Reporting from Nairobi, Kenya - In a riveting high-seas drama, an unarmed American crew wrested control of their U.S.-flagged cargo ship from Somali pirates Wednesday and sent them fleeing to a lifeboat with the captain as hostage.
A U.S. warship and at least six others were speeding toward the ship -- the first with an Americancrew to be taken by pirates off the Horn of Africa -- as crew members negotiated with the pirates forthe return of the captain.
Family members said Capt. Richard Phillips surrendered himself to the pirates to secure the safetyof the crew.
"What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage," said Gina Coggio, 29, half sister ofPhillips' wife. "That is what he would do. It's just who he is and his response as a captain." Details ofthe day's events emerged sporadically as members of the crew were reached by satellite phone,providing a glimpse of the maneuvering.
A sailor who spoke to The Associated Press said the entire 20-member crew had been taken hostagebut managed to seize one pirate and then successfully negotiated their own release. The man did notidentify himself during the brief conversation.
The crisis played out hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia -- one of the most lawless nationson earth. President Barack Obama was following the situation closely, foreign policy adviser DenisMcDonough said.
The Maersk Alabama was the sixth vessel seized by Somalis pirates in a week. Pirates have staged66 attacks since January, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages,according to the International Maritime Bureau, a watchdog group based in Kuala Lumpur.
Somalia's 1,900-mile (3,057-kilometer) long coastline borders one of the world's busiest shippinglanes and offers a perfect haven to the heavily armed pirate gangs. They often dress in militaryfatigues and use GPS systems and satellite phones to coordinate attacks from small, fast speedboatsresupplied by a larger "mother ship".
The pirates usually use rocket propelled grenades, anti-tank rocket launchers and automaticweapons to capture large, slow-moving vessels like the U.S.-flagged 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama,which was carrying food aid from USAID and other agencies to help malnourished people in Ugandaand Somalia.
According to reports from the crew, the pirates sank their boat when they boarded the ship. Thecaptain talked them into getting off the vessel using one of the ship's lifeboats.
Second Mate Ken Quinn told CNN in a live interview Wednesday that the crew also had held ahostage.
"We had a pirate, we took him for 12 hours," Quinn said. "We returned him, but they didn't returnthe captain." Maersk Line Limited CEO John F. Reinhart said his company received a call thatindicated the crewmen were safe. But the call got cut off, and the company could not ask any morequestions.
It remained unclear how the unarmed sailors could have overpowered pirates armed withautomatic weapons.
Capt. Shane Murphy, second in command on the ship, told his wife, Serena, that pirates hadfollowed the ship Monday and pursued it again for three or four hours before boarding it Wednesdaymorning, family members said.
The ship was taken about 7:30 a.m. local time some 380 miles east of the Somalicapital of Mogadishu. Analysts say many of the pirates have shifted their operations down theSomali coastline from the Gulf of Aden to escape naval warship patrols.
Reinhart said the company's vessels had received a heightened alert about piracy activity. He didnot have particulars about how the ship was taken, but said the crew's orders were to hide in saferooms until aid came. They did not have weapons, he said, and typically, their defense would be tofight the pirates off with fire hoses as they climbed up the stern.
Andrea Phillips, the captain's wife, said her husband had sailed in those waters "for quite sometime" and a hijacking was perhaps "inevitable." Coggio, speaking to reporters from the porch of thePhillips' farmhouse in Underhill, Vt., said the family had been told negotiations were beingconducted to get the captain back to the boat.
Capt. Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said his son was a 2001Massachusetts Maritime Academy graduate who recently talked to a class about the dangers ofpiracy.
"These waters are infested with pirates that highjack ships daily," Murphy wrote on the page,which features a photograph of him. "I feel like it's only a matter of time before my number getscalled." Joseph Murphy said his son was trained in anti-piracy tactics at the academy and receivedtraining with firearms and small-arms tactics.
Piracy expert Roger Middleton from London-based think-tank Chatham House said it was unclearwhether the pirates knew they were hijacking a ship with American crew, but the incident wouldstrengthen the hand of those in American military circles who wanted to take a more robustapproach to anti-piracy operations.
Multimillion dollar ransoms are fueling a piracy explosion.
There were 111 attacks in 2008, and more than half that number have been occurred in the first fourmonths of this year. Last year, pirates made off with up to $80 million in ransom money, saidMiddleton. Those hauls included payment for a Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian ship loaded withmilitary tanks, both of which were later released.
NATO already has five warships in the Gulf of Aden and is planning to deploy a permanent flotillato the region this summer.
The hijackings -- and the resulting jumps in insurance fees and shipping costs -- have promptedmany countries to send their navies to the region. The NATO warships patrol alongside threefrigates from the European Union, and up to ten American ships. India, China, Japan, Russia andother nations also cooperate in the international patrols.
U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Nathan Christensen said the closest U.S.
ship at the time of the hijacking was 345 miles (555 kilometers) away.
"The area the ship was taken in is not where the focus of our ships has been," Christensen said.
"The area we're patrolling is more than a million miles in size. Our ships cannot be everywhere atevery time." It's a lesson the Somali pirates have taken to heart, venturing hundreds of miles
offshore to capture a British ship, a Taiwanese trawler, a Yemeni tug, a German vessel and a Frenchyacht in the past week.
In an interview with the AP, a man identified by villagers as a pirate, said his gang was not merelya band ruffians, but a well-organized, business-minded group that also had philanthropic concerns. "We have leaders, investors, young people who go to the sea for hunting ships and also negotiatorsin many areas," said the man, who identified himself only as Madobe. He said he was in his 20s.
Douglas J. Mavrinac, the head of maritime research at investment firm Jefferies & Co., said usingU.S.-fagged ships with American crews was rare because of the high costs. But they are used to carryU.S. government aid.
There are fewer than 200 U.S.-flagged vessels in international waters, said Larry Howard, chair ofthe Global Business and Transportation Department at SUNY Maritime College in New York.