Book Review: A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea

A Captain's DutyA Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips first came to my attention through Lisa. I vaguely remembered this incident in 2009 and knew a movie had been based on it, which I’ve not seen. But I decided I wanted to read the story behind it.

Captain Phillips tells a bit of his own background and a bit of merchant marine history. I had a step-uncle in the merchant marines and didn’t know much about it, so I found this quite informative. I liked that Phillips read a lot of merchant marine history and regarded his position as not just a job to earn a paycheck and pay bills, but rather a continuation of that tradition. This information as well as some background into his family is told mostly in flashbacks in conjunction with getting ready for his next trip. He also tells of the danger of pirates, particularly in certain hot spots, but said there had not been an instance of pirates taking an American ship in 200 years. However, he notes, “Sailors are bringing the world’s most vital resource through the world’s most unstable region, which had turned the area around the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast into a shooting gallery. Anyone sailing there would be under constant threat of attack from pirates, who were getting smarter and more violent by the month” (p. 26).

The chapters are set up in a countdown fashion leading up to the day the pirates did overtake his ship. He talks about training his men in what to do in case of a pirate attack and shoring up security. They had two uncanny close calls with pirates, and then, suddenly, when the Somali pirates did come after his ship, it happened incredibly fast. They had time to sound an alarm so that most of the men could go into a prearranged hiding place and so that Phillips could turn dials and switches that would disable the radar and many of the functions on the ship. They wanted as few people as possible to be visible so that the pirates could not kill them or hold them hostage.

The way it usually worked was that the pirates had a larger “mother ship” nearby which they could communicate with once a ship was taken, and negotiations would begin to demand a ransom. But Phillips had made it so that the radar wasn’t detecting their ship and had turned the radio channel so their hails were on a little-used frequency. He convinced them that many of the ship’s operations were broken and he couldn’t fix them and didn’t know where the rest of the crew was, and they believed him. They threatened to kill the four men on the bridge but did not carry out their threat after two deadlines, and finally stopped threatening. They took Phillips through the ship to try to find the missing crew, but he was able to keep them away from their hiding place, or, in a couple of instances, the one or two crewman who were at large heard them coming and hid in time. When they began taking the other crewmen on the bridge to do the same thing, those men were able to get away into hiding places of their own. Finally Phillips was able to convince the pirates to take the lifeboat, and him along with them. I had not realized that the bulk of this ordeal occurred with just Phillips and the pirates on the lifeboat, but he succeeded in getting ship and crew free.

The pirates thought they could still hold out for a ransom. They actually all got along pretty well, even joking together, until Phillips tried to escape. Then they turned on him, kept him tied up, and began beating him. After four more long days, Navy SEALs rescued him (no spoiler there since that was in the news. 🙂 ) In fact, during some of the tenser moments in the book, I had to keep reminding myself, “It’s going to be ok. He makes it our alive.”) The SEALs did admit, though, that the outcome was better than they thought it was going to be.

Phillips weaves in to the story what was going on with his wife and family during this situation as well, how friends came to be with his wife and help in various ways, how the media made a nuisance of itself by camping in front of their house.

Even knowing the outcome, this was a riveting story.

One major problem with the book, however, is a heavy smattering of bad language. I had set it aside for a time, not sure if I should go ahead with it. I finally decided to pick it back up again, and large chunks of it would be profanity-free, then I would be blasted with it again. Of course, it’s his story, and he is telling it like it happened. “Cussing like a sailor” is a known idiom, though I don’t know why they have a penchant for or think they’re free to engage in such speech. I know it’s real to the story: I just don’t like to fill my brain with it so that it comes into my own mind in tense moments.

I am always interested in the spiritual side of things, even though spirituality is not a major component of the book. Phillips and his wife were Catholics, but, by his admission, not good ones. He talks about being a believer in some sense of the word, and says that this incident helped his wife come back to her faith. He calls one of his crewman a born again Christian, so he seems to acknowledge that that’s something different from himself. He says he prayed:

“God, give me the strength and the patience to see my chance and to take it. I know I’m going to get only one shot. Give me the wisdom to know it.” I never prayed to get away. I just prayed for strength and patience and knowledge to know when to make my move. I believe God helps those who help themselves. Asking for Him to do all the work is just not my style (p. 191).

What a wonderful opportunity that would have been to completely humble himself and abandon himself to God. I’m glad he had the measure of faith he did and pray God will continue to grow it.

Another interesting thing he discusses near the end is what he calls “the H word: Hero.” He was very uncomfortable with people calling him that and noticed that other people in a similar position would also comment that they didn’t feel they were. I have noticed that, too, in those kinds of interviews. People will say things like, “I wasn’t a hero – I just did what I had to do.” Phillips theorizes that “we are stronger than we think we are” and we can handle far more than we think we can (p. 284). He feels that everyone has “this potential inside you, too. If fate put you in my shoes, you’d have done the same thing” (p. 285). He acknowledges that “mental toughness” and “training your mind never to give up” are a part of it (pp. 284-284).

I’ll close with one quote I especially liked that he opened the book with from John Paul Jones, who was also a merchant mariner and Revolutionary war hero:

If fear is cultivated, it will become stronger. If faith is cultivated, it will achieve mastery.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea

  1. I was aware that Somali pirates exist and have done some damage in the past several years – but I wasn’t familiar with this particular story. It sounds fascinating!

  2. What a great review, Barbara! I hadn’t heard this story. What a suspenseful, scary time for him and those aboard ship!

  3. Great review! I’m putting this on my list at the library. I watched the movie, very tense that’s for sure, and read some controversy about him being presented as a hero so I’m interested to hear his side of things. The language is hard for me too but in this kind of case I think I can skim through that.

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