A Different Life
Maersk Alabama master reflects on 30 years at sea, the need
for improved security to protect ships against threat of piracy
Capt. Richard Phillips, master of the MV Maersk Alabama, was
thrust into the international spotlight when four pirates attacked his
ship in the Indian Ocean off Somalia on April 8. The Maersk Alabama
crew of 19 thwarted a takeover, but the pirates took Phillips hostage
on a lifeboat. He was rescued April 12 by a team of Navy SEALs and
the USS Bainbridge.
A graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay,
Phillips has spent the last 30 years at sea.
“It’s a different life and not everybody can do it,” he says. “I guess I’ve
been a rarity, I’ve always gone to sea.” And despite the events leading
up to his rescue by those he calls “the real heroes of this story,” Phillips
plans to continue doing what he loves.
Phillips, who as an employee of International Shipholding Corp. has
been chartered to Maersk Line Ltd. for the last two years, says the
United States must push the international community into improving
security on the high seas, and commercial vessels must be hardened,
better equipped and better armed to face the threat of pirates.
While in Arlington, Va., June 13 to receive the Navy League’s Adm. Arleigh Burke Award for Exceptional
Leadership, Phillips discussed his career, the challenges facing the commercial shipping industry and what
he thinks can be done to improve safety and security on the high seas with Editor in Chief Amy L.
Wittman. Accompanying him was his wife, Andrea. Excerpts follow:
What are some of the jobs you’ve had over the
PHILLIPS: I’ve been on oil tankers. I’ve been on break-bulk, container ships. … I’ve been sailing captain for 19
years, since 1991, and once I sailed captain, I was pretty much on general cargo break-bulk, which I truly
liked, and then car carriers, container ships and RO/ROs
[roll-on/roll-off vessels], some of which were prepositioned ships for the military.
How long are you usually away?
PHILLIPS: When you’re first starting out as third or
second mate, you’re new, it’s an entry-level officer posi-
tion and you’re also new in the unions, so you have to
get seniority. In the beginning, there were times when
I would do six months straight. I think the longest I’d
ever been was 189 days. That’s before we were married.
But since I’ve been sailing captain and chief mate, it’s
pretty much been three months on, three months off,
which I especially like. That’s just the right amount of
time for me because it gives you enough time on the
ship and it gives you enough time at home.
What are the challenges of leading a crew with
such diverse backgrounds?
PHILLIPS: One is communicating. Everyone hears
SEAPOWER / AUGUST 2009