When Americans think of pirates, many picture Johnny Depp’s eccentric portrayal of a Disney-esque buccaneer.

But real pirates are much scarier, as Capt. Richard Phillips discovered on April 8, 2009, when four Somali pirates seized the cargo ship Maersk Alabama and took him hostage aboard a lifeboat.

Four days later, Phillips was rescued by Navy SEAL snipers who killed three of the pirates and captured the fourth.

Phillips, 54, lives in Underhill, Vt., with his wife, Andrea. They have a 19-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son. Since his rescue, the captain has been doing part-time work for his employer and going to speaking engagements.

He’s also written a book about his experiences, “A Captain’s Duty” (Hyperion, $25.99) with Stephan Talty, and will be signing copies Sunday at Borders Books and Music in South Portland.

Phillips said he wanted to write the book so he could share with others what he learned.

“What I learned in my experience is that we’re stronger than we know,” he said. “We have more strength inside us than even we give us credit for, and we can overcome a lot of our difficulties and problems in our personal and professional life.”

Phillips spoke with The Portland Press Herald on April 12, the anniversary of the day he was rescued. 

Q: Was that (April 8, 2009) the first time you’d ever encountered a pirate?

A: Actually, the day before, the 7th, we had three pirate boats chasing us, which is a normal profile. But we were able to elude them by increasing speed. 

Q: What kinds of things do you do besides increasing speed to try and avoid capture?

A: We do evasive maneuvers once they get close. We have high-pressure hoses. We have flares. We have the ship all secured and locked up. We had a makeshift safe room, and contact numbers to notify people, and we have other means that I don’t want to go into.

The Merchant Marine has been dealing with piracy for hundreds of years. Indeed, the birth of the U.S. Navy was partially due to the Barbary pirates in Africa. 

Q: But nowadays, it’s a whole different game, isn’t it, because they have AK-47s and it’s a lot more sophisticated?

A: The Somali pirates do have a different business plan. It’s a proven plan where they’ve taken over $200 million of ransom in the past year. On top of that, they’re in a target-rich environment. The Gulf of Aden region is an on- and off-ramp to the Suez Canal highway. So you have billions of dollars of merchandise and goods passing through there every year. It’s a bully situation. Most of the ships aren’t armed, so it’s fairly easy for (the pirates).

Unfortunately, I was the first U.S. captain since the 1800s to be taken. I will stress that my crew ensured that the ship was never under the control of the pirates. My crew did a great job. 

Q: What was your strategy once they were aboard? How do you negotiate, or fight back, without crossing a line that will get you killed?

A: Well, that was my big concern. My crew (on the bridge) had AK-47s put right in their face. They did threaten to kill us if we didn’t bring the rest of the crew up to the bridge. But the crew knew not to come through our training, which I can’t go into. A password wasn’t mentioned, so they knew not to listen to me. I was able to use my UHF radio to let (the crew) know “Shots being fired. One pirate aboard, one pirate aboard.” And unfortunately, the next radio report was “Bridge is compromised. Pirates on the bridge.”

Once that happened, it really went beyond my training, and I just relied on common sense. First, I just wanted to build a rapport. Second, I wanted to keep anyone from getting hurt or killed, and that was my main concern.

They actually shot two shots in the air when the first pirate got to the bridge. (The leader) came in and said, “Relax, relax. Business only. Business only. Relax. No problem, captain, no problem. No al-Qaida, no al-Qaida. Relax, just business.”

I basically tried to slow things down so I could think of something, so I would act at times sort of dumb. They’d tell me things, and I’d go “What? You want to what?” I wanted to build a rapport. I wanted to remain as a human, with dignity, and try to find some way of escaping this. 

Q: At some point you actually offered yourself up as a hostage, right?

A: I was already a hostage. All I did was, I told them I’d help them get off the ship because their boat got damaged and overturned when they boarded, so I felt this made them even more desperate. I said, “I will help you get in the water, and I will get you some food and fuel.”

They were actually getting a little nervous and hinky. The ship didn’t work, so I convinced them that they broke it because they made me slow down too fast. They really wanted to get off the boat, and to add to their incentive, I then let them know I had some money. I gave the money out of my safe to them so at least they saved face. So I actually didn’t give myself up as hostage, I just gave them the ability to escape. 

Q: What was it like on the lifeboat with the pirates?

A: I liken it to being in a sauna for 12 to 15 hours a day. The ambient temperature is about 90 or 95 degrees in that area. It’s very humid, but with the sun beating down on an enclosed boat — it’s completely covered — it gets very much hotter. I would put it in the 110-plus area. There was no breeze, and then the heat was exaggerated by the motor that was going most of the time. The deck got so hot that you couldn’t put your stocking feet down.

Within an hour of me being in the boat, I was down to a pair of pants and socks and that’s it, and I was just constantly drenched in sweat the whole time. On ships, we have the pleasure to bookend our days with sunrise and sunset, and in the lifeboat, everything was turned topsy-turvy. As the sky started to lighten in the morning, I dreaded that time, because I knew the heat was going to get even worse than it was at night.

Conditions weren’t very clean. There was no head. We did have water and a little food, but I wasn’t hungry at all. And at times, they’d deny me water. It was very difficult. I’m from Vermont, and much like Maine for your readers, anything over 80 degrees is hot enough for me, and I’m hurting after that. 

Q: Did they hurt you in any way?

A: They did put me through some sort of ritual killing three times, as if they were going to shoot me. The third time was Saturday night. They actually had a guy behind me and it was night, so they had a flashlight and I could see the silhouette of my head across the boat. They would sit there and just click the gun so it was click click it was with the rhythm of the boat. As the boat listed to starboard in the waves, they would click click click.

They did that, and they did play other mind games. They asked me about my family and said, “It’s too bad when you’re gone,” as if when I die, it’s a foregone conclusion. 

Q: At one point, you tried to escape. Had you been thinking about how you could escape all along, or did the situation reach a point where you felt you had no other choice?

A: When I got into the lifeboat, people question why I did that. For me, it was solving three of my four problems. My crew, my ship and my cargo were safe and free, so I just had to worry about me. I don’t consider myself heroic or intelligent or brave or anything like that. I do consider myself a lucky guy. I won’t say I was confident — I wasn’t — but I thought I could get away from them. I told the chief officer, a Massachusetts Maritime grad like myself, that he was now the captain. I told him, “If you see a splash, that’s me going out the back door. Come and get me.”

the time I escaped, I was actually a little frustrated, and was calling myself a wimp in my mind. What’s my problem? I haven’t escaped yet. 

Q: They made you pay for it, didn’t they, after you were caught?

A: Well, they were very incensed. They were very upset, irate, that I didn’t follow the proper procedures of hostages. I took my chance and I got into the water, but unfortunately, we had a full moon at the time and they were able to spot me. I was trying to swim toward the Bainbridge, the Navy ship. What ensued was probably five to 10 minutes of a cat-and-mouse game much like we had on the ship looking for the crew.

Now I was underneath the boat, and alongside the boat, as they were trying to find me. It’s difficult to see someone in the water when you’re on the deck of the boat. And they’re running around screaming and trying to find me. About the fourth time I popped up from the water, there just happened to be a pirate right there with his gun probably within a foot of my head, and he fired two shots. So I said OK, you’ve got me.

Once they took me inside, they trussed me up very tight. Almost instantly, my hands lost sensation. They were just totally incensed — screaming and cussing and swearing and hitting me and kicking me and slapping me and punching me.

One guy I call the young pirate with the Charlie Manson eyes, he was near my feet, and he kept on whacking me on my knee with his pistol, just incensed that I’d try to escape. My fear was that as he’s hitting me with the butt of the pistol, he’d shoot me as he’s trying to whack me. They were very irate, very mad, and it did change the atmosphere in the boat after that. 

Q: This whole experience sounds so frightening, but was there a scariest moment for you?

A: For me it was really, I would have to say, the third time (of) this ritual killing episode. It was really tough there. And probably the other one was the shooting (during the rescue) on Sunday. The pirates were arguing, yelling, cussing at each other, calling each other names. They were really at each other, the two tall guys versus the young Charlie Manson, crazy-eyed one, so when the shooting started, I thought it was actually the pirates shooting each other. I thought I was caught in a crossfire between the pirates. 

Q: Do you think you and your crew should have been able to carry weapons to defend yourselves?

A: I have spoken in front of two congressional committees, and I believe that we should have a security team of two specially trained personnel — ex-Special Forces or a retired Ranger, a Green Beret — who are armed, and then we should also be arming the ships. Not a gun for every guy, but we should have some weapons and wherewithal. 

Q: Was it difficult to write this book and relive all of this, or has it helped you process everything?

A: Actually, I was glad to really get it out all at once. To me, it was cathartic. It released it. Other than the first two or three days after the incident, it really hasn’t bothered me. I’ve put it behind me. I don’t dwell on it. I don’t have dreams about it. It’s really behind me. 

Q: What are your plans now?

A: I am due to go back to work sometime after June 1. My wife, Andrea, will have my sea bag packed. (Laughs.) I’m actually looking forward to it. 

Q: When you go back to sea, will you be going back to the same area?

A: I’m sure I’ll be in the Gulf of Aden area. I won’t be going back to the Maersk Alabama. I’ll probably be going back to another ship. I’ve been sailing with this company for 22 years. I’ve been a captain with them for going on 20 now. I’m sure I’ll be going through that area, which is the worst area for piracy, but with the (protections) in place by the companies I work for, I’m not worried at all. 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]


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