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Merchant marine cadets learn real-life lessons about piracy

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Showing slides of the hulking cargo ship he works on, Captain Staples underscores the importance of preparedness and vigilance. In areas of pirate activity, it's important to post lookouts, says Staples. Each vessel has a security plan tailored to its size, design, and speed, and all crew members should know their own role in case of emergency.

If pirates approach, ship captains can attempt to outrun them, or at least delay an attack, which would give help more time to arrive. Phillips, of the Maersk Alabama, reportedly kept the pirates at bay for five hours. "That was a feat in itself," says Staples.

A captain can also attempt to capsize pirates' craft by making a series of small turns with the ship's rudder. The move creates suction which can be strong enough to pull a smaller boat into the bigger ship's wake and turn it over, Staples explains.

How long after an attack begins should a boat put out warning signals, a cadet asks. Murphy poses the question to the class. "What's the first thing you do in any emergency?" The answer comes chorusing back: "Sound the alarm."

Most ships boarded by pirates have common characteristics. They travel at low speeds, have decks that are relatively close to the water surface, display little vigilance and have slow response times, according to a recent presentation on best practices in antipiracy by the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO) and the Chamber of Shipping of America, two industry trade associations.

The shipping industry recommends that mariners take "passive defense measures," which include the types of actions discussed in Murphy's class as well as others: blocking possible points of entry with barbed wire or barrels, and having pressurized water hoses ready when passing through areas of known pirate activity, says Giles Noakes, chief maritime security officer for BIMCO.

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