Pirate School, For the Merchant Sailor in You


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.

Pirates are looking for ships that are slow and low in the water. A plan devised by the vessel security officer can designate a safe area where the crew can wait out a pirate attack, as the Maersk Alabama crew did, or call for zig-zag maneuvers to swamp a pirate skiff that has pulled alongside a slow-moving ship. Captain Joe Ahlstrom, a SUNY Maritime instructor, teaches about maritime security techniques and guidelines established by the U.S. Coast Guard, such as where to mount barbed wire (sometimes electrified) to thwart boarders, how to use soap to make exterior surfaces of the ship too slick to scale, and how to implement non-lethal deterrents like high-powered light beams, sonic beams, and even the ship’s own fire hose.

The training “enables students to be prepared and be aware of their surroundings and other modes of transportation,” says Larry Howard, chair of the Global Business and Transportation Department at SUNY Maritime. “It’s a necessary part of not just being able to respond to attacks, but limiting them.” If a pirate crew encounters a ship that has hardened itself, it may move off to easier prey. Mariners can also use their knowledge of the ship’s layout and operations to hide in a safe room, or disable the vessel’s power and rudder—the average pirate has as much knowledge of how to pilot a cargo ship as a reporter.

Still, the odds of students encountering a pirate are low. “I was at sea 15 years, and I never saw a pirate,” Ahlstrom said. “Most mariners probably will not deal with pirates. On an Alaska run, you’ll never see a pirate. If you don’t transit Somalia, you won’t deal with pirates.”

Those who do have to transit Somalia and are unlucky enough to encounter pirates are in for a harrowing experience. Typically, a pair of skiffs with up to seven pirates carrying Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades will attack a ship from the flanks. They fire wildly until a ship stops, then throw a grappling hook carrying a rope or a ladder that will allow them to shinny up to the deck. Then, they storm the bridge, take whomever they can find hostage, and order them to turn the ship toward the Somali coast, where they contact the shipping company and demand a ransom. (Pirates generally don’t want to hurt their hostages, as that would hurt their chances of getting top dollar.) The pirates subsist on khat, a plant that releases an amphetamine-like stimulant when chewed, and they’re often hopped up during an attack.

Legally speaking, pirates are considered hostes humani generis, or stateless enemies of mankind, and can be tried—even executed—by any nation that has laws against piracy. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to “punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas,” which is why the surviving pirate from the Maersk Alabama attack was brought to New York. The bulk of piracy prosecutions, however, are in Kenya, the closest functioning Western-style government to Somalia.

In the days following the Maersk Alabama hijacking, there were calls to arm shipping crews, but giving guns to men stuck on a ship for months on end was rejected as a bad idea. Placing military personnel on board merchant ships could risk an international incident, and while some foreign companies have employed private security forces, American firms are generally reluctant to follow that course, given the Blackwater controversy in Iraq. One piece of legislation working its way through Congress would allow the military to embark personnel on ships carrying “government-impelled cargo.” Another would limit the liability of shipping companies and individuals involved in use-of-force incidents at sea, which some see as easing the way for Blackwater-type security firms.

But these moves only treat the symptoms of piracy and not the disease. After years of paying tribute to the Barbary pirates of North Africa, the U.S. was able to free itself from their harassment only by going to war with them in the early 19th century. (When Marines sing of “the shores of Tripoli,” it’s the U.S. victory in the First Barbary War that they’re commemorating.) But with the U.S. military’s attention focused elsewhere and the state of the local economy such that the average Somali lives on $600 a year while hijacking ransoms run in the millions, in the absence of an exigent crisis (for instance, the hijacking of a highly explosive liquefied natural-gas tanker), stabilizing the situation seems unlikely.

In the meantime, merchant mariners will continue to keep world commerce moving and stay on the lookout for pirates. “It’s not a good situation for a merchant mariner,” says SUNY Maritime’s Howard, noting their independent and capable natures. “But it’s not something to chase them off the water.”