It wasn't much discussed during the five-day standoff, but it's worth pointing out how unusual it was that the ship stormed by pirates off Somalia was flying an American flag. That meant that the crew and officers were well-trained members of American seafaring unions. Some of them were educated at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and a number had training in handling arms and security through their unions.
As a former deck hand on American-flag ships during a year off from college several generations ago, I can attest to the rigors of US-flag vessels on issues of safety and security. It was evident that the officers and crew of the the Maersk Alabama put their training to particularly good use in driving off the pirates when they tried to board the ship.
The Seafarers International Union said all 12 of its crew members aboard the vessel had undergone safety training at the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, in Piney Point, Md. The courses there include anti-terrorism briefings.
Some of the ships officers, who are members of the Master's Mates and Pilots Union and the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, also had received special training. Captain Richard Phillips is a 1979 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the oldest and probably best-known school in the country for training merchant marine officers.
The US merchant fleet has declined steadily, from 16% of the world's ocean-going vessels in 1960 to less than 1% in 2007. Many merchant ships fly what American unions disparagingly dismiss as "flags of convenience" from countries such as Liberia and Panama. Ship owners register their vessels in such countries even though the firms are not really based there. The American unions say those are transparent devices for shipping companies to avoid taxes as well as the rigors of safety and decent crew treatment and pay demanded of American-flag vessels.
American ships that ply coastal routes, and those handling government cargo like the Alabama, which was delivering humanitarian aid to Somalia, are required to fly US flags and to use union crews. That's why the crew aboard the ship was especially well-trained.
The Alabama is one of the 60 ships operating within the US Maritime Security Program, a federally funded program operating since the mid-1990s to ensure that a fleet of US-flag vessels is available to meet national security needs.
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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