CHICAGO, April 9 (Reuters) - Maritime experts reacting on Thursday to the stirring tale of 20 unarmed U.S. crew members wresting back control of their hijacked freighter from armed pirates off Somalia agreed on one thing: they were lucky.
Some were critical, saying the crew may have disregarded standard procedure and taken a dangerous risk in fighting their attackers. One result: the captain of the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama freighter is still a hostage in the pirates’ hands.
But others said the crew’s decision to confront the pirates was an act of bravery typical of U.S. merchant mariners, who are routinely trained so that in times of war they can form part of the country’s defense.
“Merchant mariners are America’s unsung heroes,” said Barbara Yeninas, a maritime consultant. “They don’t aggressively seek trouble, but it is not unusual that they would defend themselves, their flag and their cargo.”
Four armed intruders boarded the ship on Wednesday in the pirate-plagued waters off the coast of Somalia. The American crew later gained the upper hand and even captured one pirate before three others escaped in a lifeboat holding the vessel’s captain, Richard Phillips, as a hostage.
The crew tried to swap their captive for the captain 12 hours later but instead merely lost the captive.
“The crew saw an opportunity and took it,” said Admiral Richard Gurnon, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where Phillips graduated. “I’m really pleased they were able to overpower their assailants.”
“Those pirates attacked the wrong ship,” he added.
The decision by the crew goes against standard recommended procedure for vessels when attacked by pirates.
According to a set of best practices for ships off Somalia as laid out by 11 international agencies including the International Maritime Bureau issued in February, when attacked by pirates a vessel should speed up, take evasive action and even turn fire hoses on their attackers.
But once boarded, crews should “offer no resistance; this could lead to unnecessary violence and harm to crew.”
John Reinhart, Chief Executive of Maersk Line Ltd (MAERSKb.CO) — Maersk Alabama’s owner — said on Wednesday that company protocol also advised against violent action.
“Once boarded, the crew has safe rooms and they are not to take on active engagement because they have no weapons,” he said. “It would be a risk to their lives.”
John Wick, managing director of corporate risk management firm International Security Solutions Ltd, said the crew was very lucky. “It’s all very gung ho and it’s like watching a good movie,” he said. “But what the crew did was potentially very dangerous and could have gone very wrong.”
“And in fact, with the captain still held by the hijackers, it did go wrong,” Wick said.
Wick said in general Somali pirates have treated captives well and a system is in place for ransoming captured crews.
“My advice is to run like hell,” Wick said. “If you’re taken, let the system kick in and take care of you.”
Yet few experts seem surprised at the crew’s actions.
Commander Dennis Compton, a professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, helped draw up international and U.S. standard procedures for crews on how to deal with pirates.
Those procedures advocate non-resistance, Compton said. But he added that there may be something in American culture that does not take kindly to pirates.
“Maybe we are still a cowboy nation,” he said. “Something in us that says ‘sorry, we’re not going to let you do that.’”
Compton said this incident marked the first time a vessel flying a U.S. flag has been taken by pirates since the country went to war with the Barbary states of North Africa in 1801.
Gurnon said not only is he proud the Maersk Alabama crew retook their ship but thinks crews like them should be armed.
“I advocate merchant marine crews be allowed to have small arms training for defensive measures in hostile waters,” he said. “But I think I’m in the minority on that issue.” (Additional reporting by Edward McAllister)