Captain Richard Phillips and his crew aboard the Maersk Alabama were well aware of the threat profile on their EAF4 run (East Africa 4), from Salalah, Oman, to Djibouti, in the Republic of Djibouti, to Mombasa, Kenya.
By 2009, the threat profile for sailors sailing past the Horn of Africa and past Somalia had broadly increased, with all manner of tankers, fishing schooners, and cruise ships stopped and their crew taken hostage in exchange for large ransoms.
In 2008 alone, $120 million had been paid out to these pirates-who came from countries where people make $600 a year.
The public may be familiar with the broadly televised tension when the press caught wind of the pirate attack on this container ship and followed the drama as Captain Phillips was kept as a hostage in a lifeboat with multiple pirates, as the USS Bainbridge appeared on scene to try to resolve the situation.
In “A Captain’s Duty,” Captain Richard Phillips (with Stephan Talty) describes what led up to the pirate attack, the brave crew’s strategy in protecting both lives and cargo, and then the dramatic moment of Phillips’ rescue by Navy SEALS.
Growing up as one of eight children to fairly strict parents, Phillips learned a strict work ethic, but he did not take well to his studies. He enjoyed athletic achievements. He attended college for a brief time was got sidetracked with partying and chasing girls. He worked for a time as a taxi driver, when he carried a well dressed fare to a wild part of town-and asked him what he did. The man was a merchant marine.
That chance encounter led Phillips to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he learned about working on various types of ships. He learned of the merchant marines’ proud traditions-their founding in 1775 “before the army and the navy” were officially founded. He writes: “We were the first to die in World War II…And the merchant marine suffered more casualties than any other service in World War II…The merchant marine has always been the invisible service, the guys who brought the tanks to Normandy, the bullets to Okinawa, but no one ever remembers us.”
He learned to live by the dictum Acta non verba (“Deeds, not words”). Through the years, he would explore many of the world’s ports as a merchant marine. Alexandria, Egypt, is a fine port for its closeness to the pyramids. Subic Bay, Philippines, is known for its attractive women of questionable morals. Columbia and Ecuador offer adventures, such as stowaways shimmying up ropes to the ships. Chongjin, North Korea, is a “god-awful port” with poor, desperate people. The perennial criteria for ports were the following four points: “Is it cheap? Are there girls nearby? Is there beer? And is there something to do?”
He would get to know the social misfits and renegades who find comfort in the ocean-going lifestyle. He would see how the strain of being at sea led to numerous breakups of marriages and relationships back on land.
With his signature quirky humor, he describes how he approached Andrea, the woman who would be his wife, at the Cask ‘n Flagon bar in Boston, with corny lines, and then many stories of his seafaring adventures. When he was seriously injured in an on-board accident and she was dedicatedly at his bedside (she was an emergency room nurse professionally), he chose that time to propose. He would work three months on and be stateside for three months off. “When I come home, I forget about the sea. I’m 100 percent into being a dad and husband. When our kids, Dan and Mariah, were young, from the moment they got up to the minute they went to bed, I’d take care of them. Neighbors and friends would ask me to babysit, so I’d have five or six kids in tow. I’d make dinner: French toast by candlelight, my specialty. I’d do Rich’s Homework Club. I’d take the kids on class trips.”
In captain mode, he would go through a mental checklist to make sure that the ship was ready to sail. He would thrill at “crossing the bar” (leaving the harbor for the unknowns of the oceans). He learned to read human beings and their capabilities quickly. He had worked for a variety of captains of various qualities, and he developed a sense of the type of leader he wanted to be. He was vigilant about security. He would uphold his captain’s duty to put crew first before himself.
The beginning of that particular run of the Maersk Alabama began for the 53-year-old Phillips on March 28, 2009. When he left at the airport to meet the ship, his wife—for the first time ever—left him at the airport before his flight had left, something he would think about in some of the worst moments during his later captivity. He flew from Burlington, Vt., to Washington, D.C., to Zurich, and on to Muscat, Oman. Then, he flew on to Salalah, Oman, where the ship was docked.
“Merchant mariners don’t get to sail the beautiful ships of the world, the yachts and sloops and the rumrunners. We don’t get to stand at the helm with a gin and tonic in our hands. We work trawlers, barges, bulk carriers, tankers. The Maersk Alabama was built in China ten years ago; it was 508-feet long and 83- feet abeam and painted blue on the hull and beige on the superstructure, like all the ships owned by Maersk. Two 40-foot cranes, each six stories high, were placed fore and aft, which enabled us to quickly load and unload the containers that sat on top of the deck on any given trip,” he writes. On board are a mess hall, a hospital, a top-level bridge, and crew’s quarters. On the main deck are the containers.
A safety walkthrough showed pirate cages-steel bars protecting the ship’s ladder ways to the superstructure on the exterior of the ship-were up, and doors were left unlocked-leaving safety zones unprotected. Safety drills showed the crew unprepared to respond to an attack with defensive maneuvers.
They would be heading to one of the world’s most unstable sea lanes, during a time of heightened pirate activity from October through May, before the monsoon or khareef season from late June to early September.
The Office of Naval Intelligence had been warning of various pirate attacks and gun battles. To avoid attack, many shipping companies moved their ships farther and farther out from the Horn of Africa. However, the pirates instead took over large “mother ships” from which they would launch smaller attack skiffs far from shore. Armed with submachine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, a small group of pirates could take over an entire ship in moments. Defense for the ships would only be “speed, fire hoses, and deception.”
The typical responses by the shipping companies have been to protect crewmembers’ lives by hiring professional security companies to negotiate deals with the pirates. The men who delivered the ransoms-by dropping water-proof suitcases of money, dumping burlap bags of money from helicopters, and once even parachuting $3 million onto the deck of a ship-earned big money for the risks. The insurance companies paid for the losses. The crewmen from developing countries who worked for companies that would not pay off often ended up tortured and held for months in highly inhumane conditions.
The U.S. Navy has not been in the pirate hunting business for the past 200 years, he observes. This container ship though would not be a typical high-profile target. It was carrying, in part, grain, wheat, and peas, for the World Food Programme. By comparison, a trillion dollars’ worth of goods passes by the Somali coast annually. The pirates are organized into four main groups with different areas of origin and specialties. The one that specializes in attacking container ships and tankers were known as the Somali Marines.
There are fears that terrorist groups are looking to learn how to sail ships in order to do a dry-run for a seaborne 9/11 (after a takeover of a ship off western Malaysia by pirates who only requested lessons on how to sail the ship and use the Vessel Traffic Service).
Shortly into this route, the Maersk Alabama was chased by several pirate boats early on, but they were not boarded because of the choppiness of the ocean waves, which slowed the attackers.
Then, a few days later, a different set of pirates attacked on calm waters. The four pirates on a skiff approached while shooting AK-47s and boarded the container ship in five minutes flat. The pirates forced the ship to shut down, took Captain Phillips and three of his crewmen hostage on the bridge, and demanded that the other men (16 hidden below) come out of hiding. Phillips barely had time to warn his crew and send out emergency messages to several systems that handle emergencies on the high seas.
From the beginning, he messed with the settings on the radar (lowering the gain, upping the anti-rain and the anti-sea-clutter knobs), so the pirates would not be able to see approaching US Navy ships. (“You could have parked a battleship two miles away and the radar would have looked as clean as an empty dinner plate.”) He also tampered with the radio, so they could not as easily communicate with their mother ship or with fellow pirates on other boats.
He worked to earn some basic trust of the pirates. When he was asked to take the pirates around through the ship, he showed them some of the rooms that were closets and tried to train them to be disinterested in them.
Later when he arrived at sensitive rooms, he used the wrong keys on them and said that they were closets, so the intruders would not have access to sensitive parts of the ship.
He would talk loudly, so that his crew would know that they were coming and could hide. His crew was savvy, in general, with his engineer shifting controls from the bridge to the engine control room.
He wanted to keep the ship from being moved over to the Somali coast, where it would be harder to protect the crew.
When the pirates tried to use the satellite phone to call a Somali number, he dialed but didn’t put the call through.
He kept his own radio on him and used it to discreetly communicate the locations of the pirates with his crew.
What followed was a mentally straining bargaining between the captain and the pirates.
He wanted to get the pirates off his ship and away from his crew and the cargo. While he made some sharp decisions early on, as the crisis lengthened over days, he and the pirates started giving in to fatigue.
Offering them the $30,000 the ship had on hand for emergencies, he negotiated their taking the Man Over Board rescue boat, but the engine stalled, and so they go to the lifeboat.
One of his crew led an unarmed pirate into the midst of the other crewmen, and they took the pirate captive and tried to trade him for the captain. The hidden crew members opened up other lines of communications and were keeping the U.S. apprised of the situation.
A few days into the ordeal, Phillips woke up at 2 a.m. to see “an American navy ship steaming toward us at thirty knots, bright lights shining from the deck, sirens wailing and loudspeaker blaring. The spotlight was so intense it lit up the inside of the lifeboat like it was a movie set.” The USS Bainbridge arrived, and they offered FBI-trained negotiators to work with the pirates, and they send over water, Pop-Tarts, and radios with fresh batteries, but otherwise seemed to be there only to observe.
Later, the first Navy warship was followed by the USS Boxer and the USS Arleigh Burke. Phillips figured that there were geopolitical realities that might disallow them to actually intervene.
What followed were a harrowing escape attempt and a severe beating by the pirates. Whenever they felt under threat, they opened up the many canisters of fuel. If attacked, they want the entire lifeboat to go up in a conflagration.
They would take their hostage with them. Meanwhile, bored and sadistic, the pirates were dry-firing their guns at Captain Phillips, denying him rations, ordering him to do mundane tasks under threat of death, mocking his sailing, and keeping him extremely tightly. They would go into chanting and start to position him apparently to shoot him, but he would resist.
Much of what follows is captured in the mass media coverage-his daring rescue by Navy SEAL sharpshooters on Easter Sunday, and he is reunited with his family.
He meets with President Barack Obama, who gave the green light for the Navy intervention. “A Captain’s Duty” is a riveting read and offers much of the back story of this captain’s story of selflessness and survival.
Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.