Capt. Richard Phillips: 'Never trust a pirate'

Brad Petrishen

Like any self-respecting seaman, Capt. Richard Phillips knows how to tell a good story.

“It was hot, and I was nervous,” says Phillips, who was held hostage in April when pirates seized the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia. “I was worried — heck, I was scared. I did not know how it was all going to turn out.

“But enough about my wedding day.”

Those in the audience Tuesday at McCall Middle School enjoyed a laugh with their hometown hero. Phillips, a Winchester native, spoke about his ordeal even as the Maersk Alabama fought off another pirate attack early Tuesday morning.

“You are much stronger than you know,” Phillips said.

Call to the sea

“I wasn’t like a lot of kids today who knew exactly what I wanted to do when I graduated,” he said, adding that his interest in the sea “started not in a ship, but rather in a cab.”

Phillips was working as an Arlington cab driver in 1975 when he met a high-flying merchant seaman whose job sounded perfect.

“A few months later, my brother Michael told me that you could enter Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and you didn’t have to really cut your hair … and that you really didn’t wear uniforms or be forced to endure the rigors of discipline like Navy enlistees do in basic training.

“[So] I enrolled … and upon entry into the academy, I learned many, many things,” he said. “But first I learned that my brother thought lying to me was funny.”

Phillips said the experience, although not as easy as he had hoped, proved to be a worthwhile bridge to his life’s calling.

“With shorter hair and significantly more discipline, I took to the sea for the first time, and I was hooked,” he said. “I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Hijacked

After more than 12 years in the merchant marine business, Phillips, who married in 1987, earned his captain’s license in 1991.

Over his years as a captain, he learned the importance of preparation for pirate attacks, and said he worked the crew of the Maersk Alabama hard to ensure they were up on the proper protocol.

At about 6:45 a.m. April 8, he and his crew were put to the test.

“Our guard was already up,” Phillips said, since the ship had already evaded a few pirate ships the previous day, and that night had received a cryptic radio transmission.

“The night before, a voice came over the radio saying, ‘Somali Pirates, Somali Pirates, Somali Pirates. We’re coming to get you.’”

Sure enough, the following morning, the crew spotted a thin wooden boat with a high-powered motor gaining on their position.

“We changed course. They changed course. We maneuvered. They executed and mirrored that same maneuver,” he said.

When the gap was closed to a half-mile, Phillips and a few crewmembers, armed with knives but no guns, began shooting flares at the pirate boat in the hopes that it would catch fire.

“I’m shooting flares at them, and they’re shooting AK-47s at me,” Phillips said with a wry smile. “I can hear the ping, ping, ping … of the pirates’ bullets making dents in the ship’s hull, and my training as a merchant marine officer … doesn’t really include dodging bullets from automatic weapons fired by pirates.”

With one pirate constantly firing on the crew, the others were able to use a long ladder to gain access to the boat, and Phillips found himself captain of the first American vessel to be held captive by pirates since the 1800s.

Hostages

Phillips said the pirates were elated when they got on deck and realized they were on an American ship.

“They even started high-fiving each other, because they thought they were going to get a big payday.”

Their enthusiasm was somewhat diminished, however, when they looked down at their boat and realized it had begun to sink.

“I believe that this made them more desperate,” Phillips said.

At that time, only four of his crewmembers were in plain sight, Phillips said. The others were locked away safely in a concealed location, and the chief engineer was locked in the engine room, controlling the ship.

“They threatened to shoot me if I didn’t tell them where the crew was, but I said, ‘I don’t know where the crew is, I’m here with you.’”

When it became clear they really might shoot, Phillips did call the men, but since he didn’t use a safe word they had agreed upon (“suppertime”), all but one of the crew remained in hiding.

The pirates then made Phillips and others go through the vessel five times looking for the crew. During one of these ventures, a sailor who went below deck with a pirate managed to overcome his captor and take him hostage with help from other crewmembers.

After 13 hours of negotiations, the pirates, who had become increasingly spooked by their inability to find the rest of the crew or make contact with their mother ship, agreed on a deal: Phillips would help them get situated in a lifeboat, and the two parties would exchange prisoners on the open sea.

“I didn’t surrender myself as a hostage,” Phillips said, as many media outlets reported. “I believed that my major responsibility was to get the pirates off my ship, and I knew if I went with them they could not get back on [the ship].

“That meant my crew, the ship and the cargo — my responsibility — would be protected.”

Of course, Phillips said the thought crossed his mind that the deal might go awry, but he decided the gamble was a worthy one.

“I’ve always considered myself a lucky guy — not especially intelligent, brave or all of that, but I liked the odds with just me.

“It wasn’t surrender, or anything I viewed as an act of heroism,” he said. “It was my strategy, my action plan, my duty.”

Of course, things didn’t go as planned, and although the crew held up their end of the bargain and released the fourth pirate, Phillips remained as a hostage on the lifeboat.

“It was a disappointment,” Phillips said with a smile. “It’s another lesson I learned in this incident: Never trust a pirate.”

The lifeboat

Phillips said although his situation was dire, he loved seeing the pirates’ faces when the lights on the ship went on, the crew suddenly appeared on deck and the “broken” ship, which had been drifting, suddenly began to follow them.

“I discovered a strength in myself I really wasn’t certain I had.”

On the lifeboat, Phillips was bound tightly and always guarded by two armed pirates.

“It was unbearably, indescribably hot, and in many ways that was the hardest thing for me.”

Although the pirates smashed out the ship’s windows after first day, Phillips said it was still so hot he couldn’t even touch his foot to the floor without getting burned.

At that point, he was wearing only socks and pants, was drinking but not eating, and was resigned to relieving himself in a bottle.

However, Phillips said he remained determined to try an escape.

“If I gave up, I realized I truly became nothing but a hostage — just something they could ransom for money or murder for notoriety,” he said. “If I didn’t give up, I could play mind games with them just as they were playing with me. I would be their adversary, instead of just a passenger.”

He said, at times, he even joked with his captors, all of whom could speak some English.

“They made fun of their leader because he had converted to Islam,” Phillips said. “So I called him a non-believer. He didn’t find that funny.”

Failed escape

Always on the lookout, Phillips made a snap decision one night to try to escape when two pirates were sleeping, another dozing and the fourth had put down his gun to relieve himself on the deck.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get a better chance,” he said. He opened the hatch, pushed the unsuspecting pirate overboard and dove into the sea.

Unfortunately, the overboard pirate’s screams awoke his comrades, who began searching the water for their captive. Phillips said he managed to elude detection by diving underwater three times, but the fourth time popped up right in front of an AK-47.

“He fired one shot right by my head, and I made another quick adjustment in my plans.”

Once back on board, Phillips said he was punched, kicked, pistol-whipped and tied up so tightly that he still has some scars and numbness.

Over the next few days, Phillips said the pirates employed various methods of revenge, including praying to Allah before holding a gun to his head and squeezing the trigger on numerous occasions.

“I heard click, click, click more than 75 times,” said Phillips, who, during one of the fake executions, remembered feeling blood dripping down his skull and thinking he was shot.

“A few days later, the pirates told me, ‘Oh, we didn’t shoot you. We just hit you in the head.’”

Rescued

Phillips said he focused on a cross-shaped part of the boat and continued thinking of his family, particularly his wife, Andrea, who had dropped him off at the airport without accompanying him inside as she usually did because she was running late for work.

“I was worried she would replay that casual moment endlessly in her mind if I didn’t return home,” he said. “I discovered firsthand that when faced with a threatening situation, somewhere within us we find the strength to do must what be done.”

Phillips decided he needed to play mind games of his own, and, in addition to smiling at his captors for long intervals, decided to tempt fate during another fake execution.

“After a while I yelled, ‘Hey, would you idiots get someone back there who can shoot that damn thing!’”

At one point, fed up with “this pirate crap,” he told his captors he was leaving, and, bound hand and foot, began to drag his captors with him toward the hatch before a younger pirate fired a single shot into the air.

The U.S. Navy, who had established radio contact and demanded to know whether Phillips had been harmed, heard that single shot.

Fearing the Navy shooters would open fire if they thought he had been shot, Phillips said the pirates all waved their arms and shouted that no one was hurt, making targets of themselves in the process.

“I heard gunshots, and thought they were shooting each other,” Phillips said, since they had been arguing intensely prior to the shots. “I’m yelling, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’ … and was sprayed a few times with debris from bullets.”

With two pirates dead and another, who had been just inches away from him when the firing began, fading quickly, Phillips said an eerie quiet spread over the lifeboat.

“After days of constant taunting, heat and torture, there was just nothing,” he said. “Finally a voice says, ‘Are you alright?’

“And it’s an American voice.”

The return home

Phillips said the praise heaped on by the media should really be given to the Navy SEALs who pulled their triggers.

“They’re the real heroes of this story who risked their lives to save mine.”

Phillips has been able to meet a handful of the snipers since the rescue, and he was surprised when President Barack Obama called him a model for all Americans.

“I think everyone makes a mistake a few times in their life,” he said with a smile. “I’m not a role model, I was just doing my job.”

He said he enjoyed meeting Obama at the White House, where, in addition to commiserating about the pressure of living under media scrutiny, the two spoke about a host of other important subjects.

“He talked about the Chicago Bulls, and I talked about the [Boston] Celtics.”

The future

Phillips is currently on a leave of absence and is writing a book about his ordeal, which he hopes to have completed before he sets sail again in March.

He said he is also in negotiations on a possible movie deal, though nothing has been confirmed.

“I’ve said all along Danny DeVito,” Phillips said jokingly when asked who he would like to see play his role. “But my wife wants George Clooney. And she wants to play herself.”

The Winchester Star

Pirate talk for a good cause

Capt. Richard Phillips said he was persuaded to speak in Winchester when told that the revenue from each $20 ticket would go to charitable causes.

Half the money raised will go to the Winchester High School Class of 2010, and the other half to Winchester Hospital’s Cancer Center.

“My father died of pancreatic cancer, so this is something I can do to pay it forward to the people who have that terrible disease,” he said.

Class of 2010 officers estimated the event sold at least 300 tickets in advance and more than 100 door, which would represent a total of more than $8,000