In pirate zone, an unarmed ship is an unseaworthy ship

In April 2009, the news that the U.S.-flag containership Maersk Alabama had been attacked by pirates in the Indian Ocean spread across radio, television and print news outlets worldwide. That morning, a few hours before the media got hold of the story, a captain I know down in the San Francisco Bay area e-mailed me that an old shipmate of ours, Capt. Shane Murphy, was one of the crewmembers. As the drama played out over the next several days, I joined the millions around the world praying for their safety, and was thankful when the officers and crew returned home unharmed.

Many of the public expressed surprise that Maersk Alabama was not armed, especially in the pirate-infested waters where the vessel was hit. The incident highlighted the policy of not equipping the crews on U.S.-flagged merchant vessels with their own weapons, one in place for nearly 100 years. Even during World War II, when the death toll on commercial ships was higher than nearly every branch of the military, civilian mariners in the American merchant marine were routinely not issued guns. Instead, the military chose to place Naval Armed Guards with weapons on board, and provide protection to merchant ships while crossing the Atlantic with convoys. These days ships and boats are still targets. However, the threat isn’t a German U-boat attack, but instead escalating armed robbery and piracy worldwide.

Unlike in WWII, the United States Navy currently has no stated intention to place military armed guards on board U.S.-flag merchant ships in high-risk areas. In fact, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space Exposition in Maryland that piracy was not a top priority of his. Even though Russian, Japanese and Chinese naval ships have been leading convoys through the dangerous waters off of Somalia, the U.S. Navy has not. It’s clear that we American merchant mariners need to be able to defend ourselves, and now the legal authorization to do so has finally come.

In June 2009, the U.S. Coast Guard made a momentous announcement. Port Security Advisories 03-09 and 04-09 (REV 1) officially confirm that U.S.-flagged merchant ships are allowed to defend themselves — with weapons. These advisories set clear guidelines for the arming of American officers and crews, the deployment of privately contracted security teams on board commercial vessels, and when the use of weapons is permitted for the protection of the ship and crew.

Advisory 03-09 provides that companies may arm their crews and/or carry contracted armed guards on board, and specifically lists the conditions under which weapons may be used to repel a pirate attack. Although the utilization of non-lethal defenses is encouraged, Port Security Advisory 03-09 leaves no question that deadly force may be employed if the ship and crew are in “imminent danger.†It clearly affirms that the crew and any contracted security teams on board are still under the direction of the master of the vessel.

Port Security Advisory 04-09 (REV 1) allows companies and individual mariners to avoid established firearm restrictions. It details the procedures that shipping companies and/or individuals should follow to comply with applicable import/export requirements, state and national laws such as the U.S. Gun Control Act, the National Firearms Act, and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (22 CFR 120-130). This advisory also makes it clear that privately contracted armed guards and/or armed crewmembers on U.S.-flagged vessels may bring their own personal weapons on board — including a thousand rounds of ammunition. It will be interesting to see how many shipping companies choose to issue weapons directly to their officers and crews, or instead permit their crews to carry their own guns for protection in dangerous areas.

For years the policy of shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk has been to not allow weapons on board its vessels. Consequently, when Maersk Alabama was hit in April 2009 it was unarmed. After that attack the company publicly announced that it planned to continue not having weapons on board its ships. To its credit, and obviously out of a concern for the safety of its crew, A.P. Moller-Maersk has had a change of heart. In November 2009, just weeks after the Coast Guard issued Advisories 03-09 and 04-09 (REV 1), it was reported that Maersk Alabama was attacked again in the Indian Ocean. This time, things were different.

Right after sunrise on the morning of Nov. 18, around 350 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, four pirates fired upon the ship in an attempted hijacking. That day, Maersk Alabama was carrying a private security force hired by the company for the protection of the ship and crew. When faced with armed guards firing warning shots from deadly automatic weapons, the pirates aborted their attack. Unlike the April incident, the ship was never boarded, no one was taken hostage and nobody was hurt or killed.

Now that the U.S. Coast Guard has officially validated, through these and other Port Security Advisories, that the arming of merchant mariners and carrying of armed guards on board American ships and boats are allowed, in my opinion, there is no excuse for companies not to adequately protect their mariners. The Jones Act makes it clear that a vessel without proper safety equipment is an unsafe place to work, and can be deemed unseaworthy. I think that any U.S.-flagged merchant vessel which does not have either privately contracted armed guards or an armed crew on board while in high piracy areas should be considered an unsafe place to work — and, in accordance with the Jones Act, be declared unseaworthy.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff