Along with navigation, logistics and ship-handling, students at merchant marine academies these days also must learn what to do if their ships are attacked by pirates.
While there is no formal training on the subject at schools such as the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point or SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, the issue does come up in classroom discussion and other training, instructors said.
The hijacking of an American-flagged cargo vessel Wednesday off the Horn of Africa is the latest incident to spotlight the problem. Pirates off the Somali coast have increasingly launched bold attacks on commercial vessels in recent months.
Each shipping line handles the piracy threat differently. Some place armed security guards on vessels traveling near the region; many firms place computer chips so hijacked ships can be tracked.
Crews are rarely armed. Instead, merchant mariners try to ward off potential incursions with high-pressure hoses that spray seawater at pirates trying to board from small boats, said Larry Howard, a professor at the SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx.
"The kind of resources they have available to fight off pirates like those in Somalia, who have rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, are somewhat unbalanced," said Howard, who chairs the school's department of global business and transportation.
Still, the training that maritime academies provide in management and personnel organization helps equip students. Crews know their ship and its layout from top to bottom, so they can quickly decide where to secure themselves if pirates board, Howard said.
Most merchant mariners also have some degree of military training to give them a knowledge of tactics and weaponry, said Capt. Reed Bonadonna, director of ethics and character development at the Merchant Marine Academy.
He noted all graduates either go directly into the military or leave with a reserve commission in a branch of the armed forces. "In a situation like this, they would see themselves as someone who is capable of taking action" - and also knowing when to hold back, he said.
Still, Howard said crews facing armed bandits generally have little choice but to comply with pirates' demands. "The best advice anybody can be given in that situation is to wait for your opportunity and don't antagonize or anger them," he said. "Just be alert and watchful and take your chances."