A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea
By Richard Phillips
Hardcover, 304 pages
List price: $25.99
PIRACY FIGURES UP 20 PERCENT IN FIRST QUARTER OF 2009: A total of 36 vessels were boarded and one vessel hijacked. Seven crew members were taken hostage, six kidnapped, three killed and one missing — presumed dead. In the majority of incidents, the attackers were heavily armed with guns or knives. The use and threat of violence against crew members remains unacceptably high. Waters around Somalia continue to be notorious for hijacking of vessels and the abduction of crew for ransom.
—ICC International Maritime Bureau Piracy Report,
First Quarter, 2009
Ten days before, I'd been enjoying my last meal stateside with my wife, Andrea, in one of the most beautiful towns in Vermont. All you see from the front door of my converted farmhouse are rolling green hills, munching cows, and more rolling hills. Underhill is the kind of Vermont town where young farmers propose to their local sweethearts by spray-painting rachel, will you marry me? on bales of hay. It's a place where you can walk for three minutes and be lost in a forest so deep and thick and silent you'd think you're going to trip over Daniel Boone. We have two general stores and one Catholic church, St. Thomas, and the occasional tourist up from Manhattan. It's as different from the ocean as the other side of the moon is, and I love that. It's like I get to live two completely different lives.
As a merchant mariner, I often work three months on and three months off. When I come home, I forget about the sea. I'm 100 percent into being a dad and husband. When our kids, Dan and Mariah, were young, from the moment they got up to the minute they went to bed, I'd take care of them. Neighbors and friends would ask me to babysit, so I'd have five or six kids in tow. I'd make dinner: French toast by candlelight, my specialty. I'd do Rich's Homework Club. I'd take the kids on class trips. Whatever I do, work or home life, I do with everything I have.
When I leave my family, it's for a long time. You need to do something special for them before you ship out, because it might be the last time you see them. When he was growing up, my son, Dan, would goad me, "Oh, I don't have a dad. He's never home. Guess he doesn't love me." We'd laugh about it — Dan is exactly like I was when I was nineteen: a smart aleck who will find your weakness and hammer it home until you give in and laugh. But what he said about my never being there would come back to haunt me. Because there's a kernel of truth there. My daughter, Mariah, and Dan would see me every day for three months and then I would be gone to some far-flung corner of the world. It didn't matter to them that there were other merchant mariners who stayed onboard even longer than I did, that I knew one guy, a radio operator, who was aboard one ship for two years straight.
As a sailor, you have to put your real life on your kitchen shelf and pick up your merchant marine life. Because on the job, you barely have a personal life. You're on call twenty-four hours a day to do whatever the ship needs. You eat and sleep and work and that's pretty much it. It's like you've died and gone to sea. Then you come back and take your real life off the shelf and start living it again.
You develop rituals to get through the transition from land to sea. Sailors have a phrase, "crossing the bar," which means leaving harbor for the unknown on the oceans (it also can refer to the death of a sailor), and you have to get yourself mentally prepared to go across. It's a stressful time when fears start creeping into the minds of your loved ones. It was probably the dangers of my job that were on Andrea's mind that cold March — pirates, rogue waves, desperate people in third-world ports. All the while, I'd be thinking like a captain, running through a checklist with a thousand things on it: What repairs do I need to see to? Are the guys on my crew dependable? I used to start doing this a month before I left, which would drive Andrea around the bend. Now, after thirty years at sea, I wait until I hit the deck of my ship.
Andrea and I have a tradition when I'm getting ready to leave. First, we argue. About nothing at all. In the weeks leading up to my leaving, Andrea and I always have arguments about little things, about the car or the weather or her hitting her head on the old ship's bell that hangs near the clothesline in our backyard. She must have smacked it three or four times while putting up fresh laundry to dry, and she always comes in and yells at me to take it down. (It's still up there, too — sentimental value.) But in those weeks before a job, we get on each other's nerves, which is nothing more than her being anxious about my leaving and me being anxious about leaving her.
Andrea is an emergency room nurse at a hospital in Burlington and she's a fierce, opinionated, loving Italian girl from Vermont. I love her to death. We'd met in a Boston dive bar, the Cask 'n Flagon, down near Kenmore Square, when she was in nursing school and I'd been around the world a few times already as a young sailor. I noticed this cute frizzy-haired brunette girl sitting at the bar, and I just had to talk to her. Andrea was talking with the bartender, since they'd just discovered they had mutual friends. Then, as she tells it, this tall guy with a beard appeared out of nowhere and sat down next to her.
"You have a problem," I said.
Andrea thought, Well, he's cute enough. I'll play along.
"What's that?" she said.
"Being the best-looking woman in every room you walk into."
"Thanks," she said. "There are three women in here. Not a huge compliment."
I laughed and stuck out my hand.
"I'm Rich," I said. "As in 'filthy.' "That was one of my better lines in the early eighties.
Andrea cracked up. Then she let me buy her a drink.
Years later, after we were married, Andrea told me that she thought I was funny and easy to talk to. Like most people's, her only knowledge of the merchant marine came from Humphrey Bogart movies. I guess that's why she let me tell her so many stories. "You made it sound intriguing," she said.
After we met, I had to ship out and Andrea didn't hear from me again for months. She moved to a new apartment after her first year at nursing school. Then one night at about 1 a.m., there was a rap on her door. When she opened it, there I was, smiling like I'd won the lottery. She was floored. She figured I must have walked all over Boston, trying to find her new address. She wasn't far off.
Andrea was twenty-five and very focused on school. Nursing was going to be her life. I was on her radar, but only a blip on the edge of the screen. I would ship out and she would get postcards and then letters from these ports all over the world. Then I'd come back to Boston and take her out to dinner and the movies and pick her and her friends up at seven a.m. the next morning and drive them to their first classes. All the while, I'd have a new batch of stories to tell her about storms off Cape Hatteras or typhoons or good or crazy shipmates.
To me, it was just life on the seas. But she loved getting the postcards and the sudden reunions. "It was romantic," Andrea says to this day. "It really was."
The night before I shipped out for the Maersk Alabama, Andrea and I jumped in our car and went to our favorite restaurant, a place called Euro, in the nearby town of Essex. Andrea had the shrimp scampi and I had the seafood medley and we drank a bottle of red wine we brought with us. It's cheaper that way. I'm three quarters Irish and one quarter Yankee, but that one quarter controls the money. I've been known to be tight with a dollar, and I don't mind saying so.
The next day, March 28, Andrea dropped me at the airport, like she always did. There was nothing out of the ordinary in those last hours together. "Everything is going to be fine," I said. "I'm sure you're going to get a blizzard as soon as I leave, so just think of me lounging on deck in the hot sun." I love snow. There's nothing I like more than looking out my back window at the fields and trees covered in white. She laughed. "See you in June," she said and gave me a kiss. She usually stays until my flight leaves; that's a tradition that started when Mariah and Dan were young. They would stand at the window watching my flight take off and wave at their daddy, just milking that last moment of togetherness for everything it was worth. But the kids were in college now and Andrea was on her way to work and she couldn't wait. It was the first time that ever happened. I thought about that later.
I love the sea and being a merchant mariner, but you meet a lot of oddballs on ships. I think a lot of it has to do with leaving people behind for so long. It can mess up your head. Marriages break up. Girlfriends find new guys. Sailors get "Dear John" e-mails in the middle of the night on some lonely stretch of water miles from anywhere. Sometimes, a crew member will disappear, just jump overboard in the middle of the ocean, never to be found. A lot of it has to do with the strain that comes from being away from loved ones.
Merchant mariners always talk about Jodie. Jodie's the guy who's at home screwing your wife while you're out on a ship. He's eating your food, driving your car, chugging your beer. Jodie's going to be sitting on your couch when you arrive home, asking, "Who are you?" When a guy calls his wife and she doesn't answer, we tell him, "She's out with Jodie." As much as we joke about it, Jodie is all too real. Guys get home and their apartment is cleaned out, their bank balance reads zero, and their fiancee is gone without leaving a note. It happens to some sailors over and over again. Every time I heard about Jodie it made me feel more thankful that I had Andrea at home. Jodie never visited my house.
But I'm not going to lie, some sailors just start out crazy — especially the cooks. I'm convinced there are very few normal, well-adjusted cooks in the entire U.S. Merchant Marine. Not one, except for my brother-in-law, Dave. But you do have your share of eccentrics among the rest of the crew, too. I've served under an old-salt captain named Port-and-Starboard Peterson who in fog as thick as pea soup would refuse to use radar because it would hypnotize you into crashing into another ship. The radar was evil, you see. One guy wore half a mustache for an entire three-month trip. Another demanded to be called Polar Bear when we sailed toward the North Pole and Penguin when we went toward the South Pole. This guy collected so many T-shirts from the different ports that you could barely push open the door to his quarters. I knew another seaman who showed up at the boat wearing a wolf-skin coat with the head still attached. Sailors are a breed apart, that's for sure.
It's been that way forever. The merchant marine is the first of the nation's services. We were founded in 1775, before the army and the navy. In all our wars, including World War II, guys who just couldn't live with the navy's regulations ended up onboard cargo ships. They didn't see the point of having a crease in their dungarees or saluting every officer onboard; they just weren't made that way. It's no accident that many of the Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were former seamen. The need to wander and the need to rebel go hand in hand. We're a bunch of misfits and renegades and damn good seamen.
When I'm taking ships from port to port, books on the history of the merchant marine or World War II are always piled by my bunk. We were the first to die in World War II — seventeen minutes before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese sub strafed the lumber hauler SS Cynthia Olson and sank it, over 1,000 miles north of Honolulu. Thirty-three sailors jumped into lifeboats but were never seen again, because all hell was breaking loose on navy ships a thousand miles away. And the merchant marine suffered more casualties than any other service in World War II. One in every twenty-six sailors died while doing his duty. Crewmen torpedoed along the Atlantic coast drowned in engine oil while sunbathers watched from the shore. Men in the North Atlantic froze solid to the floors of their lifeboats after their tankers went down. Enormous five-hundred-foot ships carrying ammunition and dynamite to the front lines were torpedoed, blowing up in explosions so violent they never found a trace of the tons of metal or the hundreds of men aboard. They just disappeared into thin air. Which is fitting, really. The merchant marine has always been the invisible service, the guys who brought the tanks to Normandy, the bullets to Okinawa, but no one ever remembers us. What General Douglas MacArthur said was true: "They brought us our lifeblood and paid for it with their own."
But when the boys from the cargo ships went home, there were no ticker-tape parades, no G.I. Bill, nothing like that. They're still trying to get recognition so they can live out their lives with dignity. There's a bill before Congress that will guarantee them standing as World War II veterans and pay them a small stipend, but it's taking so long to get through the political process that most of the guys will be dead before it's passed. That's a shame.
When I was coming up in the service, I met guys who'd served in World War II and had ships shot out from beneath them. And I remember what one guy told me: "I was in the merchant marine when the war broke out and I saw ships going down left and right. I got so scared I joined the navy." He was just playing the odds. Being a merchant mariner was a good way to meet your maker in those days.
A lot of us have a chip on our shoulder. We're patriots. We have a proud tradition. We're rugged individualists with a few mixed nuts thrown in to keep it interesting.
But we never make the headlines.
A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. Copyright 2010 Richard Phillips. Published by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved.