Capt Henry's Sea Adventures

An account of the adventures of an old sea captain on the dock

The Real Captain Phillips

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I just want to take a moment to talk about some other captain that I sure that you all have already heard of. His name is Captain Phillips and he is the real deal. I bet you already know who he is since a movie was made about him that stars Tom Hanks. I think it even went on to win some awards. Well now, let me share some info about this stand up guy.

The way Captain Richard Phillips tells it, commercial sailors are the most unsung heroes ever to have cruised the seven seas. In peacetime, they ship 90 per cent of everything you’ll ever buy, be it the flatscreen television you’re watching, the shoes you’re wearing or the car you’re driving. Without them, there’d be no Walmart, Asda or Amazon. Not that anyone ever thanks them.

In wartime, meanwhile, they are directly in the firing line, the US Merchant Marine suffering more casualties than any other American service as they brought tanks to Normandy and bullets to Okinawa. Not that anyone gave them a ticker-tape parade. As he puts it: “A lot of us have a chip on our shoulder. We have a proud tradition. But we never make the headlines.”

It’s fair to say, then, that Phillips himself has broken radically with convention. Four years ago, his cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, handing the pirates a prize beyond their wildest dreams, the modern equivalent of a Spanish galleon full of bullion.

Not because of the cargo on board, which included food aid for Rwanda, but because all but one of the 20 crew were Americans – a jackpot in terms of high-value hostages. If the shipping company wasn’t prepared to pay a ransom, there’d be no shortage of buyers on Somalia’s mainland, home to the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab movement.

For a time, it looked like becoming America’s worst US hostage crisis since the 1979 Tehran embassy siege, a serious test of President Obama’s mettle during his first months in the White House. Instead, it turned into a tale of all-American heroism, as members of the crew, hiding below deck, turned the tables by overpowering the pirate leader and taking him hostage.

Phillips, who was being held at gunpoint on the ship’s bridge, then allowed himself to be taken as collateral for a “prisoner swap”, figuring that one US hostage was better than 20. Finally, as the pirates tried to take Phillips to the Somali coast, two US Navy warships blockaded them, resulting in a tense three-day stand-off.

The drama, covered in real time on US television networks, made the seamen the toast of America. Phillips’s wife, Andrea, got a call of congratulation from a relieved President Obama, while Phillips went on to co-author a best-selling book, A Captain’s Duty. Not bad for a bunch of sailors no one ever cared about.