Shane Murphy was the first mate on the Maersk Alabama in 2009 when it was hijacked by Somali pirates, an event that is reenacted in Paul Greengrass’s heart-stopping Captain Phillips. When the real Richard Phillips (played in the film by Tom Hanks) was taken hostage, Murphy (played by Michael Chernus) took the helm for the remaining three days of the standoff. Then 33 years old, he was a veteran at sailing the Horn of Africa and a trained expert in anti-piracy maneuvers. Now, four years later, he says he’s recovered from the trauma and has nothing but praise for the film. Vulture called Murphy at his home in Massachusetts to talk about the real-life events on the Maersk Alabama, which he discussed with a stoicism that rivals a Bruce Willis character. “They could make movies out of any day of my life,” he told Vulture. “That was just one of them.”
How was the experience of watching your story on a movie screen?
The guy who played me, I’m glad they put a Red Sox hat on him! It was important to me that he didn’t dress like a corporate stooge. He probably could’ve sworn a lot more, but I guess it had to be PG-13.
I’d like to talk about the events on the ship, if that’s okay. Did you have any kind of training for a situation involving pirates?
Yeah, we drilled monthly like that, and I guest-lectured the week before that in my father’s class [at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy], doing an anti-piracy lecture. And then a week later I was up on top of a crane, looking at four guys on the bridge with AK-47s, going, “Well, I guess this is real world experience.”
In the film, the anxiety of watching those little dots getting closer and closer on the radar was so intense. How scary was it for you?
Yeah. It’s scary, but when you prepare for something every day for a year and a half, then when it happens, time can slow down and you have to continue moving. You can’t just panic.
So a part of you was like, “Okay, this is it, this is what I’ve been preparing for.”
Now is the time, yeah.
Were you expecting the pirates to be so heavily armed?
Yes, absolutely. My first day on the job, I heard one ship on the radio, [the captain] was on fire from a bazooka shot, and trying to deal with the fire, and dealing with the pirates coming up over the rails.
This is a very civilian question, but why would there be no gun onboard for use by the crew?
Insurance. The premium would go up. But this event brought about a change in the industry. The merchant industry is slow to change, and it’s usually after some kind of crisis. Now companies can hire, and some do, onboard security teams, which are comprised of former Navy SEALS, former Marine Corps snipers, things like that. And they can return fire on the skiffs as they approach. The Maersk Alabama itself has been attacked eight more times since then. You’ve never heard of it, because they have security onboard, and that ends the problem.
Given that you didn’t have weapons, what were you trained to do in a situation where the ship was boarded?
The biggest thing — and the credit for this goes to Richard Phillips — was the duress/non-duress password. That was the most important thing to us, being able to communicate.
That was the “suppertime” code, to tell the crew it was safe to come out of hiding? Was that something that had been planned in advance?
What didn’t we see in the movie? Anything you were surprised to see omitted?
The biggest surprise was that they didn’t show more of the families at home, and the press coverage of them watching it. I figured they would cut to the family in Vermont, or some indication, because it was such a highly publicized news story. And the movie kind of takes place just on the boat, and didn’t reference the White House, the president, that kind of thing.
On the ship, were you aware that the story had gotten that big?
I had a suspicion. And then when I saw the drone flying overhead, I knew somebody was listening. And then the crew of the Bainbridge [one of the U.S. Navy ships that came to their aid] told me they could hear my conversations with the pirates over the radio; they’d been monitoring my frequency the whole time.
What are your memories of that conversation with the pirates, when you were down in the engine room and had captured their leader?
Initially, I was calling a Mayday, and then they asked who it was, and I told the pirates that I was in charge of the ship now, and I had their friend, and if they wanted to get off, they had to talk to me. And that their captain was no longer in charge; I was.
Do you remember having any impulses, things you thought about doing and then went “No, I shouldn’t do that”?
No. In fact, I just thought I didn’t do enough. I could have maybe overpowered them by force, or something. But before the Navy got there, I figured the best thing to do would be just wait them out, wait until they got tired, and we could last for days or hours before they could find us.
How has this affected you as a sailor?
As a sailor, better preparedness and a sense of urgency in anything safety or security related.
Are you permanently off the Africa routes?
Yeah, now I’m mostly just the East Coast of the U.S.
If the movie were Shane Murphy instead of Captain Phillips, what would you include that this movie didn’t?
I’m happy with the way it came out. I do wish they’d put in my father [Professor Joseph Murphy] and some of the news coverage he did at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, because that helped raise attention and put eyes on us. The president was dealing with two wars and the economy and a financial collapse, he had just been sworn in three months earlier, and I’m sure this was something he didn’t plan for. And they had initially learned about it, I think, from my younger brother Kellen, who was on a ship in the Pacific and got the alert that my ship was hijacked. So he called my dad, and the cameras were already down at the school, since my dad teaches on anti-piracy. So they started interviewing him, and all of a sudden it was on the news, and that kind of forced the military into action, rather than letting us sit out there and rot.
You come from a whole family of sailors, then.
Oh, yeah. My uncle is a chief engineer, my grandfather was captain on a lobster boat. This is what we do. My godmother Laura and I were both born on June 12, which is also the birthday of the Merchant Marine. Also, somebody played my uncle in The Longest Day, which is a D-Day movie.
So this wasn’t the first time that someone in your family has been played in a movie!
Yeah, growing up we always said, “Oh, that’s that movie about your Uncle Robert.” So now my cousins and nephews have a movie about something I was involved in.
What’s an example of one of the movies that gets the Merchant Marine wrong?
Oh, Action in the North Atlantic with Humphrey Bogart, or The Perfect Storm with George Clooney — any of these movies on ships. There are all kinds of technical problems, and the actions that are portrayed are just ludicrous. Watching how they’re working and talking, it’s comical.
What did you think of the way that Captain Phillips portrayed the pirates?
Well, I worked in Africa for a year and a half, and I had a lot of friends there, and I had a respectful relationship towards them. And this incident could have been the type of incident — and I still see comments from peoples on websites, and get e-mails, that are racially insensitive, making this a black-versus-white issue, when this was a financial thing; this was all about money. This movie, they cast terrific actors to play the pirates, and they showed where they come from. And it was just as exciting from their part, like a heist-gone-wrong movie. You really could feel the characters and what their motivations were and how they got along. They weren’t just, you know, four random guys. So if we had to sacrifice part of our story for theirs, I’m happy to do that. It still, to this day, really bothers me when I hear or read comments about this story that say hateful things about Somalians. I have nothing but respect for the people of Africa. I’ve helped educate people on the crew about their history and geography. I don’t want to ever be painted as a guy who’s out to kill Africans, or anti-black or Muslim or anything like that. Our crew had a whole mix of people: black, white, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Muslims, Christians — so the whole idea that this was some kind of racial story? I’m glad they handled that correctly.
We saw just enough of the Somalians’ lives to understand why they did what they did. I’m glad to hear that’s something you talk about when you’re teaching sailors about piracy, even if it’s not the thing that would be most immediately helpful in that situation.
No, the most immediate help would be a gun. And we’ve got that now, so at least the industry has changed, and my friends are safe now. And that was my first time as a captain. My father was a captain, and I always thought I would eventually be one. Now I’m the sailing captain on a coal ship, so maybe I was there for a reason.