(CBS News) In April 2009 Richard Phillips was in command of the freighter Maersk Alabama when it was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Phillips endured several days as a hostage of the pirates trying to escape U.S. Navy ships.
The following is an excerpt from "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea," by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty, the basis of the new film, "Captain Phillips," which will be released Friday, October 11 by Columbia Pictures.
Piracy figures up 20 percent in first quarter of 2009: a total of 36 vessels were boarded and one vessel hijacked. Seven crew members were taken hostage, six kidnapped, three killed and one missing - presumed dead. In the majority of incidents, the attackers were heavily armed with guns or knives. The use and threat of violence against crew members remains unacceptably high. Waters around Somalia continue to be notorious for hijacking of vessels and the abduction of crew for ransom.
--ICC INTERNATIONAL MARITIME BUREAU PIRACY REPORT, FIRST QUARTER, 2009
Ten days before, I'd been enjoying my last meal stateside with my wife, Andrea, in one of the most beautiful towns in Vermont. All you see from the front door of my converted farmhouse are rolling green hills, munching cows, and more rolling hills. Underhill is the kind of Vermont town where young farmers propose to their local sweethearts by spray-painting rachel, will you marry me? on bales of hay. It's a place where you can walk for three minutes and be lost in a forest so deep and thick and silent you'd think you're going to trip over Daniel Boone. We have two general stores and one Catholic church, St. Thomas, and the occasional tourist up from Manhattan. It's as different from the ocean as the other side of the moon is, and I love that. It's like I get to live two completely different lives.
As a merchant mariner, I often work three months on and three months off. When I come home, I forget about the sea. I'm 100 percent into being a dad and husband. When our kids, Dan and Mariah, were young, from the moment they got up to the minute they went to bed, I'd take care of them. Neighbors and friends would ask me to babysit, so I'd have five or six kids in tow. I'd make dinner: French toast by candlelight, my specialty. I'd do Rich's Homework Club. I'd take the kids on class trips. Whatever I do, work or home life, I do with everything I have.
When I leave my family, it's for a long time. You need to do something special for them before you ship out, because it might be the last time you see them. When he was growing up, my son, Dan, would goad me, "Oh, I don't have a dad. He's never home. Guess he doesn't love me." We'd laugh about it -- Dan is exactly like I was when I was nineteen: a smart aleck who will find your weakness and hammer it home until you give in and laugh. But what he said about my never being there would come back to haunt me. Because there's a kernel of truth there. My daughter, Mariah, and Dan would see me every day for three months and then I would be gone to some far-flung corner of the world. It didn't matter to them that there were other merchant mariners who stayed onboard even longer than I did, that I knew one guy, a radio operator, who was aboard one ship for two years straight.
As a sailor, you have to put your real life on your kitchen shelf and pick up your merchant marine life. Because on the job, you barely have a personal life. You're on call twenty-four hours a day to do whatever the ship needs. You eat and sleep and work and that's pretty much it. It's like you've died and gone to sea. Then you come back and take your real life off the shelf and start living it again.
You develop rituals to get through the transition from land to sea. Sailors have a phrase, "crossing the bar," which means leaving harbor for the unknown on the oceans (it also can refer to the death of a sailor), and you have to get yourself mentally prepared to go across. It's a stressful time when fears start creeping into the minds of your loved ones. It was probably the dangers of my job that were on Andrea's mind that cold March -- pirates, rogue waves, desperate people in third-world ports. All the while, I'd be thinking like a captain, running through a checklist with a thousand things on it: What repairs do I need to see to? Are the guys on my crew dependable? I used to start doing this a month before I left, which would drive Andrea around the bend. Now, after thirty years at sea, I wait until I hit the deck of my ship.
Andrea and I have a tradition when I'm getting ready to leave. First, we argue. About nothing at all. In the weeks leading up to my leaving, Andrea and I always have arguments about little things, about the car or the weather or her hitting her head on the old ship's bell that hangs near the clothesline in our backyard. She must have smacked it three or four times while putting up fresh laundry to dry, and she always comes in and yells at me to take it down. (It's still up there, too -- sentimental value.) But in those weeks before a job, we get on each other's nerves, which is nothing more than her being anxious about my leaving and me being anxious about leaving her.
Andrea is an emergency room nurse at a hospital in Burlington and she's a fierce, opinionated, loving Italian girl from Vermont. I love her to death. We'd met in a Boston dive bar, the Cask 'n Flagon, down near Kenmore Square, when she was in nursing school and I'd been around the world a few times already as a young sailor. I noticed this cute frizzy-haired brunette girl sitting at the bar, and I just had to talk to her. Andrea was talking with the bartender, since they'd just discovered they had mutual friends. Then, as she tells it, this tall guy with a beard appeared out of nowhere and sat down next to her.
"You have a problem," I said.
Andrea thought, Well, he's cute enough. I'll play along.
"What's that?" she said.
"Being the best-looking woman in every room you walk into."
"Thanks," she said. "There are three women in here. Not a huge compliment."
I laughed and stuck out my hand.
"I'm Rich," I said. "As in 'filthy.' " That was one of my better lines in the early eighties.
Andrea cracked up. Then she let me buy her a drink.
Years later, after we were married, Andrea told me that she thought I was funny and easy to talk to. Like most people's, her only knowledge of the merchant marine came from Humphrey Bogart movies. I guess that's why she let me tell her so many stories. "You made it sound intriguing," she said.