National Press Club

Captain Phillips recalls rescue from pirates, advocates support for merchant marine

October 10, 2013 | By Lorna Aldrich |

Richard Phillips, the American ship captain captured by Somali pirates in 2009 and rescued by Navy Seals, described his experience at an Oct. 10 National Press Club Newsmaker, meanwhile advocating Congressional budget support for the merchant marine.

A movie starring Tom Hanks, scheduled for Oct. 11 release, tells the captain's story.

Phillips said Hanks did a great job in the film, specifically because his eyes reveal the fear and attempt to regain control during the 12 hours the captain was alone with four pirates in a lifeboat.

The captain said his goal was to remain a person in the pirate's eyes and his own, something his training for such an emergency had taught him.

A relationship developed with the pirates in which, he said, "We laughed at each other, or better yet, sneered."

"They would tell me I would die in Somalia and they would die in the United States," he said.

When the Seals shot the pirates, he at first thought the pirates were shooting each other. "It was a while before I realized what was going on," he said.

Phillips identified piracy as a worldwide problem, with raids in Asia and Nigeria, in his opinion, posing the most serious threats. "If you don't want to deal with piracy you don't belong in the merchant marine," he said.

Appearing with Phillips at the Newsmaker was Steven Werse, secretary-treasurer of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots. The two identified funding cuts as another threat to the merchant marine; what pirates could not take away, they warned, Congress might.

Werse described a budget "anomaly." He said that a number of merchant marine ships were under repair following their heavy use in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and as a result $12 million dollars of government support was not spent. This dropped the baseline for support to the merchant marine by that amount before sequestration.

He cited the importance of government support to maintaining the U.S. merchant marine because regulations and higher standards of training make the ships more expensive than those flying "flags of convenience."

Werse said he is meeting with representatives of the Departments of Defense and Transportation and members of Congress. There are many new members who need to be "educated," he said.

Phillips noted that the merchant marine carried 80 percent of cargo to Iraq and Afghanistan for the Department of Defense. His ship, the Maersk Alabama, was carrying American food aid when it was boarded by pirates, he said.