April 8, 2009 — -- Graduates of maritime academies often end up in some of the most dangerous waters in the world -- moving aid, goods, and oil. But, with the threats from pirates, who are armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and even grenades, maritime academies across the country are teaching students what to do in case their ship is hijacked.
Despite international efforts to step up security, pirates have been operating with near impunity off the Horn of Africa. This year, there have been more than 50 pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia -- six of them in the past week alone. Today, a cargo ship with a crew of 20 Americans sailing off the coast of Somalia was commandeered by pirates, who eventually were repelled but then took its captain hostage.
Students at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy are learning for the first time ever this year how to defend themselves and their ships with deadly force.
"It's not like calling 911 and somebody's going to be right there on your doorstep," said Brad Lima, academic dean at the academy. "So you have to take in -- and make quick decisions, defend your own actions and defend yourself."
Academies have ramped up training, using simulators to teach students how to react and how to defend their virtual ship in real-time as it is overrun by pirates.
On board the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton container ship, crew members took the advice of the British Maritime Trade Organization, which advised the crew to take proactive measures and spray powerful firehoses to keep pirates away.
Though, in this case, the Somali pirates were armed and the Alabama crew was unarmed, instructors say that reactive measures like firearms are always the final resort. Students are taught steps, such as negotiating for hostages first.
"We teach maritime security here, we teach weapons for safety, but when it moves from an academic exercise to real life, all of a sudden it becomes a bit scary," said Adm. Rick Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. "We know that it's a dangerous job, we just didn't anticipate that it would be this dangerous."
Somali Pirates Pose Security Threat
Pirates, who use high powered speed boats equipped with GPS and satellite phones, are not just looking for loot.
"They not only steal the money," said Capt. Thomas Bushy. "They steal the whole ship and the crew, and they hold them for ransom. So it has escalated."
For Capt. Joseph Murphy, an instructor at the maritime academy on Cape Cod who teaches anti-piracy techniques to students -- including the use of firehoses and firearms -- the hijacking incident brings months of rigorous training and drills to life.
"It is a very high risk, but these young men and women have been trained to deal with this, they know what to anticipate, and I think they're prepared to deal with it," Murphy said. "The problem is, once they get on the deck of the ship, there's really nothing a crew can do because they're unarmed."
But for Murphy, today's events are also deeply personal. The ship's chief officer, 34-year-old Capt. Shane Murphy, who sources tell ABC News has temporarily taken charge while the captain is held hostage, is his son.
"This is Murphy's law. I teach the course and my son gets captured by pirates, you know?" he told ABC News.
In an industry that always promised adventure, changing course to assure the crew's survival is the bottom line.
"With today's events, you can see how dangerous it is out on high seas," said regimental Cmdr. Matthew Duggan, a student at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. "And I think the training here that we get here is certainly necessary and will keep us vigilant and aware of what goes on at all times out there on the seas."