Coast Guard, maritime schools train U.S. crews to stay one step ahead of pirates

The nation’s maritime academies are adapting their security training offerings to meet evolving U.S. Coast Guard anti-piracy requirements for U.S.-flagged vessels transiting high-risk waters.

The Coast Guard’s Maritime Security Directive (MARSEC) 104-6 requires ships sailing near Somalia and other dangerous areas to have Vessel Security Plans (VSP) that detail procedures for thwarting and documenting attempted hijackings. VSPs also include training components.

While anti-piracy training is not new to the maritime academies, companies’ Vessel Security Officers (VSO) must keep themselves up-to-date with the pirates’ ever-changing tactics. Glen Paine, executive director of the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS), said the curriculum there is constantly evolving to keep pace with both the MARSEC requirements and real-world information.

U.S. Navy personnel from USS San Jacinto board and seize a suspected pirate skiff in May 2010 in the Gulf of Aden. Because ship hijackings have soared near Somalia in recent years, U.S. merchant mariners sailing in danger zones are receiving more training to prevent pirates from taking control of their vessels. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy/Petty Officer Second Class Ja’lon A. Rhinehart)

“You’re required to have a VSO training, and piracy was always a part of that,†Paine said. “It’s all part of the VSO course — we don’t run a separate anti-piracy course, per se. Other schools do it other ways, but that’s the way we’ve chosen to do it.â€

Capt. Jerry Pannell, director of member training and officer development at the STAR Center in Dania Beach, Fla., said that for the most part, anti-piracy training covers more general vessel security awareness than specific techniques and procedures. “The next level is people preparing to go on board where they’ll face real-time situations and needs,†he said.

Dave Greenhouse, who teaches vessel security and conducts anti-piracy training at the STAR Center, said, “The regulations are addressed, but we’re preparing crew for vessels that are taking additional measures to reduce risk further.â€

That includes working with students to “brainstorm†based on their own experiences, he said.

“The more we know about what’s happening out there, the better we can address it,†Pannell said. “It also addresses recent trends of what the pirates are doing — real world, real-time information. How do you prepare your vessel? How do you ensure you’re ready, and go above and beyond?â€

In general, he said, the training looks at duties and responsibilities within onboard procedures, including rigging deterrents and similar techniques to combat piracy.

“We also cover actual drilling for real-world scenarios,†Pannell said. “OK, we’re being approached, they’re attempting to board — they’re boarding the vessel. What do we do? Another whole protocol is initiated. In other words, deter, deter, deter — OK, that’s not effective, we have to defend or go dormant.

“That’s where we get into restricting access, funneling techniques. Some vessels will set booby traps on board, but we’re teaching that if the pirates are on board, you’ve lost the battle,†he said. “If you’re a U.S. seafarer and they’re on board, we feel like there are no more rules we can teach you, because who knows what they’ll do.â€

Paine said MITAGS’ VSO course is also mostly focused on prevention and deterrence. “We do have other courses directed toward Military Sealift Command-contract ships with small arms and other training,†he said, “but not in the VSO course.â€

In 2006, the Coast Guard first published MARSEC 104-6, which details measures to deter, detect or disrupt piracy. The most recent revision, published in November 2010, included an annex that provides specific direction for vessels operating around the Horn of Africa.

Pirates are increasingly using hijacked vessels repurposed as floating headquarters to move offshore, and are now launching attacks more than 1,000 nm from the Somali coast, and as far away as Tanzania, Kenya, Yemen and Oman. Other threats exist near Southeast Asia, off the coasts of Brazil and Peru, and elsewhere.

“We’ve set a definition of ‘high-risk waters,’ areas of possible threats of any type, which include terrorism and piracy,†said Bob Gauvin, the Coast Guard’s executive director of piracy policy. That definition changes to keep pace with intelligence and incidents. Gauvin said a new revision is in the works.

The MARSEC directive is Sensitive Security Information (SSI), and not publishable, but a corresponding Port Security Advisory summarizes its contents. In addition to the VSP requirement, vessels entering these areas must re-evaluate risk assessments with updated intelligence information and establish counter-piracy protocols that can be practiced and implemented by crew.

“VSPs are approved by the Coast Guard,†Gauvin said, “and it’s the responsibility of a Vessel Security Officer assigned to the vessel and a Company Security Officer (CSO) assigned to the company to ensure that individuals are trained under that plan.â€

Industry best-management practices for the protocols cover deterrence, such as vessel modifications, non-lethal techniques, communications and training, and evasive operations and maneuvers. They recommend safety measures including maintaining the highest-possible rate of speed in high-risk areas. They also address appropriate actions when deterrence fails, including preparing for hostage situations and establishing a safe room.

“The expectation is that, when a VSP is approved and the vessel is to operate in high-risk waters, the master, VSO and CSO will assess the threat and see which best-management practices or their own security attributes to impose to give them the best protection,†Gauvin said. “Going through pirate waters, using the best-management practices plus the VSP is the best security available.â€

Gauvin said the requirements intentionally stress preventative, defensive techniques over offensive measures both to protect the crew and to provide time for “support from combative forces in the area.â€

Another key part of the training is what’s called “citadel procedures†— essentially getting the crew to a safe room and rendering the vessel useless to pirates once deterrence has failed.

“You have to do that in a short time,†Pannell said. “That’s one of the hardest things to do, getting everyone in the safe room in as quick a time as possible. You’ve got to know when to sound the alarm and get everyone into the safe room, and that may mean leaving appropriate crew on station until the appropriate time then proceeding to the safe room.â€

The MARSEC directive also requires U.S.-flagged vessels in high-risk waters to carry an unarmed security team separate from the crew, and who answer directly to the captain.

Waivers to that requirement are granted for a number of reasons, such as for vessels that travel at a high speed, or with sufficient freeboard to make boarding unlikely. Best-management practices formed around these exemptions are changing. In January 2010, for example, the British car carrier Asian Glory was taken by pirates despite enormous freeboard and a relative high rate of speed, forcing industry experts to re-evaluate the relative safety of certain vessel types.

“That’s the minimum standard, an unarmed team,†Gauvin said. “In certain areas, or with certain cargoes, vessel companies may feel an armed security team is necessary. If they want to escalate in any way, that’s their determination, not one the Coast Guard makes.â€

In such cases, a growing number of private firms are providing armed security services to the maritime industry.

“It can be expensive, but a $12 million ransom will more than pay for a lifetime of security and insurance,†said Kevin Doherty, who owns Alexandria, Va.-based Nexus Consulting Group. “We have a bunch of Tier One special ops guys — former SEALS, Marine Recon, Delta Force — who embark on U.S. vessels, four to 10 per ship. They fall under the ship’s master’s authority, and follow all U.S. laws and applicable international laws, and the Coast Guard’s Port Security Advisories.â€

Doherty said there’s a huge market for private security services on the commercial side of the maritime industry. The Military Sealift Command provides civilian mariners with a Department of Defense-based training program, and includes anti-terrorism officers as part of the crew, he said, “but the regular maritime fleet hasn’t gone that way, yet.â€

“The focus of the U.S. regulatory authority of the Coast Guard has been to follow the best-management practices, but piracy has become much more rampant, much more significant, and it’s not going away anytime soon,†he said.

Despite the surge in anti-piracy technology on the market, Doherty said an armed detail is still the best defense. “Sure, we’re in the business, but the fact is that thus far, there hasn’t been an armed detail that’s been boarded,†he said. “Every other bit of the best-management practices has been defeated, aside from an armed detail.

“If the pirates are willing to use weapons, then the weapons are the only thing that can counter them,†he said. “The best-management practices will help, but there is no silver bullet.â€

Doherty said that increasingly, Somali pirates are believed to be linked to terrorist groups — that means U.S. mariners are likely to be at greater risk than those of other nationalities.

“Doing business in some of these waters isn’t fair to American mariners without adequate protection,†he said. “The U.S. government allocates lots of resources to protecting trains and planes, and things like that, but once these vessels leave U.S. waters, it’s good luck.â€

By Professional Mariner Staff