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Capt. Richard Phillips knows pirates

The Maersk Alabama's captain and his second in command, Shane Murphy, studied anti-piracy tactics at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

April 09, 2009|Bob Drogin and Rinker Buck

SILVER SPRING, MD., AND BOURNE, MASS. — Capt. Richard Phillips knew the waters off the rugged Horn of Africa were dangerous. The veteran mariner said as much in an e-mail to his wife, Andrea, from the cargo ship Maersk Alabama.

"He knew the pirates were active again," said his sister-in-law, Lea Coggio.

Shane Murphy, the second in command on the huge U.S-flagged ship, also knew the perils of sailing off Somalia. He brushed off his mother's questions about pirates when home in Massachusetts, but he posted his fears online.

"These waters are infested with pirates that highjack ships daily," Murphy wrote on his Facebook page recently as he sailed between Oman and Kenya. "I feel like it's only a matter of time before my number gets called."

That time came soon after dawn Wednesday. At least four heavily armed men climbed from two speedboats onto the Maersk Alabama and took Phillips captive in a lifeboat from his ship, according to U.S. officials.

Phillips had flown from his home in rural Vermont to the United Arab Emirates about two weeks ago to take command of the 508-foot-long container ship. Once it was loaded with humanitarian aid supplies and other cargo, he charted a course to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

Phillips and Murphy are both graduates of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where Murphy's father teaches a course in anti-piracy tactics. The academy has been training cadets for two years in these tactics in anticipation of the time -- almost inevitable, academy leaders said -- when a U.S. vessel would be boarded by pirates. Officials there said the incident illustrates the importance of such work.

"Today the issue of how to protect that oceangoing commerce went from the academic course we teach here to reality TV for America," said Adm. Rick Gurnon, a former Navy pilot who serves as the academy's president.

Among the mysteries of Wednesday's assault was how the crew managed to regain control of the vessel. There's only so much an unarmed commercial ship can do. Measures include forming convoys under naval escort, steaming at high speed, and stationing crew members on deck to make it appear that the vessel is ready to repel boarders.

At the academy in Bourne, crews are also taught to disable the ship to thwart pirates. Gurnon noted that, since last fall, pirates have seized 10 major flagships from around the world and that 200 seamen are being held hostage in Somalia. Gurnon said it was his understanding that the crew disabled the Maersk Alabama.

Wednesday's events apparently played out in ways emphasized in academy courses. Cadets are warned to remain vigilant even in deep water. Until about six months ago, pirates operated fairly close to shore.

But increased patrols by North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European Union and U.S. naval ships are prompting pirates to head farther out to sea, as happened Wednesday.

Reporters descended on the academy, which is distinguished by handsome old brick buildings with weathered green copper dormers. As officials discussed the Maersk Alabama, the academy went on with its regular business. Cadets marched smartly past in their black uniforms or hustled off to athletic fields.

In Vermont, at Phillips' home in Underhill, anxious family members clustered around TVs. They described Phillips, 55, as intelligent and cool and said he probably was trying to strike a deal with his captors.

"Richard is smart, easygoing, laid-back," Coggio said in a phone interview. "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he's having a relaxed conversation right now with the pirates."

A neighbor called the family at 7 a.m. when he heard on the radio that pirates had attacked a U.S. ship. Initial reports suggested that the Americans had repelled the boarding party. But Maersk officials notified Andrea Phillips in midafternoon of the second assault.

"They told her he's being held hostage in a lifeboat," Coggio said. "The crew was holding a pirate, and they were supposed to trade. But the Somalis didn't go through with their end of the deal. They kept Richard."

With Phillips in the lifeboat, the American ship was under the command of Murphy, 33.

His mother had wanted him to be a lawyer, and he considered teaching English. But the sea seemed to be in his blood. His grandfather had worked a lobster boat. His father, Capt. Joseph S. Murphy II, spent 16 years as a merchant seaman before becoming a professor at the academy.

So Murphy got a job on the Martha's Vineyard ferry and enrolled in the academy, graduating in 2001.

His mother said Murphy took a break from his studies a few years back and auditioned for a bit part in "Thirteen Days," a film about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 that starred Kevin Costner.

Murphy landed a role as a Navy officer, but the camera caught only his hand and elbow, so he persuaded the director to recast him as a ship's radio operator. He has no lines in the film but appears in another scene, frantically tapping out a Morse code message.

"That's Shane," his mother, Marianne Murphy, 60, said from her home in Plympton, Mass. "He doesn't take no. He joked afterward that he should have played the part of President Kennedy. He said, 'I'm handsome and I'm Irish.' "

Murphy boarded the Maersk Alabama in March after three months of shore leave with his wife, Serena, and their children -- ages 3 and 3 months -- in tiny Seekonk, Mass.

While in Massachusetts, he delivered a lecture at the academy. His subject: Fighting piracy.

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

rbuck@courant.com

Times staff writers Dan Weikel and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.

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