Saturday, April 11, 2009

“When he went for that swim today, it didn’t surprise me at all,”

What a great quote! LOL The more I hear about CAPT Phillips, the more I like him.

A Placid Man on Land, Caught in a Drama at Sea
Published: April 10, 2009

UNDERHILL, Vt. — At sea he is intense and resolute, so when Capt. Richard Phillips tried to escape his pirate captors Friday by leaping off their slow-moving lifeboat, some of his closest friends did not blink.

But at home, friends and relatives said, Captain Phillips, 53, is a consummate regular guy who worships Boston sports teams, particularly the Celtics, shoots hoops at the Y.M.C.A., plays golf with retirees and faithfully picks up muffins for Sunday brunch with his family. When he is away, plying dangerous ocean waters as a merchant ship captain, the image his neighbors here remember is of him placidly riding his lawnmower.

Now he is at the center of an extraordinary international incident. “When he went for that swim today, it didn’t surprise me at all,” said Peter Wakefield, who grew up with the captain outside Boston and visited him last month. “He’s got good intuition, and he’s a very determined guy.”

A few weeks ago, Captain Phillips was wrapping up three months of downtime with ordinary fun. He snowboarded during Mr. Wakefield’s visit, filled out brackets for a college basketball tournament pool and had a quiet farewell dinner with his extended family before heading back to sea.

“He has never been into big goodbyes,” said Tom Coggio, his brother-in-law, who lives nearby. “For Richard, it’s just a job.”

As Captain Phillips spent a third day as the lone hostage of Somali pirates who attacked his cargo ship Wednesday off the Horn of Africa, friends and relatives here in Underhill and around New England spoke of the two sharply contrasting sides of the man: the professional one, meticulous and highly competent; and the off-duty one, affable, humorous and content to play pickup basketball, go snowmobiling and do chores around the house.

“He was a different guy when he was out to sea,” Mr. Coggio said Friday. “He was very by-the-book.”

Captain Phillips grew up with seven brothers and sisters in Winchester, Mass., a close-knit town where his father coached high school basketball. He played varsity football, lacrosse and basketball, said Donald Carey, a childhood neighbor who recalled him as modest and wryly funny.

“Never any fanfare out of this guy,” said Mr. Carey, who has not seen the captain in years. “If you went to a picnic and forgot your lunch, he’d give you half of his.”

While Captain Phillips’s family hunkered down on Friday, the standoff near the coast of Somalia intensified as American naval reinforcements moved in. There were also reports that the four pirates, desperate to reach shore with their captive, also had called in additional vessels and men.

The French authorities, meanwhile, said they had sent forces to end a separate hostage-taking by pirates elsewhere off Somalia, one of the most notoriously lawless stretches of international waters. The operation left one hostage and two pirates dead.

American defense officials have so far been reluctant to take such an aggressive approach to rescuing Captain Phillips, who was seized when the pirates commandeered his American-flagged container ship, the Maersk Alabama. The Navy has asked F.B.I. officials trained in hostage negotiations for help.

A separate group of pirates on a hijacked German ship attempted to aid their comrades Saturday, but they were forced to return to the Somali coast when they failed to locate the drifting lifeboat. "We almost got lost because we could not find the bearing of the lifeboat," one pirate on the German ship told Reuters.

Mr. Coggio, whose sister, Andrea, married Captain Phillips in 1987 after they met in Boston, said that his brother-in-law had acknowledged the dangers of his job and spoke of the protocols and tools he and his crew had to repel pirates. “He has talked about air horns that would blow your ears out,” Mr. Coggio said, “or fire hoses that would knock you right down.”

Mr. Wakefield said Captain Phillips was used to working hard to get what he wanted. He drove a cab in Boston to pay his way through college, Mr. Wakefield said, at the University of Massachusetts and later at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he graduated in 1979.

“With eight kids, his parents couldn’t be sending everybody off to Harvard,” he said. “Nothing was ever given to him; everything he’s ever gotten, he had to work for.”

Despite his low-key demeanor at times, Mr. Wakefield and others said, Captain Phillips is a hard-charging athlete whose strength and agility could help him survive the ordeal. He plays a ferocious game of basketball — “one of these guys who was all over the court,” said Kevin Hatin, the fitness director at the Greater Burlington Y.M.C.A. — and he broke his neck trying to make a catch during an informal football game a while back.

“The doctors were like, ‘One more millimeter and you would have been a quadriplegic,’ ” Mr. Coggio recalled. “That was a blessing, and we could use another one like that right now.”
Captain Phillips has also refereed basketball games at a middle school and plays golf with a group of retirees at courses around the state. Barney Kelley, 75, said that on the golf course, the captain likes to tell stories about life at sea and jokes he heard on his trips.

“He talked mostly about the ocean, ships and boats,” Mr. Kelley said. “He loves what he does and I don’t think he would do anything else in life.”

Two of Captain Phillips’s brothers-in-law and a close friend here are also merchant seamen, Mr. Coggio said, and they are among the few people he socializes with at home.

But most of his attention goes to his wife, who is an emergency room nurse, and their college-age children, Mariah and Danny, Mr. Coggio and others said. He sticks close to his modest white house with a picket fence, doing the chores that mount in his absence.

“I know when he’s home his wife gives him a ‘Honey to-do list,’ ” Mr. Kelley said.

On Friday morning, Mr. Coggio recalled that the captain played his saxophone from time to time, although he was more shy about it than he was when he played in the high school band. He also enjoys listening to the blues and shares, with his wife, a liking of the blues singer Taj Mahal. But by the afternoon, Mr. Coggio and other family members appeared increasingly anxious about the escape attempt and the extended wait for good news.

Captain Phillips was in the water for a short time before the pirates hauled him back on board, said an American defense official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the matter. He was not hurt, the official said.
But Catherine Coggio, his mother-in-law, was rattled.

“Just when we thought he was safe, this happens,” Ms. Coggio said, weeping as she spoke. “This is so terrible.”

Serge F. Kovaleski reported from Underhill, and Abby Goodnough from Boston. Sharon Otterman contributed reporting from New York, Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington, and Dirk Van Susteren from Underhill.

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