Back in February last year HERE I chronicled (I love ‘chronicling’ – I especially love just saying the word ‘chronicling’) my thoughts on a book written by ex-Navy Seal Robert O’Neil entitled THE OPERATOR (published 2017).
This memoir was devoted to chronicling (ha!) highlights from his 400 mission career. One of those highlights included firing the shots that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Another successful mission spoken about in that book was the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from the clutches of Somali Pirates back in April 2009.
After recently seeing on DVD the 2013 movie CAPTAIN PHILLIPS starring Tom Hanks in the title role, it was time to read the 2010 book written by the real Captain Phillips (co-written by Stephan Talty whose 2017 book THE BLACK HAND – about Italy’s version of Sherlock Holmes – is set to also be made into a movie, starring Leonardo Dicaprio).
Like the movie, this book gripped nice ‘n tight. It didn’t disappoint.
The first 100 pages of the book details Phillips early life as a Boston cab driver, his graduation in 1979 from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and his years working in the merchant marine prior to the events of 2009.
Phillips notes there are a thousand ways to die on a ship – from storms that produce 70 foot waves to mad cooks, scurvy, mutiny and just plain loneliness. His recollections of docking in ports of war-torn third World countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Monrovia and seeing scores of people on the shore-lines whose right hands had been chopped off because they’d voted for the wrong candidates in corrupt local elections sends a chill down the spine.
The rest of the book renders a minute by minute account of the four-day hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama, captained by Richard Phillips, while it was located in the Indian Ocean, 240 nautical miles southeast of the Somalia port of Eyl. The ordeal began on April 8th, 2009.
With a crew of 20, the ship was en route to Mombasa, Kenya. It was carrying 17,000 tons of cargo, of which 5,000 tons were relief supplies bound for Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya.
The four pirates who hijacked the ship and took Captain Phillips hostage in the orange-coloured covered lifeboat were aged between 17 and 19 years of age. Three of the pirates were killed by U.S. Navy SEAL snipers’ bullets to the head. The fourth is serving a 33 year prison sentence in a U.S Federal prison in South Carolina.
In the year prior to the attack on the Maersk Alabama there were 111 attacks on marine vessels by Somali pirates in that area of the Indian ocean, resulting in 42 ‘successful’ hijackings. What was noteworthy about Captain Phillip’s experience was the Maersk Alabama was the first successful pirate seizure of a ship registered under the American flag since the early 19th century.
The hijacked container ship MAERSK ALABAMA (since renamed the MV TYGRA and now owned by a different shipping company) as it looked back in 2009. In the years since there have been at least four other attempted hijackings on the ship by Somali pirates, the first of these less than six months after Captain Phillips’ experience.
The video below unpacks some of the reasons why Somalia (population 14 million) is such a hotbed for piracy on the seas. Ravaged by a 30 year civil war, drought and famine, with a life-expectancy of only 55 years and a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) output that ranks it 193 on a list of 199 countries (United States, China and Japan naturally occupy the top three positions) it’s not hard to see why the promise of big pay days via extorted ransoms (some running into the tens of millions of dollars) are a huge lure for poorly educated Somalians desperate to escape the poverty cycle.
In A CAPTAIN’S DUTY, Phillips relates the mind games played by both himself, the Somali Pirates and the American Navy destroyer USS Bainbridge across the four days. He details the insults, denial of food and water and mock executions he endured while all the time trussed up with ropes like a pig ready for slaughter. Describing one of the pirates as having “Charles Manson eyes” (p118), at one point they even tried convincing him the whole nightmare was a Navy training exercise they’d agreed to roleplay.
Richard Phillips used any technique he could to try to stay mentally strong in the face of prolonged psychological torture which included taunts he wasn’t a real sailor because he couldn’t tie certain intricate knots the way his captors could.
There are passages that are as entertaining as they are distressing –
“What did you do?” I yelled up to the leader.
“Shut up” he said.
The leader turned his head and spat.
“Oh, you mean ‘Please be quiet Captain’ “
I heard Musso snicker at that. Even the leader cracked a smile. That was the first and last I’d get out of him.
The battle of wits and wills would continue right up to the end, with the pirates trying to constantly wear Phillips down, confuse and humiliate him. Sometimes they succeeded, causing him to pen thoughts in the book such as this –
“I’m a big John Wayne fan and I remembered a line from one of his movies THE SEARCHERS. A cowboy has apologized for shooting a desperado. And John Wayne says something like, ‘That’s all-right. Some men need killing’.
I’ve never met a man who needed killing. But right then, Young Guy did. He was like an assassin toying with his victim before he put him out of his misery. He was enjoying it all to hell.
Unlike this footage of an attempted pirate attack occurring in a similar part of the Indian Ocean in 2012, on board the Maersk Alabama that day there were no guns or rifles for the crew to use to fight back and certainly no trained security personnel.
Richard Phillips returned to sea fourteen months after the pirate attack, sailing as Master of the vehicle carrier M/V Green Bay until his retirement in 2014. His memoir is a powerful, intoxicating read.
Ps. The video above might be titled THE REAL MAERSK ALABAMA STORY but as with most things there’s another side. Go HERE if you want to know. If you’re not completely video-ed out by this point you’ll also get the gist here in this commentary as well –
These pictures were taken more than 10 years ago. Today Richard Phillips is a 64 year-old retired ships’ captain.
Ps. On a completely unrelated note, the 2019 AP Stylebook (AP stands for Associated Press and has been published every year since 1953) went on sale this week and celebrated by officially removing the hyphen from “best-seller.” Henceforth, it’s just “bestseller.” Thought you should know.