Captain Phillips – an engineer’s perspective

After watching the film Captain Phillips, some of our service engineers, who have spent plenty of time at sea, decided to give their opinion of the film, splitting the fact from the fiction.

The movie “Captain Phillips” is a nail-biting drama that documents the hijacking by Somali pirates of the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama in April 2009. This movie is a tale of two worlds and a tale of two captains ( Captain Phillips and Muse, the pirate leader ).

                 Captain Phillips film trailer

At the start of the movie we meet Captain Phillips at home, preparing for his voyage and discussing with his wife on the way to the airport how times are tough and his concerns for his children’s future, with sometimes fifty people applying for the same job. We also meet the young Somalis in their mainland and see the terrible poverty that drives them to desperate actions. These are fishermen fallen on hard times. They are blaming the wealthy countries for taking all the fish out of their waters and angry at seeing all the giant container ships sail along their coast. The young men are at the mercy of local warlords who pressure them into piracy.

Times are tough and the shipping business is competitive, Captain Phillips and his crew have no choice but to put their lives at risk. There are concerns over the possibility of pirate attacks as they set off from the port of Oman, but they are not provided with armed guards. This is an unfortunate reality, with nearly all the ships sailing past Somalia carrying no form of weapons for their defence.

That part of the movie details the day-to-day business of life on the ship. Phillips is your normal grounded professional, he knows his ship and duties in and out and we witness a number of them. This part of the film is highly accurate, mainly due to the filming having occurred upon the sister ship of the Maersk Alabama.  Characters converse in nautical lingo, radars blip in control rooms, men work in the engine room, in another scene the Captain tells them off for exceeding their 15 minute coffee break… The only irregularities are in the departure of the vessel. No pilot is seen to aid the vessel out of port and Captain Phillips does not appear to conduct a handover with the previous captain of the Maersk Alabama.

In treacherous water the day-to-day business also involves email updates of local risks, and scanning the radar looking for unwanted followers, as well as doing practise drills and checking the pressurized water jets that are mounted on the sides of the vessel and used as an anti-piracy device (packing enough force to seriously injure anyone who gets in their way). However, this unscheduled practise drill would be unlikely to occur on a ship such as this, with many of the crew resting due to the watch pattern; such an unscheduled drill would be likely to breach the strict maritime regulations that control working hours.

Once the pirates are on the Alabama’s tail, the Captain and his crew rely on the speed of the Alabama and on a radio trick to initially evade the first attack. The communication between the Captain and the engine room at this point is identical to the procedure followed by most ships when changing speed, which coupled with the realistic set of the bridge, brings the viewer right into the workings of a container ship at sea.  

Now they are alone against the pirates, as there is no immediate backup, and you lose yourself in the film, feeling the fear of Phillips and his crew, as they are being pursued by tenacious and dangerous armed pirates.  The ship crew are just normal men trying to earn a normal living, but faced with a deadly threat. At this point, the talk of the crew turns to trade unions and contracts, a subject that often surfaces when anything out of the norm occurs at sea.

When the pirates return for a second attack, despite the water jets, and the Captain trying various manoeuvres ( swinging the rudders etc ), the pirates are so determined and so desperate this time they manage to get on board the ship.  Phillips tries to protect his crew by sending them to hide in the engine room. By turning the engines and the emergency generator off, they try to feign mechanical failure to get the pirates to leave. In the film the lights are cut instantly, but in a working ship the generator’s batteries would keep the lights on for several hours to prevent a blackout in an emergency. 

Unfortunately the pirates want millions and the ship only has $ 30,000 cash on board so they take the Captain hostage and escape on a tiny lifeboat. Freefall lifeboats, like the one depicted in the film, require all passengers to be strapped in. With restraints across their torsos and heads to prevent serious injury that would be caused by the huge drop the lifeboat undergoes. This is not the case in the film however; perhaps such procedures would simply slow down the rapid pace of this filming sequence.

Watching the film, you are carried along by the events and the scenes get very claustrophobic as the lifeboat is a poorly ventilated and tiny capsule. You can almost smell the sweat.

Finally rescue comes in the form of US Navy seals, with more chasing and tension. The rescue itself is a rollercoaster ride. Phillips is freed, hurray ( this is not a spoiler, as the film is based on his memoirs ), and there is no happy ending for the young pirates.  The last few minutes of the film are highly emotional, with Phillips rescued, and physically unharmed, but for a few bruises, but completely traumatised – a broken man. It leaves you feeling such admiration for the Captains and their crews who still have to sail along these dangerous waters. 

Review by S. Farr, technical insight by K. Wynn and K. McGill