another accused pirate was brought downtown. In April, a young Somali man named Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse was charged with being part of a four-man pirate crew that hijacked the Maersk Alabama, an event that drew public attention to the resurgent pirate problem, even earning its own Discovery Channel docudrama.

Already this year, pirate activity off the 1,900-mile coast of Somalia has surpassed the 111 attacks, with 42 ships hijacked, recorded in 2008; as of mid-July, there have been 148 pirate attacks and 30 ships hijacked, reports the International Maritime Bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce that monitors pirate attacks. Insurance rates have doubled for ships choosing to risk the Gulf of Aden, and insurer Lloyd's of London issued a report last month warning that the "piracy risk is likely to get worse before it gets better." Over the previous 15 months, Lloyd's said, pirates hauled in as much as $80 million in ransom payments.

The current crisis was spawned by the chaotic situation in Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning government in nearly 20 years; the current U.N.-backed government only controls a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu. A 2006 invasion from neighboring Ethiopia has further destabilized the situation and jump-started al-Shabaab, an Islamic fundamentalist group that is reportedly teaming up with the pirates to transport jihadists to Somalia. A flotilla of international warships is patrolling the shipping lanes off East Africa, through which roughly 20,000 ships and 10 percent of the world's commerce travels each year, and the Obama administration recently pledged $10 million to help the tenuous Somali government counter the growing militant threat. But with memories of Black Hawk Down still fresh in American minds, and the military focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, odds of a stronger U.S. response to piracy are low.

Instead, cadets at the Merchant Marine Academy and SUNY Maritime are being taught to reduce the risk of pirate attacks on their own. "Anti-piracy training has been part of the USMMA curriculum for at least the past 18 years," says Captain Jon Helmick, director of USMMA's Logistics & Intermodal Transportation Program. He adds, however, that "because the enhancement of vessel security in general improves the ability to deal with piracy in particular, it is somewhat misleading to separate out those training topics that are piracy-focused." Academy graduates receive an officer's commission into another branch of the armed forces, either on active or reserve duty. Those entering the reserves often take civilian or government jobs in the maritime industry, including serving on ocean-going merchant vessels, "brown water" coastal trade ships, tugboats, or barges, says Captain Dan Croce, a director at GMATS.

All midshipmen spend time at sea, and for the past two years, the Office of Naval Intelligence has briefed them on the piracy threat before they head off, Helmick says. Students have also participated in government and military research projects on developing anti-piracy strategies, he says, while those training to become deck officers learn how to develop security and anti-piracy plans, make a vessel a hard target, conduct evasive maneuvers, identify high-risk areas, and repel boarders.

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