Friday, May 1, 2009

Of the 30,000 ships in the world commercial fleet that sail the high seas, fewer than 200 fly the U.S. flag. After World War II, a new tax put U.S. flagship owners at a competitive disadvantage compared with their foreign-flag competitors, prompting many to ditch Old Glory.

But after Navy sharpshooters last month sniped three pirates dead from nearly 100 feet away in the dark on the heaving seas off the coast of Somalia, senators on Thursday asked the captain of the hijacked cargo ship Maersk Alabama whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to hoist the Stars and Stripes, you know, just to scare off would-be attackers.

Not at all, Captain Richard Phillips told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “You would end up spending thousands of dollars on flags if you did that,” he said, dead serious.

“It might be worth it,” Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, broke in, drawing laughter in a small Dirksen building hearing room.

“My judgment,” pontificated Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts, “is that the period of time that you’re in that zone, it seems to me, flying the flag, you’re not going to go through all that many flags that it’s so prohibitive.”

More titters from the small crowd that had come to catch a glimpse of the heroic captain, who had held his own with Somali buccaneers.

Maersk, the captain said, has just 30 U.S. flagships out of its 600-ship fleet. The ships range in value from $20 million to $60 million, carry millions of dollars worth of cargo and have dozens of seamen aboard.

“It is a good value, particularly if they know that that ship carries with it certain risks if they attempt to board,” Mr. Kerry said to more laughter. Risks like, oh, Navy snipers who, if they don’t pop you from a mile away, can kill you with a spoon.

A quick search on the Internet found a company that offered 144 or more flags, 3 feet by 5 feet — for just $1.75 each.

“That may be a part of the comprehensive plan,” the seafarer deadpanned with a smile, in a heavy Massachusetts accent.

But not the complete answer to how to thwart pirates, the captain said. After all, the Alabama was flying a U.S. flag when pirates seized the ship in the Indian Ocean about 350 miles off the Somali coast.

The vessel, based in Norfolk, was on its way to the Kenyan port of Mombasa with a relief shipment from USAID, the World Food Program and other relief agencies. The ship flew the U.S. flag because it had to under U.S. government rules. Like thousands of others, the Alabama has multiple owners, in this case owned by a Danish conglomerate, A.P. Moller-Maersk, through a U.S. subsidiary.

But on Thursday, the captain was among comrades — Mr. Kerry is an old Navy man, as is ranking committee Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, who served from 1956 to 1960. Mr. Kerry, who captained a Swift boat in Vietnam during the war, clearly enjoyed talking to a fellow seafarer.

Holding a map of the region, the senator pointed out the few routes that ships can take through the pirate-heavy area and into the Gulf of Aden. “There’s only three approaches to that fundamentally: You can come up from Madagascar, the southern part of Africa; you come off from Australia straight over like that; or you can. …” There may have been something in there about Puntland.

The captain, though, didn’t seem to be in his element (although there was a steady breeze of hot air). He raced through his two-page statement, and said that because one of his four captors was captured and faces trial, he could not give a “blow by blow” about the events of those days. A few in the crowd headed for the door.

Mr. Phillips said that one option to keep U.S. commercial ships safe is to deploy military escorts (most ships aren’t armed because many countries won’t allow vessels packed with guns to use their ports). And he didn’t seem all that keen on the current set-up (under attack, ship crews now seek to ward off pirates by spraying water on them and, that having failed, lock themselves in the boiler room).

He’s leaning toward more firepower versus less.

“I want to stress, it’s not a mall cop that I’m looking for,” Mr. Phillips said before adding, “I don’t mean to denigrate anyone.”

But without changes to the system, Mr. Kerry asked, would he go out there again? Would his wife want him to?

“She’s a good wife, she supports whatever my decision is,” the captain said without pause, looking straight ahead.

“You didn’t even turn to consult,” the senator said as the crowd laughed. “I wish I could get away with that.”

But to the senators — and perhaps to his wife, too — the captain made it crystal clear: “I will be going back to sea. Yes, that’s what I do.”

Joseph Curl can be reached at

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