The Maersk Alabama was heading to its original destination port of Mombasa, Kenya, a day after it was hijacked off Somalia's coast, CNN reported Thursday, quoting the father of one of the 19 crew members still on board.
An 18-man armed security detail was on board the 1,100-TEU containership to make sure the vessel and the 19 crew members get there safely, Capt. Joe Murphy said. It is about a 50-hour journey.
The 20th crew member, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, Capt. Richard Phillips, was still being held by the four Somali hijackers in one of its lifeboats at sea. FBI negotiators are trying to secure his release.
Capt. Phillips "remains hostage but is unharmed," Maersk spokesman Kevin Speers said Thursday morning.
"The safe return of the captain is our foremost priority," Speers said.
The U.S. Navy called in FBI negotiators to help negotiate his release, according to FBI spokesman Bill Carter.
The pirates reneged on their agreement to exchange Phillips for one pirate who had been captured by the crew members, according to the second officer of the ship, Ken Quinn. The pirate was released unharmed, according to Quinn who spoke to CNN on Wednesday via a satellite call.
A U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Bainbridge, was in position near the lifeboat believed to be carrying Phillips and the pirates. But there has been no official confirmation of the tiny vessel's whereabouts since early Thursday morning.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday morning, Speers said the U.S. Navy "is in command of the situation."
"We are in regular contact with the Alabama," he said from Maersk Line Ltd.'s headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. "The ship remains at a safe distance as instructed by the Navy. We are coordinating with the Navy and all the governmental organizations involved in this crisis."
The ship, which was originally named the Alva Maersk when it was completed in a Taiwanese shipyard in 1998, is owned and operated by Maersk Line Ltd., the Norfolk-based U.S. subsidiary of A.P. Moller-Maersk that operates U.S.-flag ships with American crews for the Maritime Security Program run by DOT’s Maritime Administration.
The ship was not working under a Pentagon contract but was carrying food and other emergency relief from Djibouti to Mombasa, Kenya, when it was hijacked Wednesday morning.
For its part, Maersk is doing everything it can "to increase the chance of (a) peaceful outcome," Speers said Thursday.
"We are encouraged that most of the crew is safe, they have been resilient and courageous throughout this crisis," he said. "But we will remain on watch, staffing our situation room and our family hotline until this situation is resolved and the captain is safely returned."
The ship was 350 miles off the coast of Somalia, a distance that used to be considered safe from pirate attacks.
The U.S. Navy issued a warning several days ago to ships in the area warning them that pirates were increasingly operating farther and farther offshore.
Quinn told CNN that the pirates were armed with AK-47 assault rifles. The ship's crew carried no weapons.
Crew members managed to take one of the four pirates hostage, Quinn said. The crew -- apparently minus the captain -- locked themselves in the compartment that contains the ship's steering gear, where they remained for about 12 hours with their captive, whom Quinn said they had tied up.
The three other pirates "got frustrated because they couldn't find us," he said.
The pirates had scuttled the small boat they used to reach the ship, Quinn said, so Phillips offered them the Alabama's 28-foot lifeboat and some money.
Crew members agreed to exchange their captive pirate in exchange for Phillips, Quinn said, but the pirates reneged on their agreement.
"We returned him, but they didn't return the captain," Quinn said.
There are emergency rations to last 10 days on the lifeboat, but the conditions are most likely "uncomfortable," according to Murphy.
"There's no toilet facilities or anything like that," he said. "The captain has a VHS radio, and I'm sure that he's in voice communication with the ship itself. The problem is, of course, that ... the [radio's] battery is going to die, and I'm not really sure how they're going to continue communication after that."
It is common for the crews of merchant vessels to travel through the area unarmed, despite the risk of pirate attacks, experts have said. An armed crew could provoke a firefight that would endanger the crew's lives or its cargo, which often contains flammable or explosive material.
John Reinhart, chief executive and president of Maersk Line Ltd., said the crew can try to outrun the pirate boats or turn fire hoses on anyone trying to board the ship, "but we do not carry arms."
The vessel was carrying relief supplies for USAID, the U.N. World Food Program and the Christian charities WorldVision and Catholic Relief Services. The U.N. agency said its portion of the cargo included nearly 4,100 metric tons of corn-soya blend bound for Somalia and Uganda, and another 990 metric tons of vegetable oil for refugees in Kenya.