by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — “You are much stronger than you even know,” Captain Richard Phillips told a captivated audience at the Capitol Plaza Hotel during the September 21 meeting of the Montpelier Rotary Club. “Nothing is over until you choose to give up. You can overcome any obstacles,” he said, relating some of the life lessons learned during a harrowing experience as the first U.S. captain to be kidnapped at sea by pirates since 1803.
Phillips, of Underhill, then retold the story of his capture by armed Somali pirates from aboard the Maersk Alabama, an enormous cargo ship carrying 17,000 metric tons of food and supplies for The World Food Program and other relief organizations en route to starving people in Africa. In order to get the attackers off the vessel and to save the lives of his crew, Phillips put his own life in jeapordy by getting in a lifeboat after what Phillips characterized as a tense game of cat and mouse during which he had tricked the pirates into believing the Maersk Alabama was disabled and inoperable, and the only way to escape was by lifeboat. Then, aboard the small lifeboat alone with his captors, Phillips suffered nearly unbearable heat, head games and beatings for several days until finally being rescued in a nearly miraculous mission carried out by the U.S. Navy SEALS aboard the U.S.S. Bainbridge. Three of the four pirates were concurrently shot in the head while the fourth had earlier been taken alive on board the Bainbridge. This occurred in 2009 about 240 nautical miles off the Somali coast.
Before and after speaking to the group at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier, Phillips greeted people, posed for photographs and answered questions.The Bridge asked Phillips if he wrote the book himself and he said, no, rather, he relayed the story to a ghost writer. He also said he had retired about a year ago June, but that his schedule was almost busier than it had been as a Merchant Marine because he was so busy giving lectures. Phillips was introduced by Rotarian Dan Pudvah, who had said it took about four years to book Phillips as a speaker because Phillips’ schedule was so busy. Pudvah summarized Phillips’ remarkable accomplishments before Phillips got up to speak. Phillips recounted his adventure using humor and vivid details during which he veritably acted out each part of each person he mentioned. Watching the man retell the story in his own words was better than the book and the movie because it had his genuine Massachusetts accent, facial expressions and gestures.
Phillips said after his experience, he didn’t go back to sea for 14 months becuase he was busy with writing the book and then dealing with movie producers for his story. The book, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephen Dalty, was published about a year after the event in April 2010 by Hachette Books. The movie version starring Tom Hanks came out in 2013. Phillips has a screenwriting credit for the screenplay. Phillips also said Hanks would call him regularly to check out whether the details he was being asked to do by the director matched up with real life.
In addition to Rotarians from all over the state, many other guests attended the event, including former Governor Jim Douglas. Phillips gave a shout out to Douglas, who he said personally contacted his wife, Andrea, while Phillips was still fighting for his life at sea and offered to help. “Only in Vermont,” Phillips said of a governor calling to offer a citizen help.
Phillips closed his talk by saying, “these are challenging times and they are only getting worse,” Phillips said. But, as he also said, “It is amazing what happens when you vow you won’t quit.”