MMA professor addresses Rotary on preventing piracy

Posted May 05, 2009, at 6:34 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:09 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Pirate attacks are nothing new in the world of overseas shipping and international trade, but when Somali pirates attacked and tried to hijack the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama early in April, a new spotlight was aimed directly at the problem.

Capt. Ralph Pundt, chairman of the William F. Thompson School of Marine Transportation at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, told the Bangor Rotary Club on Tuesday that nonlethal vessel security plans need to be put into place to prevent future attacks.

“This has been going on for a very long time,” he said, standing in front of a map of the world speckled with white dots. “Every one of these dots is a high spot for piracy.”

The dots were located all over the world, but were concentrate around the edges of the Indian Ocean and the long coast of Africa.

In the east African country of Somalia, where the average annual wage is a mere $600, many of the pirates are hungry and trying to feed their families, Pundt said. Pirates in that area simply throw a grapple line onto the deck of passing ships and climb aboard, he said.

“The key is to keep them off the ship,” the sea captain said.

Once they’re on board and take a crew member captive, “the ship stops” and the pirates usually get what they want, in many cases a ransom, he said.

“It does them no good to kill you,” he said, adding that there are some “nasty little buggers” who do kill.

In the area off the east African coast where the Alabama was attacked in April, attempts have been made by ship captains to avoid the pirates by going farther out to sea and traveling in convoys.

“The bigger ships decided to go 400 miles off the coast and are still getting attacked,” Pundt said, adding, “We’ve had ships attacked in convoys.

“A vast amount of water needs to be patrolled” to protect ships, he said. The issue is “very complex when you’re dealing with international waters.”

After graduating from MMA in 1977, Pundt spent nearly two decades aboard tankers and cargo vessels that traveled the world, sometimes through pirate-infested waters, before returning to Maine in 1999 to become an MMA professor.

As an MMA teacher, he understands firsthand the importance of keeping his students, who are the next round of new ship captains and crew members, safe.

“This threat, it changes everything,” he said.

Pundt co-founded the International Maritime Security Network in 2007 and is developing nonlethal anti-piracy vessel security plans, training and defense systems that he hopes to promote to the International Maritime Organization.

He suggested vessel operators “use what they have access to,” even if it’s a fire hose, to prevent being boarded.

“The only thing you can really do is try to make it as difficult as possible to get on board,” Pundt said.

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