Retired merchant mariner and author Capt. Richard Phillips says he is not a hero.

In April of 2009, when four Somali pirates hijacked his cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, and took him hostage for five days aboard one of the ship’s lifeboats, Phillips said he “was just doing his job.”

Phillips, whose book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” served as the basis for the dramatization of his account by the 2013 film “Captain Phillips,” came to the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts on Tuesday, Feb. 24 to share his own personal account of that treacherous week at sea.

He began by describing his memories as a young Bostonian taxi driver, unsure of what to do with his life until one day he picked up a customer in Charlestown, Mass., who was “looking for some action.”

Phillips got to talking with the man, an off-duty merchant mariner, as he drove him to Boston’s infamous Combat Zone, an adult entertainment district. Phillips became intrigued by the man’s profession, and soon after, he enrolled at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. Not long after receiving his captain’s license in 1991, he was piloting ships across the globe.




According to Phillips, “Piracy is the second oldest profession in the merchant marine industry.” While traversing the northwest Indian Ocean, “piracy was a matter of when, not if.”

Then one calm morning, he heard the message over the radio: “Somali pirates coming to get you. Somali pirates coming to get you.”

Soon after, a small thin wooden boat with a high-powered engine fixed for speed was spotted on the horizon, coming in fast. As the Maersk Alabama changed course, the small boat changed course. When the Maersk Alabama changed course again, so did the small boat.

“It was obvious what was going on,” said Phillips, who was sure it was not just a fishing boat. He alerted his ship, armed the crew with flairs and ordered the ship locked down. Firehouses and rocket flares could not keep the armed pirates from boarding the ship with their tall wooden ladder, as they shot their AK-47 assault rifles at Phillips and his crew.

When the pirates made their way to the bridge, Phillips remembers them happy and excited, high-fiving each other because they had hijacked an American-owned ship. To them, this meant a wealthy ransom.

“It’s just business,” Phillips remembers being told by the pirates’ leader.

Phillips recounts how they kept demanding him to make the ship work, and to find the rest of the crew, whom he was able to keep hidden below in the engine room of the Maersk Alabama as he distracted the pirates and stalled for help. The leader of the pirates was then captured by Phillips’ crew, and a hostage exchange was set up.

“I knew I had to protect my crew, my ship and my cargo,” said Phillips. “I had lost control when pirates boarded my ship. Losing control is never good for any leader.”




Phillips then described what most media got wrong: “I didn’t surrender myself to the pirates.” He says he did whatever he could to get pirates off of the ship. “Something told me this was the best course of action,” said Phillips.

The hostage exchange was botched; the pirate leader was freed and Phillips was not.

“Never trust a pirate,” he joked.

The pirates and Phillips would then find themselves in the Maersk Alabama’s lifeboat, cruising toward the Somali shore, the Maersk Alabama in pursuit.

“It was terribly hot in the lifeboat … I didn’t care about food but water truly, truly, truly, became dear … I was on my own, but I vowed not to give up,” Phillips recounted.

After attempting to escape by swimming away from the lifeboat, he was captured, beaten and bound.

With their handguns pressed against the back of Phillips’ head, click after click, the pirates repeatedly convinced Phillips he was to be executed.

“I settled the affairs of my life … I said goodbye to my wife, I said goodbye to my son, and I said goodbye to my daughter,” said Phillips.

By this point in time, the U.S. Navy had arrived on the scene, which added a lot of hostility in the lifeboat.

When the shots eventually rang out, Phillips was not sure to make of what was happening. SEAL Team Six had capitalized on pirates exposing themselves for the first time, killing the three remaining pirates on board.

Not long after he was aboard the Navy ship, where he finally realized he was out of harm’s way.




According to Phillips, “the real heroes of this story are the military, the U.S. Navy SEALs.”

What’s important, Phillips said, is to remember the inner strength to never give up hope.

“I don’t know where it actually came from, it’s why I talk about it. It’s already in us,” he said. “I think it comes from our background, our growing up. It’s just there.

“We learn it school, we learn it in sports, we learn it in bands, we learn things there where we have to work through it. Not everything comes easy, so I think it’s important to remember that,” he added. “We all have pirate-like things that we have to deal with and we can all get through it.”

When asked if Phillips has since forgiven the pirates, he responded: “I harbor no will toward them. I know they had little to no opportunity or chance of advancement, and I think that’s how a lot of terrorism, crime, juvenile crime or gangs [exist], I think that’s how it comes about.”

Phillips’ theme of never giving up resonated with students, such as Joe Stanton ‘15.

“I really enjoyed listening to Capt. Phillips speak tonight,” Stanton said. “What I liked most about the talk was his constant emphasis on his mindset throughout the disaster: to not give up and to always be prepared for the worst.”

“Failure is only final if we give up or quit,” Phillips concluded. “It’s not over until you say it’s over, even when times look tough.”

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