From his harrowing ordeal with Somali pirates, Capt. Richard Phillips learned three important things: “You are much stronger than you’ll ever know; nothing is over ‘til we choose to give up; and a dedicated, motivated, focused team can overcome most any obstacle.”

The importance of those points was reflected on the opening day of the 35th annual International WorkBoat Show in December in Phillips’ fast-paced, dramatic keynote speech on the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009.

He detailed everything from the piracy drill before the Somalis boarded to his rescue by Navy SEALs — much of which has been portrayed in his book and in the 2013 movie.

In an answer to a question from the standing-room-only crowd estimated at around 800, Phillips said he endorsed weapons onboard. “I think we should have armed security, and crews definitely need training,” he said, noting that piracy isn’t just off Somalia but elsewhere around Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Phillips also explained why he boarded the lifeboat with the pirates hoping to be exchanged for one pirate taken by his crew. “I believed my major responsibility was to get these pirates off my ship,” he said. The pirates’ boat had sunk, so it was agreed to let them have the ship’s lifeboat, but they needed a crewmember to operate it. Phillips thought he should be the one.

“For me to leave my ship wasn’t surrender, wasn’t heroism. It was my duty,” he said. “My crew, my ship and cargo were free and clear. That’s how I ended up on the lifeboat with the pirates.”

But they didn’t let him go. “Another lesson I learned — never trust a pirate.”

Before the ordeal began, Phillips had held a piracy drill. “I always told my crew it was a matter of when not if.” The drill turned up some problems such as open doors that should have been locked.

Then they saw the pirates approaching and heard bullets flying into the hull. Soon Phillips issued the warning “pirates aboard, pirates aboard.”

Most of the crew were in the safe room, and because of the drill, “doors that should have been locked were locked.”

The 508', 1,068-TEU containership was dead in the water and Phillips refused the pirates request to get it going. He told them they broke it and said he didn’t know where the crew was.

He and the pirates eventually got into the lifeboat where his unsuccessful escape attempt resulted in his being tied up so tight he still has scars and numbness.

“I worked at staying calm,” said Phillips, a 1979 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. “For as long as you don’t give up, you still have a chance.

He realized the Navy was nearby. They got the pirates and freed him.

“The real heroes of this story,” Phillips said, “are the military and Navy SEALs.” — Dale K. DuPont 




Frank Foti, the CEO of Vigor Industrial, Portland, Ore., delivered his message of “truth, responsibility, evolution and love” to the keynote audience on the second day of the show. 

With a presentation that began with a slide show featuring the faces of shipyard workers and music by Sting, Foti engaged the audience with anecdotes, a stuffed-toy elephant and the thinking behind his company’s mission statement, which he and his executive team have boiled down to the four words quoted above.

“Truth is the hardest one,” he said. “It’s the elephant in the room, but it’s very important to speak openly about what’s not good or not working right.”

Regarding responsibility, Foti said that at Vigor, “If you see it, you own it.” In other words, it’s everyone’s responsibility “to act on what you know is right.”

Evolution means adapting to a changing world. “We can get too rigid,” he said, and then played a “Star Wars” video clip with Yoda saying, “You have to unlearn.”

Love, he said, means caring about the people you work with and the world we live in. Foti illustrated this value with a story about a single mom who works at Vigor’s shipyard in Ketchikan, Alaska. When the roof of her house was literally blown off during a recent storm, the shipyard essentially shut down for a day while her co-workers rebuilt her roof. 

Regarding the mix of work many shipyards depend on, Foti said that the industry is “too dependent on the military.” He said that this government work “needs to be part of what we do — and we’re grateful for it — but there should be a better balance with commercial work.”

When asked if he intended to expand into the Gulf, Foti said that there was already a “lot on our plate with nine yards” in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. He said Brazil has been considered for expansion, but with the recent merger with Oregon Iron Works and the anticipation of a recapitalization of the North Pacific fishing fleet, “the future is bright” on the West Coast and Alaska. — Bruce Buls 



The marine transportation system is uniquely situated to play a larger role in the future of a nation that is expected to have nearly 80 million more people by 2050, U.S. Maritime Administrator Paul “Chip” Jaenichen said during the final keynote address at the show.

That means more coal, petroleum, grain, sand and gravel and other commodities — 10 billion more tons of domestic cargo will be needed by midcentury, according to one estimate, he said.

Three quarters of the population will live in 11 “megaregions,” one of which will be a dense, uninterrupted stretch from Pensacola, Fla., to the southern tip of Texas.

 “Most of the emerging megaregions are located on major maritime hubs,” Jaenichen said.“It will require substantial improvements in service and facilities for the national marine transportation system to reach its optimal potential.”

Marad is working on a national maritime strategy to strengthen not only the marine transportation system but also the U.S. shipbuilding and repair industry and the U.S. merchant marine, he said.

And, he added, “We are taking great pains to ensure that the inland waterways and the offshore industries are included in our final product.”

Jaenichen also promised “that the Maritime Administration will staunchly and aggressively defend the Jones Act — wherever the attacks may be coming from.”

“Right now, the Jones Act is in a very solid position,” he said. “The Jones Act is and always will be under attack, and we will have to be vigilant against those threats because once fractured, those cracks will tend to spread.”

  —D.K. DuPont 



Ron Sandahl, a Coast Guard electrician stationed in Panama City Beach, Fla., wants to get into the marine industry when he retires from the service in two years. 

He’s working on his third engineer’s license and aiming for a spot on an offshore service vessel, like some of his friends have. 

“That seems like a good fit for me,” said Sandahl, who was one of the estimated 200 armed services personnel at the Military2Maritime job fair held during the show.

“Good fit” also was a common expression among the nearly 50 companies that participated in the event, sponsored by the American Maritime Partnership (AMP) and the Offshore Marine Service Association (OMSA). It was the latest in a series of such events designed to help current and former members of the military find jobs in the domestic maritime industry. The unemployment rate for Gulf War Era II vets (anyone on active duty since September 2001) was 5.7% in November, compared to 5.8% for the U.S. as a whole, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

The U.S. Coast Guard also was on hand to provide information about credentials needed to make the transition. Not all military education, training and experience are recognized as meeting certification standards.

Lt. Josiah Star, a search and rescue controller with the Coast Guard in New Orleans, expects to start the licensing process soon. He came to the fair to explore his options in the industry when he gets out of the service in two years.

 “I love being out on the water. It’s a beautiful way to make a living,” said Star, who expects to work his way up to master.

Veterans are “well-suited to work on our boats. They understand the chain of command. They make great employees,” said Kyle Buese, general manager, vessel operations, Kirby Inland Marine, Houston.

Kirby expects to hire about 250 deck people and another 60 to 70 for the wheelhouse over the next 12 months, Buese said. 

 The inland tank barge operator has a Coast Guard-approved training center and licensing department. “We handle the whole thing,” he said. “Employees are getting paid while doing training.” From earlier military to maritime events held in Houston and Jacksonville, Fla., “we have gotten quite a few good candidates.”

Nicky Collins, recruiter for Edison Chouest Offshore, Cut Off, La., said he “could see myself hiring five veterans that came here today.” 

“Veterans are used to taking orders and running a tight ship, and that’s what we like to do,” he said. “Veterans are very disciplined and good workers.”

Noel Ramos, personnel director for Weeks Marine’s dredging division, agreed.

“They have a good work ethic. Backgrounds are easier to check. They’re used to travel and a lot of their experience can be converted to our business,” said Ramos, who needs dredging equipment operators, naval architects, site safety officers, surveyors, crane operators and welders.

For more information, go to: — D.K. DuPont 




People who can’t meet Coast Guard medical certification requirements often fall into two categories — those who don’t take the medications they should and those who take too much of what they shouldn’t.

“I’ve told patients the Coast Guard doesn’t worry about you having high blood pressure. Some people just need medication,” Dr. Brian Bourgeois, owner of West Jefferson Industrial Medicine, New Orleans, said at a WorkBoat Show session on an issue that frustrates many trying to get their credentials. “I don’t fail somebody for having high blood pressure. I fail them for not taking their medication.” On the other hand, people often take drugs they really don’t need.

But all in all, there are very few disqualifiers for meeting the standards.

“The majority of problems are fixable,” said Bourgeois, who also is a member of the Coast Guard’s Merchant Mariner Medical Advisory Committee. “You can’t make a risk zero. You can’t make every illness go away.”

The major medical issues facing mariners — and ones that hold up most certificates — include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, medications and seizures.

 There also are folks who may have conditions that make them too risky to be on a vessel. For example, “seizures are inherently unpredictable,” he said. And administering insulin is problematic because it needs to be kept cool and requires needles. 

“I’m not a big fan of insulin-dependent diabetics working on a vessel,” said the doctor who performs Coast Guard physicals.

He also suggests testing mariners maybe once a year in case they began taking addictive over-the-counter or prescription drugs since being hired. “As an employer, you can’t ask those questions,” Dr. Bourgeois said, “but I can.”

He also said the medical advisory committee formed four years ago to simplify and clarify the review process is making progress. “It’s slow, but it’s moving.”

The 14-member group of health care professionals and mariners has suggested some changes that would allow people with certain conditions to work inland but not offshore instead of disqualifying them altogether. 

Bourgeois said the group wants everyone to go to work, but “we just want the problems to be taken care of.” — D.K. DuPont