Captain's Duty: Capt. Phillips recalls capture at hands of pirates
By Rita Papazian
May 6, 2010
Richard Phillips, the Merchant Marine captain who was held hostage by
Somali pirates for four days last year, didn’t take notice that he was
marking the first anniversary of his capture standing before a small
audience on the second floor of the R.J. Julia Booksellers here in
The setting was quite different from one year ago when the captain, from
Underhill, Vt., had stood at the helm of the Maersk Alabama when a band
of Somalis commandeered the American container ship – the first time
pirates had seized a U.S. ship since the 1800s – and took the captain
aboard a lifeboat where he was held continually at gunpoint until his
extraordinary Navy SEAL rescue.
The ship was carrying 17 tons of cargo, including five tons of supplies
for the World Food Program: grain, wheat, peas, the essentials for
survival. The ship had been sailing from Salala, Oman to Djibouti in the
Republic of Djibouti and Mombas, Kenya on the Indian Ocean.
The captain’s hostage situation captivated the world from April 8
until Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009 when U.S. Navy SEAL snipers in a
barrage of gunfire killed the three pirates and saved the captain A
fourth pirate had been in custody aboard a Navy destroyer, where
reportedly he’d been negotiating a ransom.
Phillips, literally stood tall beneath the low ceiling of the bookstore
holding a prepared speech that he he’s becoming accustomed to giving
as he journeys along a book tour promoting “A Captain’s Duty: Somali
Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea.”
Phillips hardly needed his written speech as he mesmerized his audience
with photographic details of his harrowing ordeal. He is a natural
storyteller. In fact, he said his sister told him many times, prior to
his capture, that he had such remarkable skill as a storyteller that
some day he should write a book about his adventures spanning 30 years
as a Merchant Marine, the last 19 as captain. Little did he know, he
would get that chance at age 54 as the result of such a near-death
Despite the fact that his memoir will no doubt be a bestseller and that
Columbia Pictures has bought the movie rights, Phillips heads back to
sea in June to continue his career as a ship captain for cargo ships. He
said the opportunity to write the book has helped in financing his two
children’s college educations. But, he says, part of his reason to
return to the sea, is first of all, it is his career and he has a
pension to think about.
Meanwhile, his thoughts are a reflection of what he has learned from
being a hostage. He began his talk with the lesson he has come away
with: “We have many strengths in us that we really don’t know. We
have an inner strength that will carry us through.
“I am just an ordinary guy from New England doing an ordinary job,”
he said modestly and with the thick New England accent, cultivated from
growing up in an Irish-American family with eight children in
Winchester, Mass. He cited a number of reasons he wanted to write the
First, was to show how “imaginative actions” can lead to a positive
outcome.” Anyone who reads the account of his and the crew’s hostage
situation will see how remarkable his thinking was during his ordeal, in
which he never cowered or fell victim. Captain Phillips refused to be
the pirates’ victim.
In his book, he writes: Any hostage training will tell you, don’t
appear too confrontational or two meek. Maintain your dignity was a
phrase I remembered. If you’re screaming at the boss or whimpering in
the corner, you give your captors an extra, personal reason to put a
bullet in your head.”
The captain recalls a chief mate once who told him he was too
soft-spoken. “’You need to yell more,’ he said. I told him what I
tell everyone. ‘It’s when I get quiet that you need to get
worried.’ That’s the truth,” Phillips writes.
Second, writing the book and going on the book tour gives him an
opportunity to “to show what a remarkable group the Navy SEALS are and
to shine the light on them. “The SEALS and the Navy are the true
heroes,” said Phillips, noting that he is doing fund-raising for the
Third, he wanted to let people know about the Merchant Marines, who
without them, he said, there would be no big box stores like Home Depot
Fourth, his own personal experience with the pirates draws light on the
dangerous situation in that part of the world where not only ships but
private yachts have been seized and private citizens taken hostage. He
cited the case of a British couple who have been held hostage for months
While he said the Somalis are pirating ships because they are angry
about the dumping of waste and fishing off their own coast, Phillips
said there is plenty of fish in their waters. He cited the lack of a
functioning government and the quest for millions of ransom money the
motives. He said piracy is “the second oldest profession” and a
crime of opportunity. A lot of ships do not have any protection.
As he heads back to sea, Phillips said he is making sure his ship has
security, unlike the situation in the past where the crew would attempt
to fend off pirates coming aboard with fire hoses.
Phillips says as captain he has had a reputation as a taskmaster on
“I try to keep the crew on heightened alert and makes sure all the
doors are kept locked.
“I always told my crew, it’s now if the pirates should attack;
it’s when. I always believed in my career, you hope for the best, but
plan for the worst and that will keep you in good stead. That’s what
you do. You want the best.”
In his book and during his talk, Phillips offers a picture of life as a
Merchant Marine. He said when he entered the Massachusetts Maritime
Academy he noticed guys “from a million different backgrounds, but
with a similar outlook on life; they wanted adventure, freedom physical
work, and independence. They were, for the most part, guys who had a
wild sense of humor and too much imagination to work in an office.”
Phillips demonstrates these characteristics throughout his narrative, in
which he says Merchant Mariners must be able to sleep as soon as “they
hit the rack to get a few hours sleep before they get up and work.
Throughout the pirates’ time on board the ship, Phillips managed to
thwart their intentions in getting the ship underway as well as finding
the crew. Most of the crew had sequestered themselves in a safe room.
After much frustration, the pirates had gotten to the point where they
wanted to get off the ship. During the siege, one pirate had been seized
by the mariners which then led to a plan to exchange the pirate for the
captain. But, once the captain was aboard the lifeboat, the three
remaining pirates reneged on the exchange.
“I learned, don’t trust pirates,” he said.
On the Saturday night, before his rescue, the pirates appeared to
heighten their scare tactics with one pirate standing behind him
clicking the gun – some 75 times.
“You idiot. Get someone back there who knows how to shoot the
thing,” Phillips recalled saying
The next day he was rescued.
Phillips doesn’t believe in paying ransoms to pirates. “Every dollar
we pay is another pirate signing up.
“You’ll never get ransom from me.”
During his ordeal, he recalled one pirate bragging he had gotten $2
million during one hostage situation and $6 million during another.
Phillips replied, “What are you doing here?”
Looking ahead, he says he feels confident that the shipping company has
taken the right steps in keeping the ship safe as he resumes his three
months on and three months off work schedule.
On those three months off he’s home in Vermont with Andrea, his wife
of 21 years, an emergency room nurse. “The best part is being at
home,” he said.
Following his talk, Phillips signed books and chatted with people,
including Rob and Katie McCollom of Clinton. Rob, a graduate of the
Maine Merchant Marines, has been a mariner for the past six years with a
two-to three-week schedule sailing ships off the coast of New England
and in the Gulf of Mexico. Rob said he was in shock when he first heard
about the pirates capturing a U.S. ship. The couple is expecting their
first child in July. Katie said she doesn’t know that she has adjusted
to the schedule but when her husband is home for those weeks it is