High seas, high tension
FOR the second time in his otherwise workaday life, Captain Richard Phillips is under the media spotlight. Yet this merchant mariner from Massachusetts brushes it off as one would a mosquito.
“I know it’ll be short- lived, so I can get through it,” he says.
“I’ve been involved in worse things, so it’s not really a problem. It’s not like a poke in the eye.”
When he says he’s encountered “worse things”, the captain isn’t being flippant.
On April 8, 2009, while steering the cargo ship Maersk Alabama towards Mombasa, Kenya, Phillips and his crew were hijacked by four Somali pirates.
When the pirates failed to take control of the ship, they bundled Phillips into the ship’s lifeboat and took off.
Several US Navy ships were dispatched to the Gulf of Aden to monitor the situation the usual routine at that time was that they would simply observe the boat as it made its way back to Somalia’s shore. But political machinations saw the Navy break with routine SEALs intervened on April 12, shooting dead three of the pirates and rescuing Phillips.
Before 2009 was out, Phillips published a book, A Captain’s Duty, about his ordeal. Writing it was a catharsis and also a way to shine a light on the jobs done by merchant mariners and SEALs.
“I also wanted to get across the point I was stronger than I thought,” he adds. “I truly believe we all are stronger than we think, we can do more than we think we can. As long as we don’t give up, we persevere through the worst of times, we can make a good outcome.”
The book was barely written before the movie rights were snapped up. That movie, Captain Phillips directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks as the captain is now considered one of the best of the year and an Oscar- frontrunner.
Watching his story unfold with a little Hollywood pizazz on a cinema screen didn’t bring with it too many traumatic flashbacks for the reallife Phillips.
“For me it was worse than the film portrayed it, so it really wasn’t that bad for me when I watched it,” he says. “It is a good movie, it is pretty action- packed and stays pretty much to the story but it does have some Hollywood input because it really can’t tell the whole story, there was so much that went on and they had to get it down to two hours.”
What was the real, extended experience like?
“I was scared, afraid, during the whole part of it,” says Phillips. “The majority of the time I didn’t see a good outcome coming for me, but I wanted to do the best that I could. After a while you have to take your fear and put it on the seat next to you and do the best you can.
“By the time I was in the lifeboat I was actually pretty happy because I had gotten the pirates off the ship, and my crew and ship and cargo was safe so I was 75 per cent of the way there, in solving my problems. Now I just had to extricate myself. I didn’t believe I could but I thought I had a chance. I did actually escape for a little while but they got me back ...
“I didn’t see a good ending coming of it because I saw the determination they had and I didn’t believe that they were going to give up at all. And they weren’t nice guys. I mean, there were times that we did converse, we had no problems getting our point across, but there were many times they proved their true colours.
“I write about in the book: the young guy with the wild Charlie Manson eyes, he loved to sit across from me with his AK- 47 pointing at me and then pull the trigger. Just go ‘ click’ and then smile at me. So these guys weren’t nice guys. They were indeed out there to try and scare and put the fear of death into people so that they could control them.”
Greengrass has spoken of wanting to ensure there was light and shade to his telling of the saga so his pirates ( played by young Somalis found at casting sessions in the US and UK) are depicted as impressionable and desperate teenagers pushed into their actions by a nasty warlord. Phillips, however, has no such compassion for the real men who used him as “a hostage and a shield”. “I feel no sympathy for them. They’re people who chose that lifestyle. I mean, it’s an opportunity for them to make money in a country where the average annual pay is about $ 165. I don’t think anyone was coerced into doing it. It was a rational thought they made to go out, endanger people’s lives, shoot guns at people ...
“So no, I have no feelings for them. They made a decision that their life and their needs are more important than yours.”
While many say Hanks is now the one to watch in the Best Actor Oscar race for his performance in Captain Phillips, the real captain is reluctant to jump on the bandwagon.
“Well, I wish the best for Tom, he’s a great actor. But I’d hate to jinx him!” Phillips laughs. “I don’t really know the Hollywood business, so I don’t think I’d be much help in that regard. But I think the job he did stands for itself.”
Now showing at State and Village cinemas