Book Review: A Captain’s Duty

A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea
By Richard Phillips
with Stephan Talty

Hyperion, New York, 2010
286 pages

Reviewed by Chris Bernard
On April 8, 2009, four Somali pirates in a ramshackle skiff ran down and boarded Maersk Alabama, beginning a five-day hostage crisis that would end with a daring U.S. Navy SEALs rescue. It was the first time in two centuries an American seaman was taken hostage on a U.S. ship. The dramatic incident received worldwide play on the news, catapulting Alabama’s captain, Richard Phillips, to the kind of fame no one should ever hope for.

Phillips sold the film rights to his story to Hollywood. He’s also made the rounds of TV and radio talk shows. It’s hard to fault him for capitalizing on the incident. That’s what our culture does nowadays, rewards people for being in the right place at the right time — or the wrong one. In the months after he safely landed a U.S. Airways flight in the Hudson River, Chesley “Sully†Sullenberger published a book of inspirational poetry, and similarly, Phillips could have written nearly anything and it would have sold.

To his credit, though, in A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, he and co-author Stephan Talty retell a story that unfolded before the eyes of the world and still manage to maintain gripping levels of suspense. Even though readers already know the ending, they’ll find plenty of reason to turn the pages.

It’s no small feat — but then, sailors have always had a knack for storytelling.

Phillips tells about his early, rudderless years, which ended when he enrolled at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. He introduces his wife and children, whose vigil back home in Vermont provides the emotional context for readers to connect with the ordeal. He shares enough about himself to show that beneath the courage and work ethic is a likeable guy with a sense of humor that’s decidedly corny.

But it’s recounting the situation on Alabama where Phillips shines. The foreboding builds as he describes the crew eluding an earlier piracy attempt — his first in all his years at sea — on the same trip, and then the pirates’ eerie, late-night warning over the VHF.

The next day, the four Somalis quickly and efficiently seized the cargo ship. Phillips had the presence of mind to try to outsmart his attackers, even under duress. He put himself in harm’s way to save his crew, convincing the pirates to leave with Alabama’s lifeboat, $30,000 and booty limited to a pair of leather sandals and spare fuel.

Some of his crew overpowered one of the pirates and struck a deal to exchange him for Phillips, but the pirates didn’t hold up their end of the deal — go figure. Instead, they took Phillips hostage in the lifeboat.

The story grows teeth once they separated from Alabama, and the Navy arrives in the form of three warships.

Phillips nicknamed the pirates, like Young Guy, Tall Guy, and The Leader, humanizing them just enough to invest readers. Early on Phillips struck an uneasy truce with his captors, telling jokes and building rapport; but after they foil his escape attempt, their mood turns foul — and dangerous.

In this book, Phillips recounts his fear with an unexpected clarity and frankness. When the SEALs rescue him, he is generous in his praise and admiration for the Navy sailors who put their lives on the line for him. He’s less generous with his own crew, praising some while deriding others, but never giving the impression that he’s being anything but fair.

Because the story is limited to his perspective, a few holes remain in the overall narrative. Readers looking for more reportage or a different viewpoint — say, that of the rescuers — will be disappointed. But those hoping to understand what kind of man stands up to armed pirates and endures days of captivity and dehumanizing abuse without ever losing his dignity or sense of purpose — and those looking for a good, topical read — will find this book worth the price of admission.

The paperback version of the book came out in January 2011.

Phillips offers readers the obligatory biographical information, and a few glimpses of his own opinions about the world, but knows what they really want — drama on the high seas. Ultimately, he delivers.

By Professional Mariner Staff