In honor of movie awards season, I’ll be posting a sprinkling of stories inspired by nominated films—starting with a feature I wrote back in 2009 for “good news” website, Tonic.com (which, sadly, has gone the way of the dodo. [lesson: always save offline copies of your work samples, kids! eek!]) I had the opportunity to speak with Maersk Alabama third mate Colin Wright just days after he walked away from the dramatic events portrayed on the big screen this year in Captain Phillips.
HIGH SEAS SURVIVAL
[Originally published April 21, 2009 on Tonic.com]
“Everybody is going to have terrible experiences. But know that there is a beginning, a middle and an end to everything … Just stay positive and remember how beautiful the world is.”
Serene words for a man fresh off death’s door.
Colin Wright is a seaman at heart. He was “a fish guy before all of this,” breeding and selling aquarium fish in the Dallas/Forth Worth area. Following his dream to be a marine biologist, he attended Texas A&M in a dual program in Marine Transportation and Marine Science. As it turned out, he loved spending time at sea and soon started an impressive career as a merchant sailor. Never did he expect that his love of the ocean would lead to real life plank-walking in the most dramatic pirate episode in modern history.
Before Navy SEALs staged their breathtaking rescue April 12, and before the ship’s Captain Richard Phillips bravely offered himself up in exchange for his crew’s safety, there was an all-day takeover of the Mearsk Alabama, hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia.
The 20 crew members on board followed their training procedures with such precision that, miraculously, all survived. While most of the men remained hidden from view, four of them — including third mate Colin Wright — faced off with the pirates, staring down AK-47s and sidestepping the worst-case scenario.
Wright is a professional, in the truest sense of the word. He doesn’t just show up and do his job out of habit; he meticulously visualizes the tasks ahead, planning and preparing his day in his mind’s-eye so as to approach each step with awareness and focus. In his moment of truth, he was able to call upon this attention to detail to keep his wits about him and strategize his escape.
He described the ordeal — and how positive thinking and excellent training helped get him out of it — to Tonic.
“That’s all part of it,” Wright said. “Watching everything that’s happening while it’s happening and just trying to think of how to get out of the situation. And of course I was scared. But it wasn’t going to do any good to just curl up in a ball, even though I may have wanted to. I tried to visualize what was happening and how not to make any mistakes. And how to have, hopefully, the [best] outcome … but of course, this time, the visualization may have ended with me being shot — and so that was a little different than anything before. it’s all how you prepare your mind, I believe. And hopefully you can get through it.”
Sounds easy enough. So prepare your mind for this: While the rest of the Maersk Alabama’s crewmen are hidden away in relative safety, four Somali pirates and four American sailors have been standing on the bridge several long hours. The pirates are becoming increasingly agitated and frustrated, turning their weapons’ safeties off and on, off and on. Wright is physically bigger and more threatening by far than any of the men on the bridge. It seems clear that if any American crewman will be shot, he is the most likely to be hit first. It’s sinking in — death might be a very real ending to this surreal maritime adventure.
Then the leader of the pirates demands that Wright — alone — bring all of the remaining crew on deck.
What does he do?
He seizes the opportunity to escape, following procedure by hiding in a safe space, and, in the process, saving the lives of the remaining men from being handed over to captors.
The Darkest Hour
As a safety officer on the vessel, Wright was familiar with all of the nooks, crannies and hidden corners on the ship. He’d had his eye on a perfect spot since early in the job — a spot that he’s keeping a mystery for the sake of respecting and protecting fellow merchant seamen. He hid for “seven or eight hours” — which he describes with a to-say-the-least laugh as “pretty rough” — in the dark, alone, listening to footsteps, keeping a firm hold on a lock to which the pirates now had the key. “I’m thinking, if they open this door, I’ve got to fight for my life, because they’re not going to let me live after leaving and escaping.”
In true Wright form, his mind kept returning to his fellow crewmen. He tried to focus on positive thoughts rather than indulge in worry. “Of course,” he said, “you know it’s gonna play out the way it’s gonna play out, and so all you can do is pray at the time. And hope that things work out for everybody. Now, not only am I worried about myself, I am worried about every crew member. I worried about the people that I could not see at that time.”
When he finally heard the safe-word being called on deck, he carefully made his way up and only then remembers being viscerally aware of his nervous system’s reaction to his state of survival. He recalls, in detail, being very thirsty, reaching for a pitcher of water and pouring it into a glass and seeing his hand shaking. He thought it was “kind of strange” and realized that he “may have been a little nervous.”
“I Consider Every Man My Brother”
Over and over again, Wright reminds me that survival depended on every single man, each of whom acted impeccably. He describes the crew — with whom he’d spent a month prior to the incident — as a genuinely great group to begin with, all friendly and not a one “vindictive.” Now, of course, their bond is unbreakable.
“I consider every man my brother, and anything that I can do to help any one of them, I would certainly do it,” Wright said.
Looking back on all of the mistakes that might have been, Wright’s gratitude and humility dominate his thoughts.
“You just wonder how things worked out so well for us,” he said. “If every crew member had not done exactly what they should have done, then we would not have turned out in as good a position as we were. And of course, now that it’s over, I mean, it’s just perfect because all of us are still here.”
A Lesson in Compassion
Despite the agony that he and his “brothers” endured, despite the disbelief spurned by human cruelty, Wright offers a voice of compassion and perspective:
“These are desperate people that are doing this. They’re very poor, they have very little education, and for them to be out hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia in a speedboat undertaking their piracy acts … It just shows how much value they can get for what they are risking. They’re risking their entire lives.
“I have seen many things as a merchant seaman and I have gone to different countries and I have walked the streets of different countries and watched people that have nothing just trying to survive. And I can certainly understand what they’re trying to do. It seems people all over the world have a thing in common and they’re striving to make life better for themselves and their children. And unfortunately, sometimes — and the piracy, I cannot condone any type of activity like this — [but] I can certainly understand where they might be just that desperate to take that route.”
He talked about the Kenyans that he’d worked with in the docks, these men making $10 a day doing back-breaking, muddy work without ever complaining, without ever shaking their positive attitudes. He talked about his gratitude for being assigned a job like this, meeting the people that he did. He realizes that this is work that needs to be done and is putting his trust in the unions and governments to ensure safer waters for sailors passing through these dangerous zones.
Wright has his sights set on seeing his mother and giving her a hug. Hearing him talk about her work ethic, her determination to send her sons to college despite the grueling task of essentially raising them on her own — his respect and admiration for her is unmistakable. And clearly he took another lesson to heart.
“You know, I have always really felt that I was extremely lucky to be around every day just to see the normal — the things that people take for granted … A nice day is great for me, nice and sunny. And when it’s raining, I feel like I can dry off later, and it’s no big deal … And I know that not everybody has a good family and people they can talk to or things like that, but even if you don’t have any money or possessions or anything like that, if you have some people that you can be tight with, then you’re doing great.”
I’d say Wright is doing pretty great.