Capt. Richard Phillips speaks lightly now of his harrowing ordeal last April when Somali pirates held him hostage for five days aboard his ship’s lifeboat: “It was just another day at the office with a group of pirates.”
But the captain of the Maersk Alabama turns serious when he discusses the need for better security aboard ships that pass through the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa. “In the end, you need to have something besides passive-aggressive measures,” he said in an interview with The Journal of Commerce. “The vessels should be armed — minimally so — not like a Dodge City with everyone carrying weapons, but a couple of weapons that can hold off the pirates at a distance of 100 feet or 200 feet. I don’t believe that will escalate it, although that’s what people say.”
Phillips made the same recommendation in his testimony before Congress in April about the experience of the Maersk Alabama, the first U.S.-manned ship to be attacked by Somali pirates in the current wave of hijackings. But other industry figures fear arming merchant vessels would only escalate the potential for violence by forcing the pirates to arm themselves with heavier weapons.
Phillips disagrees: “The pirates went to RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) without provocation (from merchant ships) and I’m sure they will advance to the next weapon of choice without any action by us.”
Even if they are not armed, merchant ships must prepare their crews and the ships for pirate attacks in advance, Phillips said.
“You have to have safe rooms with communications, self-ventilation, self-power, food and water,” he said. “You’ve got to have hardening of the ships, which I think the ships are doing, to make it harder to get up to bridge. Not barbed wire, but no ladders, so they can’t climb up to the bridge. They can’t get in the vessel until they get up to the bridge, and that’s the way they actually breached the house. We were able to keep them out of that. You do have to give the sailors the capability to protect themselves.”
Speaking in his New England accent, the Massachusetts-born captain said he was not surprised by the attack on his ship, which began on April 8.
“It was not a matter of if, but of when,” he said. “We’ve been working in that part of the world since 2004, so we thought it would happen, but we thought we would be successful in keeping them off the ship, because once they get on the ship, it’s pretty much a done deal.”
The Maersk Alabama was prepared for a pirate attack. Its American crew of 20 had been trained in anti-piracy measures. “Thank God the crew acted correctly, did what they should do and went outside the box and took many imaginative actions,” Phillips said. “And thank God for the military and the Navy SEALs.”
After the pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama on April 8, Capt. Phillips offered himself as a hostage in return for the crew’s safety. Chief Engineer Mike Perry shut down the ship’s engine and electrical systems, darkening the engine room and hold. He led the crew to hiding in a secure room that, only a day before, they had prepared for just such an attack. The crew then seized the pirate chief who had come looking for them in the darkened engine room.
The crew negotiated an agreement with the pirates to release their chief in exchange for Phillips, but after the crew released their captive, the pirates reneged and held Phillips in the ship’s covered lifeboat, as their own speedboat had been swamped.
The USS Bainbridge, a Navy destroyer, arrived early on April 9 and freed the ship and crew to sail to Mombasa, Kenya, the original destination for the ship and its cargo of food and relief supplies. Phillips tried to escape the lifeboat on April 10, but was recaptured after the crew, armed with AK-47s, fired several shots.
The commander of the USS Bainbridge convinced the pirates to let it take the lifeboat in tow after winds picked up. Tension rose, and the three pirates in the lifeboat started arguing with each other.
Phillips remembers what happened next, on April 12: “When the shooting started, “I thought they were shooting at each other,” he said. “It wasn’t until I heard a voice — an American voice — asking if I was OK and saw a SEAL coming through the forward hatch, that I knew I had been rescued.”
Phillips is taking a leave of absence from the sea until March to consider the many changes in his life that the pirate episode has brought — “until the end of the snowboarding season,” said the captain, an avid snowboarder who lives with his wife, and college student son and daughter in Underhill, Vt., “in the shadow of Mount Mansfield.”
He is writing a book about the incident and is discussing a movie. “It’s brought new opportunities for me,” Phillips said. “I’m here tonight, and it wouldn’t have happened without that incident. It made me see how lucky I was to spend the last 30 years in the merchant marine. And what a great job we really do have.”
Phillips spoke with The Journal of Commerce on Nov. 13, during a visit to New York with his wife, Andrea, to accept an Honored Seafarer Award on behalf of the crew of the Maersk Alabama at the 40th Annual Admiral of the Ocean Sea Awards Dinner to benefit the United Seamen’s Service. The audience of 700 rose in a standing ovation when he was called to the podium to accept the award.
The United Seamen’s Service also presented its 2009 AOTOs Awards to Donald Kurz, chairman and CEO of Keystone Shipping; Ronald Widdows, group president and CEO of Neptune Orient Lines; and the U.S. Coast Guard, which received a special award accepted by Admiral Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard.
Contact Peter T. Leach at email@example.com.