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Friends Describe Hostage Captain as Seaman's Seaman With Keen Sense of Humor

He went from driving a cab in Boston to piloting multimillion-dollar cargo vessels around the world.

Now Capt. Richard Phillips is at the center of a high seas-piracy drama after offering himself up as the lone hostage to the gang that overtook his ship. The selfless act is no surprise to those who know him.

Relatives and friends describe Phillips as a seaman's seaman with a keen sense of humor who's always ready with tales of his adventures in far-off ports.

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"The way the guy tells a story is amazing," said brother-in-law Tom Coggio, 41, of Richmond, southeast of Burlington. "We're just all waiting for him to get home and tell this one."

The burly sailor balances long stretches at sea with precious time at home — working on his 19th-century farmhouse, taking his children tubing on nearby Lake Champlain and generally savoring life on land.

The crew of the Maersk Alabama managed to retake the ship Wednesday after Phillips offered himself as a hostage to the Somali pirates.

On Thursday, hostage negotiators for the FBI joined the U.S. Navy in efforts to free Phillips. An American destroyer and a spy plane kept watch on the standoff near the Horn of Africa.

At his home Thursday, family members maintained a nervous vigil, awaiting word on his fate. Sister-in-law Lea Coggio said a representative of Maersk called to let Phillips' wife know that food and water had been delivered to the lifeboat.

"I think he's coping, knowing Richard," she said. "He's a smart guy, and he's in control. He's had a hand-held radio since he's been in the lifeboat."

Those who know him describe the 53-year-old as a fun-loving sportsman who's all business at sea.

As a child, he was a sturdy, good-natured boy who played basketball, football and lacrosse and went by "Jungle," a nickname inherited from his father, who coached youth sports.

The toughness implied by the name fit, says Stephen Blasi, who went to grade school and graduated high school with him in 1973 in Winchester, Massachusetts.

"He was a strong kid," said Blasi, 54, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. "Not the type of person that would be out fighting, but probably someone you wouldn't want to fight if you didn't have to. And you know, you'd never have to unless you did it, unless you did something to him."

Another childhood friend, Donald Carey, described Phillips as a good-looking, athletic youngster who was modest.

"He was kind of like Gary Cooper, in a sense," said Carey, of Winchester, Massachusetts. "He played football, he played basketball, he played lacrosse. But he never made a big deal out of being a successful member of any of those teams."

"If you forgot your lunch, he'd hand you half of his. In a heartbeat," Carey said.

A burly 6-footer with a thick Boston accent, Phillips worked as a cab driver in Boston during his time at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1979.

Phillips met wife, Andrea, in a bar outside Boston's Fenway Park. She was studying to become a nurse at the time.

"I think I met the man I'm going to marry," she told her mother, the Boston Herald reported Thursday.

They did, in 1987. Andrea Phillips, 51, is now an emergency room nurse at Fletcher Allen Health Care in nearby Burlington. They have two children — Daniel, a 20-year-old a sophomore at Elmira College in New York state, and Mariah, 19, a freshman at Castleton State College in Vermont.

Two summers ago, Phillips had a brush with death. Playing football at a family gathering in New Hampshire, he suffered a broken neck diving to catch the ball, hitting his head on a boulder.

"The doctors said he was a hair from becoming a quadriplegic, but he got healed up with that," Tom Coggio said.

By this year, he was back on Vermont's slopes, skiing and snowboarding.

Phillips was all business when it came to his job, relatives said.

"Two of my brothers have sailed with him," said Lea Coggio, one of Andrea Phillips' sisters. "He's a different guy, they say. You have to be. You have to be in charge. It's a big responsibility."

Capt. Joseph Murphy, an instructor at the academy, said his son Shane Murphy — a member of the Maersk Alabama crew — told him Phillips frequently conducted emergency drills, including what to do in case of a pirate attack.

"He says that he's one of the most diligent masters he's ever seen," the elder Murphy said. "Very, very particular about how things are done and wants them done perfectly, and he drills until he gets it."

Murphy credits Phillips with saving the life of his son — and the rest of the crew.

"If you look at the sacrifice that Capt. Phillips has made, you know, to put himself in harm's way for his crew, he separated himself and the pirates from the crew. There's no hope of them, was no hope once they get away from the side, of getting back on the ship. They couldn't do it."

Blasi was not surprised to hear that Phillips had offered himself as a hostage to save his crew.

"It's just his character, he would step up to the plate like that," he said. "He was just a good guy."

"That takes some (guts), let's face it," Blasi said.