/ Quick History / 25 Historical Facts About the Captain Phillips Somali Pirate Kidnapping

25 Historical Facts About the Captain Phillips Somali Pirate Kidnapping

A Somali Pirate
The True story of Captain Phillips and the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates.
Joe Dorsey on January 31, 2014 - 5:25 pm in Quick History

The 2013 film Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks is based on a true historical event.  Here’s a look at the facts surrounding the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama.

The Facts

Richard Phillips was captain of the US container ship called the Maersk Alabama that was hijacked in 2009 by pirates from the nation of Somalia.

Captain Richard Phillips

Captain Richard Phillips


On April 7th, the U.S. Maritime Administration released multiple Somalia Gulf of Aden “advisory to mariners” recommending ships to stay at least 600 nautical miles off Somalia’s coast.

Maersk Alabama Container Ship leaving Oman

Maersk Alabama Container Ship leaving Oman

One day later, the Maersk was on a voyage from Oman to Kenya when it was attacked by 4 Somali pirates only 240 nautical miles southeast of the Somali port city of Eyl.

Phillips ignored the numerous warnings that urged him to go farther out to sea. When asked why he decided not to take the ship farther offshore, Phillips testified,

“I don’t believe 600 miles would make you safe. I didn’t believe 1,200 miles would make you safe. As I told the crew, it would be a matter of when, not if… We were always in this area.”

The Maersk was conducting a fire drill just before the pirates arrived, and Phillips curiously ordered the crew to continue with the drill, despite the pirates being less than 7 nautical miles out.

Hoping the pirates would be monitoring his communications, Captain Phillips faked a phone call to the US Navy disguising his voice to play the role of the Navy responder, stating “We’re on our way.” It worked, and 3 of the pirate vessels aborted their pursuit, but one remained.

The crew fired flares and sprayed water hoses at the pirates.

The pirates boarded the Maersk, despite the crew being able to sink the pirate’s boat by swinging the rudder and scuttling the smaller attack boat.

Captain Phillips was taken hostage, and offered the pirates $30,000 in petty cash they had on board for their release. The pirates took the cash, but demanded much more. The money has never been recovered.

Maersk Alabama as seen from a Navy aircraft

Maersk Alabama as seen from a Navy aircraft

The crew members locked themselves in the 130 degree engine room. Chief Engineer Mike Perry ambushed one pirate with a pocket knife and took him hostage for 12 hours.

The crew decided to make an attempt to swap their prisoner for the Captain. During the prisoner exchange the Somalis reneged on their deal, and drove away with Phillips in a lifeboat that had enough supplies for 10 days at sea.

Maersk Alabama lifeboat where Captain Phillips was held hostage

Maersk Alabama lifeboat where Captain Phillips was held hostage

Despite media reports to the contrary and poetic license in the 2013 film, Captain Phillips never offered his life for that of his crew.

“We vowed we were going to take it to our grave,” says the Maersk Alabama’s Chief Engineer Mike Perry. “We weren’t going to say anything, and then we hear this PR stuff coming out about him giving himself up, and he’s still hostage. The whole crew’s like, ‘What!?’ Everybody’s in shock.” -CNN

The Maersk was eventually given a US military escort to its final destination.

On April 9th, the USS Bainbridge intercepts the lifeboat and a standoff begins.

The lead pirate Abduwali Muse (played by  in the film) boarded the USS Bainbridge to address a wound he had received during the takeover of the Maersk, and begin negotiations for Phillips.

Phillips did attempt once to escape. While one of the pirates was relieving himself, the Captain pushed him into the water and began to swim towards the Bainbridge. The pirates spotted him in the water and fired warning shots over his head and recaptured him. They then bound him, beat him, and performed mock executions on him.

While head pirate Muse was on board the Bainbridge, citing an immediate threat to Philips’ life, Commander Frank Castellano, with prior consent from President Barack Obama, ordered Navy snipers from the famed Seal Team 6 to open fire on the pirates – killing all three. Phillips was rescued in good health.


Head pirate Muse was arrested aboard the Bainbridge. His parents pleaded for leniency stating that he was only 16 at the time of the kidnapping. A court ruled that he was not a juvenile and sentenced him to 33 years in prison.

Phillips was held hostage for 5 days. Here’s video of his return home.

Following the hijacking, Phillips published a book titled A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.

Columbia pictures cast Tom Hanks to star as Captain Phillips. The film received Academy award recognition in 2014, and was nominated for 6 Oscars.

A second unsuccessful hijacking attempt on the Maersk happened that same year. At 6:30 am on November 18, 2009, the Maersk Alabama was reportedly sailing some 350 nautical miles east of Somalia when it was fired upon by four pirates wielding automatic weapons and traveling in a skiff. The assault failed after guards on the ship responded with small arms fire and acoustical weapons. Afterward, a Djibouti-based patrol plane flew to the scene and an EU ship searched the area. [Source: Wikipedia]

Attempts to take the Maersk have failed 3 more times since the Captain Phillips event.

The Controversy

11 members of the Maersk crew have sued Maersk Line and the Waterman Steamship Corp. for nearly $50 million, citing “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety.” They believe that it is the Captain’s recklessness that steered the Maersk Alabama into pirate infested waters.

Photos courtesy of wikimedia commons.


Send Us A Message Here

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *