Monday, February 16, 2009

PIRATES: Gulf of Aden

After 2 ½ years of cruising, the time finally came for me to face my fear of pirates. Although there have been incidents of piracy in the Strait of Malacca and we kept our eyes open when we passed between Malaysia and Sumatra, the worst area in the world is definitely the Gulf of Aden. So much so that recently, a coalition has been formed where war ships from many nations patrol the area by sea and air. The coalition has designated a certain path through the gulf as the “Security Corridor”. This zone is hundreds of miles long and twelve miles wide and several times each day a war ship escorts large ships through the area. In addition, there are war ships doing random patrols and there is even air support.

Despite this military presence, we decided to proceed in a convoy with two other sailboats which has been the recommended procedure over the last few years before the coalition was formed. We chose two other sailboats that sailed and motored at approximately the same speed as us. Each boat had it’s strength. We had the SSB radio that we can transmit a distress signal if necessary. Lasse, the German boat, had a satellite phone so they could phone the Coalition Headquarters in Dubai, if necessary. Skedemongske, the Belgian boat, was of heavy steel construction with very large engine power so they could ram a pirate boat if we were under attack. (the pirate boats are about 30 feet long high speed power boats. So the 21 ton steel sailboat would definitely win in a pushing match.) None of us were armed.

The first day of the five day trip went very well. There was no wind so we all motored along within 1/2 mile of each other. We heard the war ships on the radio many times so we felt confident we were quite safe. Although virtually all pirate attacks happen during the daylight hours, we did not turn on our mast head lights at night. We only ran our deck level lights so that we could only be seen from 2-3 miles. Even the large freighters were running without lights. Each sailboat took a 4 hour shift watching the radar at night to make sure that there were not little green dots coming at us fast and to make sure there were no collisions with the freighters.

Day two was a hazy day with reduced visibility. We could only see 2 - 3 miles out onto the horizon. About 12:00 noon, Steve noticed 4 specs on the horizon. When he looked through his binoculars, he could see it was in fact high speed boats coming straight at us. He radioed the other sail boats to alert them. Within 2 minutes, the speed boats had halved the distance between the horizon and out little convoy. Then the high speed boats split in two. Two were heading behind our boat between Toboggan and the other two sailboats were. The other two headed in front of Toboggan between us and a large freighter that was 5 miles ahead of us at the time. The freighter initiated evasive maneuvers and started steering erratically so that it would be difficult for anyone to board them from a high speed boat.

At this point, we were quite certain we were about to come face to face with pirates. Carola on Lasse, used the Satellite phone to call the coalition force to report what was happening. Steve put out a DSC (digital selective calling) distress call on the VHF radio. I put out the DSC distress call on the SSB radio. My hands were shaking and it was difficult for me to follow the several step procedure to put out the call. Luckily I had written it out and taped the directions beside the SSB radio because there was no way I would have remembered the procedure in that agitated state.

Within another two minutes, the high speed boats passed right between our convoy and continued on over the horizon towards Yemen. After a couple of minutes, Steve cancelled the DSC distress call on the radio. The freighter that was directly in front of us radioed that he would turn back towards us in case the speed boats returned. He said that their ship was armed and that they would stay with us until the speed boats disappeared off their radar altogether. It was a huge comfort to know that they were there.

After about 10 minutes, the freighter increased their speed and carried on and was soon gone from sight. We continued on with our eyes glued to the horizon watching for anything unusual. An hour and a half later, it happened again. This time it was three high speed boats coming straight for us. We followed the same procedure again and put out the distress call. I was convinced that the first time they came past was to check us out and now that the big freighter was gone and we were all alone, we would be in trouble. But after 4 minutes of shaking in our boots, the 3 boats passed right by our convoy and disappeared over the horizon towards Yemen.

Over the next 3 ½ days, during daylight hours, we constantly watched the horizon until I thought I would go cross-eyed or snow blind. The night time was better. We could relax a bit in the dark although for added security, we covered up our deck level lights with white plastic bags so that they could only be seen for up to ½ a mile (instead of the normal 2 mile). This way, we could see each other but we could not be seen from a distance.

There were no further incidents and we arrived in Aden, Yemen all in one piece. After checking into the country with the usual bureaucracy and a few bribes here and there, we all gathered on the German boat Lasse to celebrate our safe passage. We will never know who was in those high speed boats. Maybe they were smugglers just speeding across the Gulf between Somalia and Yemen and we just happened to be in their path? Maybe they were pirates but they thought that our little sailboats looked like too much effort for not enough return? Who knows? We are just happy we lived to tell the story.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pirates .... wondering where you are these last few weeks ? 09.06.04 LooVille friends and fans ....

2:35 PM  

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