by Benjamin Stevens
The wonders of modern technology never cease to amaze. In the 1970s, my parents’ generation watched as characters on the TV show¬†Star Trek¬†performed countless functions on hand-held devices. More recently, we saw characters in James Cameron’s¬†Avatar¬†who did everything from their tablet computers. Now we do all the same things. Science fiction is never far ahead of the times.
Technology brings dangers with it, too. In the 1600s, the fast upwind-sailing Bermuda rigs with triangular sails enabled cargo ships to go backwards on their routes, but it also gave pirates the power to chase their quarry in any direction with frightening speed. Now the incredible realm of electronics and satellite and radio navigation give mariners immense power and efficiency in our work. They also give pirates, smugglers and terrorists new openings for their schemes.
Ships are gigantic now and getting bigger. The¬†first Triple E ships, the latest container ships from the Maersk company, were launched in July 2013 and became the largest operational ships in the world. Costing $190 million a pop and stretching over a quarter mile long, these ships seem invincible. Ships of this size have a significant blind spot, however, called “sector blank,” where a radar cannot detect other vessels. Small pirate boats can use this weakness to sneak up behind a giant ship and climb aboard before anybody notices.
The technology of AIS has been a godsend for mariners. It is a communication device that transmits and receives information about ships nearby, as well as your own. It means that instead of wasting precious time trying to call a ship by its color, position, speed, class or any number of identifying traits, I can call it by name by looking at a little screen on the dashboard. The problem: hacking this system is as easy as writing a blog for the average “nerd in a basement.”
Several security companies have been commissioned to test AIS for weaknesses, and they’ve found plenty. Anybody can make up a ship and pretend it is sailing from New York to San Francisco by going straight across the country. One security company, quoted in¬†Bloomberg, fabricated a yacht that traveled into the Atlantic and spelled out the word PWND (hacker language for “defeated”) in the ocean. An Iranian oil tanker that had been blacklisted in Singapore falsified its identity through AIS so that it would not be turned away from the Singapore port. AIS, while being incredibly helpful technology, has some of the biggest security gaps in the maritime business.
And what do the pirates we encounter go for? They aren’t after gold and doubloons any more. Instead, they travel in small groups of little boats that zoom up to the slow, clumsy giants of shipping industry. They take the crew hostage for massive ransoms, or steal from the ship’s safe. In the film¬†Captain Phillips,¬†a very realistic portrayal of such an event, the pirates seek to hold the crew captive and demand money for their release. But as¬†Captain Phillips¬†shows, we sailors have our ways of defending against pirates.
The ship’s size is the first thing we can use against them. We know our ships inside and out, and we know all the nooks and crannies in which to hide or wait to ambush them. Our second weapon is the array of fire-suppression systems we have on board. Fire hoses unleash a stream of water powerful enough to strip bark off a tree. No pirate climbing over the side of a ship could stay up if he were hit in the face with a good blast from a hose. In addition to that, we can use the carbon dioxide systems in our engineering spaces to suffocate intruders. There are plenty of ways to defend against pirates, but the very first defense is vigilance.
Technology is all well and good, but it comes down to the resourcefulness of the sailor to see the flaws in every system. He must rely always on his wits to get himself and his ship out of a sticky situation.
Benjamin Stevens of Islesford is a sophomore at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.