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Yo Ho, Yo Ho, The Pirates Kidnapped Me: The Story Of Captain Phillips

Sarah Collins |
April 25, 2014 | 7:00 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Captain Richard Phillips (Sarah Collins/Neon Tommy)
Captain Richard Phillips (Sarah Collins/Neon Tommy)

On Thursday, Captain Richard Phillips, the man who inspired the 2013 film bearing his name, came to USC to discuss homeland security and counterterrorism with the National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events during its 10th anniversary conference. 

In April of 2009, Captain Phillips and his crew aboard the Maersk Alabama were attacked by Somali Pirates, and, over the course of twelve to thirteen hours, things went from bad to drastic. 

Before the attack, Phillips said, “Security was pretty lax; it wasn’t up to my standard. So, I decided that in a couple days we’d have a surprise, unannounced security drill to see where we stood. As a captain I’m only required to do these quarterly. Although, as I said it’s better to plan for the worst.” Though there was some grumbling about the drill he said, “a few days later, five to be exact, everybody on my crew were real happy that we stopped and planned for the worst.”

On that ill-fated day, everything seemed to pass rather quickly, as Captain Phillips described it. “Picture, if you will,” he said, “the vastness of the sea, and the darkness of that very night. And a voice coming over our ship’s VHF radio sounding very eerie, saying, ‘Somali Pirate coming to get you. Somali Pirate coming to get you.’”

The morning after was like a large-scale game of cat-and-mouse, “It was coming on fast, about 21 knots. We changed course. They changed course.”

He explained how the he seeked out help before the pirates officially made contact with the boat. “We get on our ship’s satellite telephone, and we call the UK NGO Piracy setup. And these guys give us lots of great advice,” he joked. “We have someone with AK-47s closing on us, and they’re asking us questions like, ‘Are you sure it’s not a fishing boat?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Unless they shooting the fish, probably not.’”

Finally, the pirates attached a ladder to the Maersk Alabama and climbed their way up. The crew, under Captain Phillips’s orders, went into hiding, where the pirates would never find them. “This began the first radio where I announced to the crew, ‘Pirates are aboard. Pirates are aboard,’” Phillips said. 

He continued, “This began a twelve to thirteen hour span on the Maersk Alabama with the four pirates. It was a brief slope of stress, tense hide-and-seek, and Simon says on a 508-foot ship. And, unfortunately, we have become part of history. We’re the first ship to be attacked and boarded and some crew taken hostage since 1800s and I do not consider this a very good thing.

“The leader [of the pirates] was firing from the bridge of the Maersk Alabama and when [he] disappeared and I lost track of him. He was shortly, very shortly, up on the bridge. I had just come up from the bridge wing onto the bridge, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a blur and looked and it was the pirate leader on the bridge with an AK-47. He stepped back from the bridge wing, fired twice in the air, lowered the weapon, and then entered the bridge, saying, ‘Relax, Captain. Just business. Just business. No al-Qaeda. No al-Qaeda. Just business. Relax.’” 

The pirates spent hours looking for the crew, and the crew kidnapped their leader and held him as hostage. At that point, Phillips said, “I discover a strength in me that I didn’t really know I had, a strength and resistance that my crew was displaying.

“We came up with a solution. We’ll help them get onto their rescue boat, and then we’ll lower them and make an exchange: their leader and we’ll let them go on their merry way.”

But, unfortunately, the pirates didn’t follow through with the plan, taking Captain Phillips hostage in the lifeboat. “It’s another lesson I learned,” he said, “Never trust a pirate.” The audience laughed. 

He did note some discrepancies with the media, however. “One of the biggest things that media got wrong: I didn’t sacrifice myself as some hostage, I believe that my major responsibility was to get those pirates off the Maersk Alabama. Then the crew, my ship, my responsibility would be free and clear. In spite of everything I learned in my training, that I should’ve been the last person off the ship, somehow I knew that was the best course of action that I could take,” he said, humbly. “In our business, we’ve all been trained a certain way of thinking that may not work for some contemporary situations we might find ourselves in. And I think we should question both our training and our judgments to ascertain, what is the right course of action in a new situation.” Heroic in his eyes or not, his actions were what saved the rest of his crew from harm. 

The pirates kept him in the blistering hot lifeboat for days, giving him little food and water. They bound his arms and legs so tightly; he told the audience that he has scars to this day from them. The pirates would play mind games with him, pretending to fire the gun at him, telling him they were actually members of his crew doing a safety drill, and other heinous stories. 

“I knew I had to wait for the right moment, and jump off that damn lifeboat,” Captain Phillips said. “I knew the Maersk Alabama was still gonna follow us for awhile. And I told the chief if you see a splash out the backdoor, it’s me. Come and get me.”

Once three of the pirates fell asleep and one of them was “heeding to nature’s call” out the hatch, Phillips knew it was his only chance. He pushed the pirate outside into the water and dived as far away from the boat as he could. After bouts of gunfire with a bullet that just missed his head, however, he said, “Ok, ok. You got me.”

Even with the odds of survival against him, he still didn’t lose hope: “It’s amazing what happens when you refuse to give up. I don’t know why it works that way but it does. When you vow you won’t give up, sooner or later something will happen that makes your situation better.”

Finally, the United States Navy Seal, or the “real heroes,” as Phillips called them, arrived on the scene. Phillips said, “The Navy presence, I think, by Saturday afternoon, was starting to spook them.” After Captain Phillips made another attempt to leave, things got ugly. The head pirate fired two warning shots to make Phillips listen to him, which only stirred the attention of the Navy. 

“Sure enough,” Phillips said, “pretty soon I heard a voice outside the boat that said, ‘What’s the problem? What’s going on in there?’ An American voice. The pirates yelled back, ‘Relax, relax. No problem. Relax.’

“That’s when the shots rang out and I dove down as low as I could go. To be honest, I thought it was the three pirates shooting at each other. I thought I was caught in a crossfire between the three pirates at each end of the lifeboat. And I’m yelling, ‘What the heck are you guys doing?’ There were a bunch of shots…[The Navy] knew exactly where I sat so they were able to shoot around me. Initially, I got sprayed with debris in my face. And when it got quiet, I picked my head up. 

“Finally, a voice says, ‘Are you alright?’ And it’s an American voice. And then he came down the forward hatch. He was a United States Navy Seal who slid down the towrope, landed on the bow of the lifeboat, and yelled out, ‘Are you alright?’ not knowing what he would encounter.” 

With his pirate kidnappers done away, the Navy Seals helped Phillips out of the lifeboat. “It wasn’t until I was in the Navy boat, being hoisted onto the main deck that I realized ‘I’m alive. I made it. I’m out of there,’” Phillips said. 

And thus, Phillips’s ship was taken over by pirates, he was held hostage, he nearly starved to death, and he lived to tell the tale. “The real heroes of this story,” he had to add, “are those United States Navy Seals who risked their lives to save mine.”

He concluded his recount, “You’re stronger than you even know. You can do more, and you can take more. The only time when all is over is when we choose to give up. A motivated, professional team can overcome almost any obstacle. These aren’t skills to use around pirates on the high seas, they’re very often things we need in our daily lives. We [all] face challenge and change. Whether it’s me with the changing of the high seas or the changing of the seas in security and defense, we’re all riding on ever changing waves. And let me tell you, from experience, you’re better off to face that with a well trained, committed crew than all by yourself alone. Let’s face it, one simple reason I’m here today that allowed me to live and enjoy time with my family and friends was a team of professionals who did what they had to do to accomplish their mission.” 

The film, Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, was nominated for six Oscars in 2013, including Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay. The movie was adapted from Phillips’s autobiography, A Captain’s Duty, published in 2010.  

Contact Reporter Sarah Collins here. Follow her on Twitter here



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

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