Richard Phillips is no hero. He himself said so. He was captain of the Maersk Alabama when it was seized by Somali pirates back in 2009 and says that the real heroes of the whole incident are the US Navy, the Navy SEALs, and the merchant mariners who sailed with him. Some of the crew members who sailed with him swear he’s no hero. They’ve been telling the media that it was his recklessness that got the ship into the hands of the pirates in the first place. Nine of them have filed a lawsuit against the Waterman Steamship Corporation and Maersk Line Limited alleging that the companies willfully sent their employees into an area where pirates were attacking merchant vessels and showed a willful disregard for their safety – mostly for financial gain. In their lawsuit they detail some of the physical injuries and mental anguish they’ve suffered as a result. Captain Phillips admits that he ignored calls to stay at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia, but he told ABC News that it didn’t matter. He had never been that far from Somalia before and ships are sometimes taken 1,000 miles out. He also said that everyone in the Merchant Marine has to face pirates at some point, adding, “If you don’t want to deal with piracy, you need to get another job.” Captain Phillips has the support of his union, the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots. Steve Werse, a union executive and a sea captain, told ABC that warnings of pirates off the Somali coast were so numerous in 2009 that if you listened to all of them you’d have never left port. He also explained that the warnings were just advisories of suspected pirate activity and carried no legal weight or authority. There is nothing “magical” about sailing 600 miles off the coast, he said, because pirate attacks have occurred even beyond 1,000 miles off the coast. The Masters, Mates, and Pilots union represents licensed deck officers, marine engineers, state pilots, unlicensed seafarers, and shore side clerical and service workers in the maritime industry. Captain Phillips and his union have taken advantage of the publicity surrounding the movie about his kidnapping to draw attention to the Maritime Security Program (MSP), which is run by the Department of Transportation. The program keeps 60 ships ready to carry cargo for the US military at war, and it carried 95 percent of Defense Department cargo during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from tanks to food. In return, the federal government provides the ship owners with an operating stipend to offset the increased costs of maintaining their ships under US registry. (It’s cheaper to register elsewhere, because of US labor and environmental regulations.) Budget cuts due to sequestration were scheduled to reduce funding to MSP next year, which led the US Maritime Administration to warn ship owners that a third of the vessels in the fleet could be eliminated. But the fleet has been preserved now that President Obama has signed into law the bill to reopen the government. MSP funding is to remain at a level sufficient to maintain the entire 60-ship fleet. Congress has to approve funding every year. The Maritime Security Program provides vital services to the military, but for mariners, it’s really about preserving jobs. He’s famous, but Captain Phillips remains a working seaman.
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