Captain in Somali pirate drama mulls career change

UNDERHILL, Vt. — He’s got a book deal, and a movie could be in the works. He’s been to the White House to meet the president, to the Queen Mary ocean liner for a vacation and back to his modest 1830s Vermont farmhouse. He gives motivational speeches on the lecture circuit.

Now, six months after his high-seas drama with Somali pirates finished with a happy ending, Capt. Richard Phillips is contemplating calling it quits with the sea.

“I have been doing it for 30 years. Maybe it’s time to do something else,” he said Monday, sitting for an interview in his living room.

Phillips, 54, was the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-flagged cargo ship hijacked April 8 off the coast of Somalia.

Crew members seized one of the pirates, and Phillips spent five days in a lifeboat — held hostage at gunpoint — before U.S. Navy sharpshooters killed the three other pirates in a daring nighttime attack that left Phillips unhurt.

The resolution came after the pirates agreed to let the USS Bainbridge tow the lifeboat out of rough water. The surviving pirate, who surrendered after boarding the Bainbridge, is awaiting trial.

Phillips was hailed as a hero for helping his crew thwart the hijacking before he was taken hostage, but he says he never volunteered, as crew members and his family reported at the time. He says he was already a hostage when he struck a deal with the pirates — trading him for their leader, who was taken by the Maersk Alabama’s crew.

They reneged, he said.

“They never took the ship. The crew did a marvelous job, they were instrumental in the outcome of this incident. They remained hidden. They took the ship down, made it inoperative. The pirates couldn’t find the crew. That got them nervous,” he said.

Having sunk their own boat, the pirates had no way to escape, so Phillips offered himself and the Maersk Alabama’s lifeboat.

“I said, ‘I’ll help you get off the ship, I’ll help you get away,’” he said Monday.

That started the ordeal on the 25-foot lifeboat.

He was optimistic about his odds of escaping at first, but despair set in as the days passed. He thought he’d never get out of alive.

“That fear was there. I was scared throughout it. But after a while, when you have that fear there, it comes to be normal and you can sorta set that aside and figure out what you try to do next. Throughout the incident, on the ship and on the lifeboat, I was basically trying to slow everything down. Things were getting out of control.

“I wanted to slow things down and get a good handle on things and try to get a good ending.”

But his inner resolve to attempt an escape was fading.

“I had made that my mind from the moment I got on the boat. I was starting to get upset that I was turning into a wimp and not getting away,” he said.

When he tried, he failed: He jumped into the ocean and tried to swim away, but the pirates quickly recaptured him — and they weren’t happy.

“When they got mad, they verbally told me and then they physically showed me,” he said.

On April 12, the Navy — in an operation approved by President Barack Obama — carried out its daring nighttime rescue, killing the pirates with three single shots.

One of the first things Phillips did once he got home was learn how to use an AK-47. Now, he doesn’t know if he’ll return to the Maersk — or to the merchant marine life.

But it’s not because he’s worried about piracy, he said.

“If I had any trepidations, it would be part of my decision. At this point, right now, it’s not.

“If I had fears, that would weigh in on my decision. But I really don’t have any fears, with what’s been set up and some of the changes and some of the security instituted. I think there are things on (the Alabama) that would preclude anything happening again, such as my incident,” he said.

His yet-untitled book, to be published by Hyperion Books, will tell the story of the hijacking and his abduction. He says he’s writing the memoir “just ‘cause I believe it’s a good story with a great ending, as far as I’m concerned.”

Hollywood seems to think so, too.

Phillips said he is in talks with Columbia Pictures about a big-screen version of his adventure. Who should play him? Danny DeVito, he says in jest.

“My wife wants George Clooney, so she can play herself. But I wouldn’t do that to George,” he said, laughing.

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