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A conversation with Captain Richard Phillips on the 10th anniversary of the MV Maersk Alabama, Somali Pirates

By Rear Admiral Wendi B. Carpenter (U.S. Navy Retired), Executive Director of the Captain Richard Phillips Lane Kirkland Maritime Trust

For five days in April 2009, Captain Richard Phillips became the center of an extraordinary international drama, when he was captured by Somali pirates who attacked and boarded his ship the MV Maersk Alabama.

The hostage situation began on Wednesday, April 8, when a small band of pirates swung a ladder from their skiff onto the container ship, which was ferrying food aid to East Africa. With the pirates firing at the vessel’s bridge, they climbed aboard the ship. Many of the crew members scrambled into a designated safe room aboard the vessel. As events unfolded, and the world watched, Captain Phillips was eventually rescued from a tiny lifeboat by the pinpoint actions of a team of U.S. Navy Seals. He was brought safely aboard the USS Bainbridge.

Captain Phillips is the author of A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, the story of his experience and remarkable rescue. The dramatic story was made into a motion picture, starring Tom Hanks in the role of Captain Phillips.

Ten years have elapsed since the drama of that incident captured the world’s attention. The introduction of the first iPhone was a recent occurrence. Now we are on the 10th generation release, plus constant IOS updates… time waits for no man. Some things change, but some do not. Piracy has been around for thousands of years, and it still exists. More in some areas than others, but Rich will tell you that “Sailors still think about it. The U.S. Navy and other Navies helps to tamp it down. It still happens though, like in the waters off Nigeria, several times recently. As recently as the 9th, as a matter of fact, a ship and its crew was rescued by the Spanish Navy.” The pattern of piracy off Nigeria is different from the modus operandi used by Somali pirates in years past.

Rich is now fully retired from sailing, but remains very engaged in philanthropic work. He invests much of his time in speaking and in the work of the Captain Richard Phillips Lane Kirkland Maritime Trust, raising awareness about the vital importance of U.S. maritime industry and the significant contributions of its labor force and merchant mariners. Rich is very proud of the scholarships now being awarded by the Trust. Money provided to men and women seeking a career in the maritime industry and who have a demonstrated need. He gives too, by staying plugged in with the Navy Seal Foundation and is deeply committed to assisting in their important work.

I have been privileged to interact and share “sea stories” often with Rich, first as President at SUNY Maritime College and now because of my involvement with the work of the Trust.

I find Rich to be an affable individual (much like my own brother), with a great sense of humor, a ready smile, but also very focused on matters such as family, providing opportunity for others, and trying always to do what he thinks is right and reflective of strong character.

Most recently, Rich and I both spoke on the subject of “Crisis Leadership” at the Ship Owners’ Cooperative Program (SOCP) Spring Summit, held in conjunction with the Maritime Education Summit. The events took place at Rich’s alma mater Massachusetts Maritime Academy and was attended by “Future Leaders” groups who are cadets at the Academies.

Rich’s wife Andrea took time off from work to join us at the event. I had not seen her since just before the film was released. Andrea is a lady of immense skill and personality all her own. She is an emergency room nurse. Her inputs and interactions in the SOCP meetings were truly fantastic, and insightful, revealing a keen mind. Pragmatic by nature, she had an easy time analyzing issues and offering solutions. (I think she should consider retirement from nursing and start consulting on health care or other big issues).

I enjoyed our conversations, over lunch and then dinner, as Andrea shared her perspectives on many things with me, regarding Rich and the crisis the family went through. As she put it, there were many coincidences and things from the past that made her know Rich would be okay. One such example: Andrea’s father served on the USS Bainbridge (DD-246) during Pacific action in WWII and returned home okay. You might recall that our current USS Bainbridge (DDG-96 and the fifth Bainbridge) came to the scene of the Maersk Alabama seizure in 2009. Divine messages originate from many places.

PHOTO: Andrea Phillips’ father was assigned as a sailor during WWII to the USS Bainbridge.

I spoke at SOCP about crisis planning and preparing for the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, which occurred when I was President of SUNY Maritime College. We had to plan for both the 55 acre campus and our training ship, the Empire State, to weather the impact of a major storm whose landfall was scheduled to coincide with a full moon and high tides. Our Team’s effort resulted in a plan that not only mitigated the actual impact of the storm as it came ashore. The plan and our “pre-actions” assisted in our ability to deal effectively with her devastating aftermath. We went through a long period feeding and housing 600 FEMA workers at the campus and on-board the ship, and our own college community trying to provide direct aid in the nearby NJ and NY communities so badly hit.

Rich spoke about the many lessons from the incident on the Maersk Alabama.

Not surprisingly, Rich and I had significant overlap in our comments, because “leadership is leadership.” Depending on the crisis, some events may unfold more rapidly than others, of course, and require instantaneous decision making. Others allow for more “planning” and consideration of potential courses of action.

Resolve is an important character necessary for a leader. You resolve to come through the crisis and never give up. You constantly look for answers and fall back on your training and instinct to guide you.

Training with good processes and procedures gives you a great advantage in any crisis. People are better prepared and have set themselves up to overcome the adversity, because they have “been there” mentally and walked through various scenarios. In crisis, reaching back to that training helps people to visualize potential options and work to implement those which would be most successful.

Another important characteristic of good leadership is communicating frequently and effectively to provide key information. Keeping your Team informed elevates the level of decision making and reduces anxiety that is natural in crisis. Relying on the Team members to do what they each know are their mission, function and tasks is essential to the holistic effort. You must delegate and trust others.

Finally, it’s important to control emotions and remain calm. “Slow it down,” is a saying Rich likes to share. That enables you to focus on procedures and prior experience or training that might help in the crisis situation. Things can change so dramatically and swiftly. Slowing it down, helps you to keep as much control as possible.

I asked Rich to reflect on his life before the incident with the pirates and the ten years since. “What, if anything, has changed with you? It was life-threatening – every moment, you knew some miscalculation by you or the pirates, could result in death. Many people go through life- threatening experiences and are changed forever. What happened to you, Rich? Any change?” With Rich’s usual calm and quiet demeanor, he took a breath and said, “No. I do not think I changed. I think the entire thing simply reinforced to me that I was on the right path in life. That I had my priorities right. My family, friends and faith.” No, he is not interested in seeing the last living pirate. But, interestingly, unlike many others who might have been in such a situation, he has no bitterness or animosity toward him.

Every home coming is unique. I asked Rich when he returned home THAT time and got all the appropriate hugs and the like, “What did you want to do that would seem “normal.?” He smiled and said, “I wanted to have my neighbor’s famous chicken pot pie and enjoy a few beers with old friends and new friends (like members of the media, and the FBI who had been there with his family. One FBI agent even peeled the potatoes for the chicken pie). Now, that’s a home coming to remember.

The Phillips Trust is a way that enables Rich to give back to an industry that he believes was so good to him over the years of his career and provided a great living and opportunity for his family. Rich speaks regularly to a wide group of audiences, and especially enjoys talking with young people and encouraging careers in the maritime industry.

My final question to Rich: “When people recall the Maersk Alabama incident, how do you, Rich Phillips, want to be remembered?” Rich, with little hesitation, said, “Wendi, I want to be remembered as an average guy, who did the best he could in a tough situation. We all face adversity and overcoming is part of life. Regular people rise to the occasion and do great things all the time. No matter how rough the situation might be. I want people to remember that I never gave up and neither should they. Never give up.”

PHOTO: Captain Richard Phillips reunited with his children after the Maersk Alabama incident April 2009.