The freed captain of Maersk Alabama doesn't get caught up in the debate over whether armed guards should be posted on ships or merchant mariners should use firearms to protect themselves against pirates. He'd like to have both, Capt. Richard Phillips said in a brief interview with Professional Mariner in June.
In April, Phillips was a hostage for four days in the Indian Ocean until Navy Seals rescued him by shooting three Somali pirates to death and capturing one other. Phillips had surrendered himself to the pirates in exchange for ensuring the safety of the rest of his crew.
Phillips later testified before a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on confronting the piracy problem off Somalia. He favored using the military to protect U.S.-flagged ships through the use of navy escorts and protection forces stationed aboard the merchant vessels. He advocated additional training and hardening the ships to make them tougher to board. Arming the ships' civilian officers is acceptable but not the ultimate solution, he said.
"Together they make a comprehensive plan," Phillips told Professional Mariner while in New York to be honored at the Seamen's Church Institute's (SCI) Silver Bell Awards. "Which one is most important? I would say having the government force protection."
Providing weapons to ship crews or stationing gun-toting soldiers aboard commercial vessels became controversial during the height of the piracy crisis. Ship operators traditionally worried about crew mutinies, firearms accidents and legal liability.
In June, the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee bluntly argued against arming civilian crews.
"Flag states should strongly discourage the carrying or use of firearms by seafarers for personal protection or for the protection of the ship," the IMO wrote. Besides the risk of escalating clashes with pirates, "carriage of firearms may pose an even greater danger if the ship is carrying flammable cargo or similar types of dangerous goods."
Still, the proposals have gained momentum. In June, U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican, introduced a bill that would provide legal immunity to American mariners who kill or wound pirates. The bill would establish Coast Guard-certified firearms training for merchant mariners.
Later, the House passed a spending package that included an amendment requiring the Department of Defense to place military personnel aboard U.S. vessels transiting known pirate waters. That amendment was added by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.
The armed guards can't be everywhere, Phillips noted. That's why arming the crews, too, may be necessary. The Maersk Alabama captain said only the four most senior officers should have access to guns.
"Having (security) people board at a certain place may not take care of everything," Phillips said. Merchant mariners "would have to be trained before they could handle weapons, and it would be their choice (to participate). And, of course, it would be the captain's decision as to who would be allowed to have access when the time comes."
Phillips credited anti-piracy training with improving his crew preparedness, helping them to thwart the April 8 hijack attempt. The youthful Somali attackers never were able to take control of the ship, because the chief engineer assumed the controls and the crew locked the pirates out of the engine room. Phillips said they had practiced this in a drill just four days before the attack. The training program was a cooperative effort by the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots and Maersk Alabama's operator, Waterman Steamship Corp.
Phillips, 53, was in New York to accept SCI's Courage at Sea Award. Phillips said he was looking forward to going back to sea in September.