DANIA BEACH — Lacking any firepower of their own — merchant crews aren't allowed to carry guns — sailors must rely on innovation and resourcefulness to ward off pirates who are becoming increasingly brazen in their attacks on the high seas.
That's what instructor David Greenhouse imparts to students at the STAR Center maritime academy in Dania Beach. Through tabletop exercises and "what if" scenarios, Greenhouse outlines anti-pirate options to merchant seamen seeking certification as security officers. They range from simple flares to exotic sound rays and water guns.
"There's no absolute fix. We're looking at layers of defense here," said Greenhouse.
"It's obviously a hot topic right now," said STAR Center director Brian Long. STAR stands for Simulation, Training, Assessment and Research, which is affiliated with the American Maritime Officers union and issues about 4,000 training certificates a year to merchant sailors.
How to deal with pirates is a popular course. As their threat grows, Greenhouse said, so do methods to repel them.
Pirates, especially those off the Somalia coast such as the ones who held the captain of an American cargo ship hostage in April before Navy snipers killed his captors, typically attack from small boats. They climb up a vessel's sides and, often brandishing AK-47s, take it over for ransom.
Merchant crews can't counterattack because they don't carry weapons. The reasons: Many international ports won't let ships dock with armed crews; owners fear liability from gun accidents; captains fear mutinies.
So fleeing is the first wave of defense. The bigger ship should outrun the pirates' boat and throw a large wake to deter it, Greenhouse said.
"The best defense is, don't let them get on the ship," he said.
A vessel should be well-lighted, Greenhouse said, so pirates don't have the advantage of stealth. Should they attempt to scale a vessel's sides, fire hoses can be used to wash them back into the sea. Also readily available are flare guns, which can be fired directly into an attacking boat.
"A magnesium flare in someone's boat will keep them very, very busy," said Greenhouse.
A fiendishly futuristic deterrent, used extensively by cruise ships, is the LRAD, or long-range acoustical device. The $30,000 machine produces a painful wail that assails a person's entire nasal system.
Structural defenses under consideration are simple: metal plates that slide out perpendicular to the vessel's side to prevent pirates from getting on deck, or foamy sprays to keep them from achieving a foothold should they do so.
Another developing option that appeals to Greenhouse and Long is the water cannon, a muscular squirt gun that can move along a ship's rail, suck up seawater and blast it back on pirates at near deadly velocity.
"Two hundred PSI, that will take your eyes out of your sockets," Greenhouse said. "It will be able to sink a small boat."