May 28, 2024

Fighting pirates without swords MMA students learn ways to handle lawlessness at sea

CASTINE – When fishing boats came too close to Maine Maritime Academy Midshipman Tom Byrne’s container ship in the Gulf of Aden last year, he felt uneasy.

When Capt. Larry Wade of Bradley steered oil tankers through places such as the Strait of Malacca at night during his long career, he lit them up and steamed ahead at full speed to safer waters.

And when Capt. Ira Conn of Bar Harbor heard his wife yell out one night in 2000 off the island of St. Vincent in the Grenadines, he raced to the deck to discover they’d been boarded – by a pirate.

For these men and many others who are concerned with the sea, piracy is very real.

“It’s been a huge issue for everybody now,” Wade, who teaches an MMA class in ship’s business, said recently. “We have about 60 percent of the [MMA] student population who will be licensed mariners, sailing in ships everywhere, sailing tugboats to barges up to big supertankers … They’re off of Nigeria, off of Brazil, off the South China Sea. All of those people are licensed. And all of those would have to worry about piracy.”

Pirates off Somalia

Pirates have been a staple of the news lately, with pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia surging more than 75 percent this year. The Somali pirates are stepping up their increasingly brazen attacks and even sharing their views with the world through pirate spokesmen. The Somali pirates seized a Ukrainian freighter carrying tanks and other heavy weapons in late September, a Saudi supertanker loaded with $100 million worth of crude oil on Nov. 15, and a chemical tanker on Friday, among dozens of other hijackings.

Somalia is an impoverished nation in the Horn of Africa that hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991. Off its coastline is the Gulf of Aden, an international shipping lane that helps connect the Indian Ocean with the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. Piracy there is considered the country’s biggest moneymaker, bringing in up to $30 million in ransom so far this year, according to a London think tank.

That’s why it’s even more important than usual for Wade to teach his merchant marine students how to keep safe on the high seas.

“We teach our students a lot about piracy. We teach them a lot about ship security. We teach them a lot about terror attacks,” Wade said.

Issues of piracy are very real for his students, who have been researching how to resolve particular hijackings while still being sensitive to the codes of the United Nations.

“Shipping companies are having to take different routes now by going around Africa,” said Midshipman Alex Farrell of Bath, who was a cadet on a Military Sealift Command vessel last summer. “As a kid, I always thought of old-school pirates. Now I think about poverty.”

“I think ‘no government,'” said Byrne, of Savannah, Ga. Last year in the Gulf of Aden, “sometimes there’d be fishing boats just drifting out there, and you never knew. You’d get this uneasy feeling about these people coming close to the vessel.”

One thing that Wade teaches his students is that pirates were directly responsible for the formation of the U.S. Navy back in 1794. Pirates from the Barbary Coast off northern Africa were plaguing the new nation’s shipping, and Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794 to protect against them.

Conn, who captains private yachts in the Caribbean and New England, said the Virgin Islands were a longtime pirate haven during the Age of Sail.

“Piracy is somebody being opportunistic, because a boat is undefended. It happens all over the place every winter where somebody goes on the boat with a knife or cutlass,” he said. “It is, I guess, piracy. But if it happened in a house, it would just be armed burglary.”

Conn gets irritated with the popular image of pirates, and won’t let his two young daughters take part in any kind of glamorization.

“No pirate tattoos for the kids,” he said. “They can have swords and cannons, but it has to be the good guys.”

He can’t forget that night in 2000 when his wife surprised a 6-foot 4-inch man armed with a knife on board the yacht. The man had paddled out to the boat on a windsurf board and spent nearly an hour stealing food and shoes and snorkeling gear while most aboard slept.

“My wife says, ‘Don’t call him a pirate. He’s just a thief,'” Conn said.

Guarding against attacks

One problem with protecting vessels from pirates is that, most of the time, the pirates will be armed more heavily than the ship – especially if the ship is nonmilitary.

Wade tells his students about alternative ways to protect ships, including lighting up the ship, traveling very quickly and running water from fire hydrants and hoses on deck to discourage would-be attackers.

“I’ve known ships that put plywood and cardboard cutouts of people all over the deck,” he said. “If pirates think there’s a lot of people watching them, they’re going to take the easy ship instead.”

Wade is also hopeful about a new generation of nonlethal weapons, including the Long Range Acoustic Devices made by American Technology Corp. The devices are a “very loud, very directional speaker system,” said Scott Stuckey of Bowdoinham, vice president of sales.

The cruise ship Seabourn Spirit used the device to help deter a 2005 pirate attack in the Gulf of Aden, and Stuckey said the company has been “inundated” with interest lately in the wake of recent pirate attacks.

“We’re saving lives,” he said.

Such advances in the battle to take back shipping lanes from pirates can’t come quickly enough for the MMA midshipmen, who are going to be charting their own course on the high seas after graduation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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