BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The Massachusetts Maritime Academy instilled a sense of leadership in Richard Phillips — it also taught him how to navigate by the stars and how to avoid crashing into ships.
They were valuable lessons that some 30 years since he graduated from here earned him the rank of captain in command of his own ship. But there are some things you can’t learn in school — like how to be a hero.
Phillips, 53, is now safe after U.S. Navy SEALs shot three armed pirates who had been holding him hostage on a lifeboat since Wednesday, according to CNN. The fourth pirate was negotiating on board the Bainbridge and was arrested.
Phillips has proven several times in recent days that he knows how to lead.
For Phillips captaining a ship turned out to mean more than safely maneuvering around shallow shoals or managing a crew. It meant taking on the pirates who dared for the first time in centuries to attack an American-flagged ship.
Phillips rallied his sailors to overcome those pirates and sacrificed himself for their safety. And Phillips, who grew up in the Boston suburbs, attended the Maritime Academy on Cape Cod and now lives in Vermont, became a hero as the world watched the drama unfold.
“That’s a very brave thing for anyone to do and the right thing for a captain to do,” said Trevor Fouhey, a junior studying marine transportation at the Maritime Academy, referencing reports that Phillips exchanged himself to secure the safety of his crew.
Other students in the school’s mess hall echoed that sentiment, calling Phillips a hero and praising his selflessness. Several expressed hope that they would have done the same thing in his position.
Pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama Wednesday morning, briefly boarding the ship before the crew retook control. But the pirates escaped with Phillips and were holding him for ransom.
Those who knew Phillips were optimistic that the situation would end well.
“He would be a determined kind of person that would probably say, ‘I am going to get out of this one way or another,” said Pat Waite, a friend of the Phillips family.
Waite said Phillips grew up playing ball with her sons. “After school and evenings during the summer, a group of boys would get together and play softball and baseball and basketball,” said Waite, who still lives in Winchester, Mass., where Phillips grew up.
She said one of her sons sent her an email Friday that read: “Rich Phillips used to beat me up.”
Edward MacCormack, a classmate of Phillips’ at the academy, said Phillips is a “standup guy who’ll make the best of it.”
Today the academy teaches students how to ward off pirate attacks, even taking some of its students on training missions through the Gulf of Aden, the epicenter of piracy where the Alabama was attacked.
Kevin Denien, a junior studying marine transportation, was on one of those missions. While sailing in the pirate-infested waters, the crew extinguished all excess light, aimed fire hoses at the ship’s lowest points, where it would be easiest for pirates to board, traveled at maximum speed and frequently changed course to make the lowest points less accessible.
Admiral Richard Gurnon, president of the Maritime Academy, said anti-piracy measures are not unlike the precautions taken by families going on vacation. To deter robbers, families stop newspaper service so old papers don’t pile up on the front step, they ask neighbors to stop by the house occasionally and leave lights on automatic switches, Gurnon said.
“If you make your ship look lived in, it’s less likely for them to hit you,” Gurnon said.
The 508-foot-long Alabama, which was carrying humanitarian aid supplies, was headed for Mombasa, Kenya, when it was attacked off the coast of Somalia. There have already been six other hijackings this month. Last year 42 ships were hijacked off the Somali coastline and the ransoms paid for the ships and their cargo are estimated at more than $50 million.
Because some ships shuttle between ports in a certain region, while others can travel anywhere in the world, and yet others never once dock in their home port, the crew is generally flown to wherever their ship will depart from.
Phillips flew from his home in Underhill, Vt., to the United Arab Emirates to take control of the Alabama. Jim Staples, a classmate of Phillips and a captain for the same company, said an average voyage lasts 120 days, followed by 120 days at home.
The academy has started offering small arms training to help prevent piracy but not all ships allow crews to carry weapons. Phillips’ crew was unarmed.
That is because insurance companies fear that the presence of weapons on board could escalate situations and further endanger the cargo.
Gurnon said that many ship owners don’t want the delay involved with having those weapons checked at numerous international ports. It costs tens of thousands of dollars a day just for a ship to sit in port, he said.
In the shipping industry, “time is money,” he said.
Editor's note: This story was updated after Phillips had been freed on April 12.
More GlobalPost dispatches on the Somali pirates:
Somali pirates hold US Navy at bay
The story behind the attack on a US-flagged ship