Attacks by Pirates Spur New Training for Seamen

Ralph Pundt of the Maine Maritime Academy in the school's training ship. Such academies are stepping up anti-piracy training for merchant seamen.
Ralph Pundt of the Maine Maritime Academy in the school's training ship. Such academies are stepping up anti-piracy training for merchant seamen. (By Robert F. Bukaty -- Associated Press)
By Clarke Canfield
Associated Press
Sunday, February 8, 2009

PORTLAND, Maine -- With an alarming number of tankers and cargo ships being hijacked on the high seas, the nation's maritime academies are offering more training to merchant seamen in how to fend off attacks from pirates.

Students learn to fishtail their vessels at high speed, drive off intruders with high-pressure water hoses and illuminate their decks with floodlights.

Anti-piracy training is not new. Nor are the techniques. But the lessons have taken on new urgency because of the number of attacks in 2008 by outlaws who seize ships and hold them for ransom.

At the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, professor Donna Nincic teaches two courses on piracy.

"If I've done anything, I've shown them that this isn't a joke, it's not about parrots and eye patches and Blackbeard and all that," Nincic said. "It's very real, and it's a problem without an easy solution."

Emily Rizzo, a student at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, worked aboard a 760-foot cargo ship last year as part of her training. As the vessel sailed the Malacca Straits in Southeast Asia, she served on "pirate watches," learned to use hoses and took part in drills with alarms indicating the ship had been boarded.

The training "brought to light just how serious it is," said Rizzo, a 22-year-old senior from Milwaukee. "The pirates can get on board these huge ships and they know what they're doing."

The International Maritime Bureau reported 293 piracy incidents in 2008, an increase of 11 percent from the year before. Forty-nine vessels were hijacked, and 889 crew members were taken hostage. Eleven were killed, and 21 were reported missing and presumed dead, according to the bureau.

Often the pirates are armed with knives and guns. Pirates off the coast of Somalia have taken to firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Piracy hot spots have been identified off East Africa and in Southeast Asia, South America and the Caribbean.

It is illegal for crews to carry weapons in the territorial waters of many nations, and ship captains are wary of arming crew members for fear of mutinies, Nincic said. Also, some worry that arming crew members would cause the violence to escalate.

Instead, the best defense is vigilance, Nincic tells students.

"If you demonstrate a culture of awareness, that you look like you know you're in pirate waters and are clearly standing watch, patrolling, et cetera, the pirates know you're going to be more difficult to board and are possibly going to wait for the next ship and board the one that's easier," she said.

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