Maritime union hopes film on 2009 pirate attack will raise awareness

Union trains captains in facility near BWI; says budget cuts hurt mission

  • Patrick Ebberwein of Savannah, Ga., commands a cargo ship docking in a Chinese port under the tutelage of instructor Dave Leech. Training at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies often includes time in one of the simulators used to recreate a variety of weather conditions and ports around the globe.
Patrick Ebberwein of Savannah, Ga., commands a cargo ship docking… (Christopher T. Assaf, Baltimore…)
September 27, 2013|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

After Navy SEAL snipers killed three Somali pirates during the dramatic rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips off the Horn of Africa in 2009, the merchant mariner became an overnight star, lauded as a hero for sacrificing himself to save his cargo ship's crew.

Now, officials with the Baltimore-based International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots — the union that represents licensed merchant mariners — hope Phillips' story, and the Oct. 11 release of a big-budget film based on his high-seas ordeal, will help them raise awareness about their work in Baltimore.

It is here that Phillips and many other ship captains from around the world train in two massive, $30 million simulators that not only prepare them to navigate and dock large cargo ships, but also to respond to terrorist attacks and attempted pirate hijackings, union officials say.

"We see [the film] as a vehicle to promote an industry that in many areas around the country is invisible," said union president Donald Marcus, seated in his office at the union's hotel-like headquarters and training complex near BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Even commuters passing right by the facility on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway don't know it's there, and the dearth of knowledge has left the union and its members with few advocates at a time when federal belt-tightening threatens their industry, union officials said.

"What the Somali pirates couldn't take away, Congress could," said Marcus, citing cuts under sequestration to the federal subsidies that buoy the industry.

On a recent morning at the training facility, instructor David Leech assisted trainee Patrick Ebberwein through a simulation of bringing a cargo ship into the port of Singapore.

"If you can get up by that third crane, that'd be good," Leech said, and Ebberwein, 20, an apprentice river pilot in Savannah, Ga., began calling out directions to the crew.

The room where Ebberwein trains resembles a captain's deck in a cargo ship. It's located on a steel platform at the center of a room surrounded by concave walls, onto which projectors shine a computerized landscape.

The projections are so realistic that a simulation of hurricane-force waves rocking the imaginary ship back and forth can make those inside the deck sway and feel as if they may fall over — even though the room and its steel frame aren't moving at all.

"You can pretty much get a vibe of when things are going wrong or when things are going right," Ebberwein said.

The union operation, which has been around for decades and routinely pumps millions of dollars into the simulators to keep them on the cutting edge, is paid for through dues withheld by employers from union members' paychecks, officials said.

It operates 232 hotel-like residential units for the captains and other vessel officers who arrive to train in the simulators and classrooms.

Officials say the union's operations not only support the global shipping industry, but also contribute to the Baltimore economy, bringing hundreds of foreign nationals and U.S. seamen to the region on a regular basis. Recent reservations at the training facility have come from Kenya and Brazil, Egypt and Sri Lanka.

Phillips, who will be played by Tom Hanks when the new Sony film "Captain Phillips" hits screens Oct. 11, trained at the facility many times, officials said.

Steven Werse, the union's secretary-treasurer and a ship captain who has traded assignments with Phillips, said he can't wait to see the film.

Phillips' unarmed ship, which had a 19-member crew, was hijacked by a group of four pirates in April 2009, leading to a five-day standoff with U.S. naval forces that turned the 17,000-ton container ship Maersk Alabama into a symbol of the ongoing fight between international shipping interests and rogue bands of Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

During the standoff, Phillips entered a life boat with the pirates to get them off the ship, where his crew remained. One pirate in need of medical attention surrendered, and the three others were killed by Seal snipers after Phillips' life was deemed to be in danger.

Some of the ship's crew have challenged the official narrative of what happened on the ship before and after the pirates boarded, pointing blame at Phillips for not taking a course farther off the Somali coast after receving warnings of pirate activity in the area. Marcus called such claims "sour grapes and Monday morning quarterbacking."

Werse said all captains who transit pirate waters see attacks as an inherent risk of the job, but Phillips deserves the attention he's receiving for how he handled the situation.

"Some people are born to greatness. Others have it thrust upon them," Werse said. "This was thrust upon Richard, and I think he handled it with a lot of grace and good taste."

Union officials hope the movie also will help them in the halls of Congress.

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