Family members said a U.S. ship captain's decision to trade himself for the safety of his crew from Somali pirates was in character for the devoted father from Vermont.

"What I understand is that he offered himself as the hostage," said Gina Coggio, 29, the sister-in-law of captain Richard Phillips. "That is what he would do. It's just who he is and his response as a captain."

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Phillips, 55, was taken hostage Wednesday after his unarmed U.S. crew wrested control of the Maersk Alabama ship from Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa and sent them fleeing to a lifeboat — with Phillips as their bargaining chip.

Relatives and neighbors in Phillips' small mountain town of about 3,000 people described the mariner as an avid skier who is deeply involved with his wife, Andrea, and two college-aged children when he returns home from long cruises.

"He's always at sea, so we don't get to see him much," said Terry Aiken, 66, who lives across the street. "But you see him being a husband at home when he's here."

Coggio described Phillips as an outgoing man known for his storytelling.

"Andrea said before: 'If the Somalis there speak English, he'll be having them laughing at some kind of story,"' she said.

Coggio waited anxiously with her half-sister at the captain's home on Wednesday, watching news reports and taking calls from U.S. State Department for updates.

A U.S. warship was on the scene a few hours before dawn Thursday and officials were waiting until sunrise while crew members negotiated with the pirates for the captain's return.

Earlier Wednesday, Mrs. Phillips said her husband left home at the end of March and joined the ship last week.

"I knew exactly where he was," she said. "I just got an e-mail from him and knew he was heading into Mombasa (a city on the coast of Kenya). He had even made the comment that pirate activity was picking up."

She said she always worried about reports of pirates.

"I always hoped it wasn't going to happen to us," she said.

Asked if the family had a message for his captors, Coggio said: "Let him go. Let him come home. Let him go. We want Richard back."