ABC News’ Erin Dooley, Rachel Aragon and Jack Cloherty report:
Life is good right now for sea captain Richard Phillips.
After a low-profile career as a sailor, the 57-year-old is being played by Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks in a movie called “Captain Phillips.” Phillips is taking star turns with Hanks at red-carpet premieres and doing TV interviews for the networks.
That’s why it seemed a bit unusual that, just days before the movie opening, the real Phillips came back to his old stomping grounds – the training center where it all started for him as a young seaman – to spend a day at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies near Baltimore because he wanted to emphasize the crucial role of training for sea captains.
Phillips famously endured four days as the hostage of Somali pirates after his ship was boarded. He was held at gunpoint on a small lifeboat, as the pirates demanded a $2 million ransom for him and the ship.
“I can still think back when I was in the lifeboat,” he told ABC News recently. ”I said to myself, ‘Geez, Rich, you are in a lot of trouble here. Four knuckleheads with guns on you and no one knows you’re here.’”
Phillips and the crew were freed after Navy SEAL snipers were able to kill the gunmen and retake the ship.
The Massachusetts native said he wanted to spend a day at the Maritime Institute because he first learned to handle nautical emergencies there in the 1980s. He credited solid institute training – and his crew – for getting him through the 2009 ordeal.
The institute’s five-story, $30-million simulator can recreate virtually any scenario a mariner might face, dialing up snow, waves and heavy fog. It can even replicate a pirate attack like the one sustained by Phillips’ ship, the Maersk Alabama, in 2009. The device may have a high price tag, but Phillips refused to put a dollar amount on the training mariners receive.
“There is no other way you can learn what you learn here,” Phillips said. “Here, you can make the mistakes. … That’s where we do most of our learning.”
Phillips said he still gets a rush of adrenaline when he helps mariners practice evasive maneuvers and rehearse deploying giant fire hoses to prevent pirates from boarding the ship – a tactic that failed to save Phillips, but has proven effective in thwarting pirate attacks in the past.
According to the captain, it’s important to drill these emergency protocols into muscle memory.
“When you get into a situation – I have been in various situations: damages to the hull, fires in the engine room – you really don’t have time to go to that checklist and start checking things off,” Phillips said. “You need to be prepared ahead of time. You need to have the ability to put your fears and your worries, your natural human reaction to things … aside.”
Phillips said that his crew did an outstanding job during the pirate attack, even capturing one of the pirate leaders. He said the “real heroes” of the story were the Navy SEAL snipers.
Despite his ordeal, Phillips said, he still enjoys his job as a captain. However, he added, looming budget cuts threaten to decommission the very vessel the pirates failed to seize.
Unless Congress alters the budget, the U.S. Merchant Marines’ Maritime Security Program stands to lose $20 million to $30 million, forcing the elimination of about a third of the ships, including the Maersk Alabama, that deliver supplies to troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations abroad.
“What the pirates couldn’t take away, Congress might,” said Don Marcus, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a maritime labor union.
The Maritime Security fleet includes 60 U.S.-flag ships, 20 of which may be decommissioned because of continuing effects of the budget resolution and sequestration.
“Sequestration could … cripple the supply lifeline for our troops overseas,” Marcus said. “It could be Armageddon for the U.S. Merchant Marines.”
Sequestration isn’t the only challenge facing companies like the one that controls the Maersk Alabama. Phillips’ former crew members are suing the Maersk shipping line for $50 million, alleging that the company negligently ignored warnings of nearby pirates and claiming Phillips should have steered 600 miles clear of the Somali coast.
Brian Beckcom, the attorney for the crew members, told ABC News that the movie “doesn’t tell the whole story” of the Maersk Alabama takeover by pirates. He said the crew members conceded that Phillips’ actions once the pirates were on the ship were commendable but that Phillips had driven them into danger.
Phillips rejected their claims, saying he was sailing at a safe distance, nearly 250 miles off the coast.
“I had never been so far from Somalia [in past voyages], and ships are taken 1,500 miles out, so it really didn’t matter. It was wherever the pirates were that was the problem,” he said.
He added that everyone who works in the Merchant Marine has to face the pirates at some point, and, ” If you don’t want to deal with piracy, you need to get another job.”
Phillips has the support in the lawsuit of the Masters, Mates and Pilots union. Steve Werse, the union executive and a sea captain, said warnings of pirates off the Somali coast in 2009 were so numerous that if you listened to all of them, “you’d never leave port.”
Werse added that the warnings were just advisories of suspected pirate activity and carried no legal weight or authority.
He said, “There is nothing magical” about sailing 600 miles off the coast, because pirate attacks have occurred even beyond 1,000 miles of the coast.
Phillips’ ship was unarmed when it was taken by pirates in 2009. But, since then, most merchant marine ships plying dangerous waters carry armed protection.
As for Phillips’ future, he said he plans to remain a working seaman. He added that he returned late last month from another long voyage just in time to make the movie premiere.
He said that once the movie hoopla died down, he planned to continue helping out with training classes at the Maritime Institute.