His 2010 book, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days, was turned into the film Captain Phillips, which earned six Oscar nominations and starred Tom Hanks. Richard Phillips says having his ship, the Maersk Alabama, hijacked by Somali pirates was the most terrifying situation he had experienced in his 35-year career as a Merchant Marine. Here is a Q&A with Phillips:
Q: Have things changed in regard to protection since your ship was boarded by pirates?
A: I think, first of all, everyone became more aware. I don't think a lot of people realized that piracy is out there, and it's not a Disney-esque or Johnny Depp-esque type of thing. The Merchant Marines fight piracy all over the world. We fight piracy in the Philippines, the east and west coast of Africa, and the east and west coast of South America.
I think the awareness of the crews has definitely increased. There are security teams on some of the ships. Also there is a coalition of nations — I believe it's 30-plus nations — that are patrolling that area off the Horn of Africa. I think if you mix all these things together, it has resulted in not a ship taken in the last 20 months. There have been boats taken but not a ship.
Q: Were you prepared to kill the pirates if you had the opportunity?
A: I did anticipate that happening in the situation I was in. There was no empathy. I understand the choice they made. They made a conscious decision to become a pirate, a thug, a criminal and a murderer. They made that decision, and they didn't care about who got in their way. Their only goal was to obtain money. Anytime money is your main focus, I think we all come to problems.
(There is) very little opportunity in Somalia. It's a country that hasn't been under any type of control or government in 25 years, much like Afghanistan. So I understand the choice they made and the conditions they were living under, but they still made a conscious decision that was wrong.
Q: You have said you recognized the leader was completely determined and not turning back.
A: Oh, no. I think that was one of the scenes the movie got right, when they are on the bridge. At the time it was just him. It wasn't all four of them. But in his eyes you could see the malevolence and the evil and the commitment. I knew he wasn't going to give up.
Q: He ended up in prison. Did he ever try to reach out to you once he was convicted and sentenced?
A: I hope he wouldn't have access to a phone or my phone number, but, no, he never did. And I am not interested in talking to him. We said everything we had to say in that lifeboat, I believe. So I have nothing to say to him.
Q: In the movie he keeps saying, "It's going to be okay." Did he really do that?
A: When he first walked in the bridge, he fired twice from the port bridge and got up there very quick — quicker than I expected — and he fired twice (more) in the air. Those were about the only shots he fired there during the incident on the ship. He walked in leveling the gun at us, my third mate and my (able seaman) and said, "Relax, Captain, relax. Just business. No al-Qaida. Just business. Relax."
Q: How did your family feel about you going back out to sea just a year later?
A: It's really all they knew. My kids were older, and it's all my wife knew. We have been together now for 25 years married and six on top of that. It was our norm. It was our routine, so for me getting back, it was really pleasurable. It was getting back to what I know, being on a ship and being with a crew. It is what I've done for 35 years now.
Q: I'm thinking you probably made enough from the movie and the book to retire if you wanted to.
A: Oh (laughs), everybody thinks it was a lot of money made there. I won't say it's a small amount. But really the money that was made there was adequate. I'm still young. I'm 58, so for me, I certainly wasn't ready to retire.
Q: And you are still telling your story!
A: People seem to connect with it and want to hear it, so I am taking the opportunity to do that and to pass along some of the points I like talking about and a few lessons learned. My take-away from it is we are all really stronger than we even realize as long as we don't choose to give up or quit. If we strive and continue fighting as best we can, we can overcome a lot of the personal and professional problems that we do have.