When I read in The Seattle Times today that certain maritime academies are giving pirate-fighting classes, my heart skipped a beat. Could this be real? Are there really modern-day pirate hunters? Yes, and they could be coming to a neighborhood near you.
In a worsening world economy, piracy could become a greater threat to the safety of individuals living in coastal cities or using waterways — like residents of Seattle and the Puget Sound. Laugh now, but when a twisted grappling hook soars over the Bainbridge Island Ferry railing, it might not seem so funny. It may be unlikely for us, but in other parts of the world, piracy is a harsh reality.
Piracy is on the rise: the International Maritime Bureau reported an 11 percent rise in the number of piracy incidents from 2007 to 2008. Almost 900 crew members and passengers were held hostage, 11 were killed and 21 went missing.
Pirates also can drive up the cost of goods. Every oil tanker that is seized must be ransomed in cold, hard cash, and companies that take the hit must adjust their prices to compensate.
My first thought after reading the article was to quit school, grab a cutlass, and head down to the Port of Seattle for the next outbound vessel. But it’s not quite like that. Modern pirate defense techniques don’t have much to do with swashbuckling and privateers.
The California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, Calif., offers two courses on piracy. You can take a Maritime Security course to study modern piracy trends. You would learn about hotspots like the Gulf of Aden off of East Africa, or the tumultuous waters around Indonesia. The Academy also teaches about piracy in an International and Maritime Law class, just in case graduates ever have to sentence captured buccaneers.
At the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, you can become a modern-day Francis Drake and learn how to shame pirates with a fire hose or floodlights. But more precise and creative weapons are becoming available to aspiring corsairs. The U.S. military is wrapping up development of the Active Denial ray, a microwave device that deters militants by heating the outer layer of their skin and causing acute pain. The U.S. Navy has sought out this device to bolster its arsenal of nonlethal weapons. The LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device, is another tool that blasts loud music, warnings, or deterrent threats across bodies of water, and it was actually effective in averting a 2005 pirate attack on a cruise ship off of South Africa.
On Jan. 29, there were two known pirate attacks on ships in the Gulf of Aden, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Live Piracy Report. One of these was averted with the smart deployment of fire hoses, but the other attack was successful. It’s a grim reminder that going out to sea is still very dangerous.
The UW doesn’t happen to offer any courses on piracy. This may come as a disappointment to maritime scholars and hopeful hunters, but it should set you at ease that our city hasn’t ever been in danger of ocean-borne raiders. I find it fascinating that piracy is still a viable career choice in certain parts of the world, and that merchant marines and militaries are meeting the challenge with creative solutions. It makes me wonder whether ninjas are still sneaking around in some corner of the world. If they were, we certainly wouldn’t know about it.