Captain Phillips: A Captain’s Responsibility

With the film awards season drawn to a close, Captain Phillips certainly made its mark. It has shown that piracy is not the glamorously comical jamboree that Disney has presented through the Pirates of the Caribbean saga; it’s far more real, and far more serious.

Nominations for six Oscars, four Golden Globes and eight BAFTAs, together with a BAFTA win for Barkhad Abdi as the menacing Abduwali Muse, have cemented Captain Phillips in the eyes of critics as one of the best films of 2013.

Yet, the ‘total suspension of disbelief’ which Captain Phillips has offered most moviegoers seems to have had a different impact on those involved in the shipping industry, particularly those who were on the Maersk Alabama at the time of the pirate attack. Eleven members of Phillips’ crew even went so far as to sue the Maersk Line and Waterman Steamship Corp. for nearly $50 million, on the grounds of “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety.” The self-sacrificing Phillips, as portrayed by ever-lovable Tom Hanks, starts to become fuzzy around the edges as the question is asked; what is a Captain’s responsibility?

The most well-known concept is ‘the captain goes down with his ship’ – a ship’s captain holds ultimate responsibility for both his ship, it’s crew and its passengers, and he will lay down his life in protection of them all. If the ship goes down, he will be the last on board. The Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith remains the classic example, with Costa Concordia’s Captain Francesco Schettino the most notorious counter-example. Although, despite their opposing situations, they all share a commonality with Captain Phillips: they left their ships vulnerable. Smith ignored the iceberg warnings, Schettino removed the alarm for the computer navigation system and Phillips sailed only 300 miles from the Somalia coast, despite the recommendations to be at a distance of at least 600 miles. Even though Phillips believed a pirate attack to be unpreventable, it was his duty to minimise all risks.

It might be easy to argue that, much like in the film, Phillips allowed himself to be taken hostage by the pirates in order to get them off of the ship and defend his crew, but, despite artistic license with the script, Phillips himself never offered to give up his own life for his crew. His crew simply viewed him, not as the hero Hollywood may want to portray, but as the victim of a botched exchange after the crew had taken Muse hostage and agreed to release him in return for their captain.

Safety and security should be the first responsibility of any sea captain; was Captain Phillips neglecting his?

Posted in categories: Captain, Piracy, Safety