Pirate Alley Part 1

1/15/2009

By Tom Morkin

Lately you can’t sit down in a yachtie watering hole without talking about piracy in the Gulf of Aden. For good reason. Just last night, it was reported that in 2008 there were over 100 pirate attacks emanating from Somalia alone. In the last week I’ve talked to two yachties who want to sail from the Med down the Red Sea through the Gulf of Aden to Malaysia and Australia, but they’re hesitating. Friends in Langkawi, Malaysia, report that Malaysia and Thailand are filling up with west-about circumnavigators reluctant to transit these pirate-infested waters to get to the Med, and don’t really want to round South Africa to get back to North America or Western Europe.

Liz and I sailed through the Gulf of Aden (“pirate alley”) in February of 2007. Prior to making the trip we were hungry to hear about other cruisers’ trips, experiences, opinions, strategies, and any ideas that might be helpful in:

A. deciding if that route or the African route was the one we wanted to take, and
B. if we went via the Gulf of Aden, what was the best way to do it

“Whaddya reckon, honey, fishermen or pirates?” said Roy to Margrit aboard the New Zealand boat Barnstorm, which went through the Gulf of Aden in March of 2007.

In the remote likelihood our story could be helpful to those considering the trip or to those who might be interested in our experience in that part of the world, I offer the following.

Circumnavigators have generally agreed that the 600-mile corridor leading to the south end of the Red Sea, officially the Gulf of Aden, is considered the most dreaded transit of their world cruise, and that was before the Somalian pirates ramped up their efforts. It certainly was for Liz and me. After reading and hearing way too many accounts of attacks and incidents, we harbored more than a healthy respect for this segment of our trip.

Other areas infamous for pirate attacks such as the Columbian coast or the Sulu Sea in the Philippines can be given a wide berth just by staying further offshore. The Gulf of Aden is bordered by Somalia in the south and Yemen in the north. Only about 120 miles wide by choosing a course in the middle of the Gulf, yachts are still well within range of the bad actors from either country.

Liz and I had spent two years cruising Thailand and Malaysia beforehand, we had had lots of time to talk to yachties who’d come from Europe via the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as well as the westbound yachties who were bound for the area. Whenever cruisers gathered for more than 30 minutes, the full gamut of “Pirate Strategies” was discussed:

Feel Free sailed through the Gulf of Aden in Feb. 2007

— To be armed or not armed
— To trail 100 meters of super strong monofilament line or light wire to foul the propeller of a following vessel
— To stay close to the coast or stay as far from land as possible
— To run navigation lights at night or not
— To strike sail by day and raise them only at night
— To maintain VHF or SSB radio silence or not
— In the event of contact, resist or comply?
— To convoy or not to convoy(strength in numbers or is an unarmed convoy just a bigger softer target)?
— If you do convoy, how big and where to rendezvous?

It was in Salalah, Oman, where we really finalized our plans for the 600 miles of the Gulf of Aden. There, we started our networking in earnest and found three other couples of like mind who agreed to form a four-boat international convoy. According to some we were simply providing any would-be pirates a bigger soft target because none of the boats were armed with anything more lethal than flare guns. However, until that time, pirates had not actually attacked a convey of yachts. They’d followed and even threatened but not actually struck a convoy of sailboats.

Our convoy if not well armed, was certainly international. It consisted of Luigi and Latzia of the 38-foot Out from Italy, Ray and Brenda of the 47-foot Sunchaser II from Australia, Terry and Debbie of the 47-foot Wings from the U.S., and Liz and me on the 51-foot Feel Free from Canada.

Out with Luigi and Latzia aboard, was one of the 4 boats in our convoy

After a number of meetings and an even greater number of beers aboard Sunchaser we came up with the grand plan. The first matter of business was to decide if we’d go along the Yemeni coast or head offshore and stay as far as possible from both Yemen and Somalia. The coastal option was the shorter route and we were told that the Yemenis were given patrol boats by Western governments for the express purpose of patrolling their shores. They patrolled close to shore so they’d only help boats within about 15 miles of the coast. More attacks have been reported close to the coast than offshore, so relying on the Yemeni navy, an unknown commodity, required faith we didn’t possess. We decided on the longer offshore route, more or less up the center of the Gulf as far from land as possible.

We carefully chose four key waypoints for the 636-nautical-mile passage. These waypoints were decided after reviewing the history of attacks over several years. Debbie on Wings provided us with a map showing exactly the locations of past attacks. This illustrated that there definitely were spots that were hotter than others and our routing was not to be a straight line. We came up with four waypoints. The 323 miles from Salalah to the first waypoint were considered to be safe miles, so we were on our own to waypoint 1. This meant we just had to decide when each of us had to leave Salalah in order to arrive at the rendezvous point on time. Our four waypoints were:

Ray and Brenda, seen here in Istanbul, were the crew of Sunchaser


1) 13 07.71N, 50 00.48E, 323 n m from Salalah Oman
2) 12 40.86N, 49 00.33E, 64 n m from #1
3) 12 30, 46 42.11, 111 n m from #2 (#2 to #3 is the section with highest incidence of piracy in the past)
4) Aden - 12 43.91N, 45 00.04E

At waypoint #1 all boats would form a diamond formation, with boats about 1/2 a mile apart. Since the 64 miles from waypoint #1 to #2 were not considered to be “high risk” miles, we’d rendezvous at #1 at dawn so we could cover those miles in daylight with sails up. The 111 miles from #2 to #3 was the area of greatest concern and we wanted to cover most of the distance in the dark trying to maintain a speed of 5.5 knots over the bottom. Clearly we wouldn’t be able to cover all the “high risk area” in darkness but we wanted to cover as much as possible so we would move as fast as the slowest boat with all canvas flying. If there was ever a time when all of us wanted to be caught out in a gale it was then!

It was agreed that while in the high-risk area no navigation lights were to be shown. Dim cockpit lights or small lights were to be displayed low. Depending on one’s position in the diamond, the light would be mounted on the appropriate side. Feel Free, for example was on the starboard side of the diamond so our light was displayed on the port side, Wings was the lead boat and had a light at the transom. The lights were for our benefit only!

The American boat Wings sails out of Oman

Wings
The American boat Wings sails out of Oman.

Communication was through VHF and SSB. Our VHF radios were all to be on dual mode — 16 for monitoring other traffic and 17 low power. To communicate, we’d use SSB radios on a preselected channel, in our case 4146 at scheduled times: 0900, 1200, 1500, 1800. To communicate at other times, we’d use channel 17 low power and said only “switch switch” which meant switch to SSB 4146.

At night each boat was assigned a three-hour radar watch. Any outside boats that entered a perimeter of five nautical miles in radius triggered an alarm and we would be put on alert. Should traffic enter the two- nautical-mile perimeter, the diamond was to be tightened to a couple of hundred feet. If the traffic continued to close on the convoy:

— All lights would be turned ON, on all the boats
— All flood lights would be shown on the approaching boat
— A call on VHF would go out advising the boat to stay clear (Go Away)
— If that went unheeded, MAYDAY would be put out on VHF and 2186 SSB and parachute flares displayed and the convoy diamond would close to effectively create a four-boat raft.
— Should the would-be attackers continue their advance (heaven forbid) we all agreed to raise our arms in surrender and offer no resistance after all four EPIRBS were deployed.

So that was the plan. What actually happened? Come back in two weeks time to find out.