by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — “Nothing is over until you choose to give up. You can overcome any obstacles,” Captain Richard Phillips said, relating some of the life lessons learned during a terrifying experience as the first U.S. ship’s captain to be kidnapped at sea by pirates since 1803.
“Now, picture if you will, the vastness of the sea and the darkness of that very night and a voice coming over our VHF radio sounding very eerie, saying ‘Somali pirates. Coming to get you. Somali pirates. Coming to get you’,” said Phillips to a captivated audience at the Plaza Hotel during the September 21 meeting of the Montpelier Rotary Club. “This is what we heard the night before the incident.”
Phillips, of Underhill, then retold the story of his capture by armed Somali pirates aboard the Maersk Alabama — an enormous cargo ship carrying 17,000 metric tons of food and supplies for the World Food Programme and other relief organizations, en route to starving people in Africa. As it happened, just after setting out to sea, Captain Phillips, who had heard about increased incidences of piracy, decided to have some surprise safety drills with his crew. During those drills they came up with a “safe” room where the bulk of the crew could hide if pirates boarded the ship. From the safe room, the crew could also have the capability of disabling the engine so the pirates would be unable to hijack the vessel. They also agreed on code words so the captain could communicate with the crew without the pirates understanding the real meaning.
Then, the morning after those drills, a crew member spotted a little wooden skiff with a high powered motor about three miles astern of the Maersk Alabama. Captain Phillips ordered his crew to confirm whether or not they were a target by maneuvering the ship in unpredictable patterns. “We changed course. They changed course. We maneuvered. They mirrored and executed the same maneuvers. It was pretty obvious what was happening.” Phillips described the mood of his crew ranging from highly concerned to ‘blatantly terrified.’ The skiff closed in quickly, and when it was about a mile away the Maersk Alabama crew followed the steps they prepared in the drill. Everyone went to the safe room except Captain Phillips and two crew members.
Pretty soon the little skiff was alongside the Maersk Alabama and four scrawny young men with AK 47s were firing upon the ship. There were no weapons aboard the Maersk. Phillips, his first mate, and a sailor used what they had to try to fend off the pirates, including powerful water hoses and rocket-propelled parachute flares. Phillips announced over his handheld radio to the hidden crew, “Shots fired. Shots fired.”
The pirates managed to hook their tall white ladder on to the side of the ship and climb aboard, but their skiff was destroyed in the process when it smashed against the side of the American freighter. Phillips said, in his last overt announcement to the crew, “Pirates aboard. Pirates aboard.”
In order to get the attackers off the vessel and to save the lives of his crew, Phillips put his own life in jeopardy by getting in a lifeboat after what Phillips characterized as a tense game of cat and mouse, during which he tricked the pirates into believing the freighter was disabled and inoperable, and the only way to escape was by lifeboat. The Maersk Alabama crew had captured the pirate leader, so the pirates agreed to get in the lifeboat with Phillips on board, whom they would trade for their leader after the lifeboat was put to sea. The crew released the Somali leader, but the Somalis did not keep their agreement and retained Phillips. This is how Phillips learned you can’t trust a pirate.
Aboard the small lifeboat and alone with his captors, Phillips suffered nearly unbearable heat, head games such as multiple “mock assassinations,” and beatings for several days until finally being rescued in a nearly miraculous mission carried out by U.S. Navy SEALS aboard the U.S.S. Bainbridge. Three of the four pirates were concurrently shot in the head. The fourth had earlier been taken alive aboard the Bainbridge. This occurred in 2009 about 240 nautical miles (276 land 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 ghostwriter. He also said he had retired about a year ago this past June, but that his schedule was almost busier than it had been when he was in the Merchant Marine because he was so busy giving lectures.
Phillips was introduced by Rotarian Dan Pudvah, who said it took about four years to book Phillips as a speaker because Phillips’s schedule was so busy. Pudvah summarized Phillips’s remarkable accomplishments before Phillips got up to speak. Phillips recounted his adventure using humor and vivid details, during which he literally acted out the part of each person he mentioned. Watching the man retell the story in his own words was better than the book or 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 because 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 Stephan Talty, was published about a year after the event in April 2010 by Hachette Books. The movie “Captain Phillips,” 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.” But, as he also said, “It is amazing what happens when you vow you won’t quit.”