Call For a Tow

Pirate Alley Part 2


By Tom Morkin

Manoel Island Yacht Yard, Malta
35 54 N, 14 29 E

On Feb. 26, 2007, all four boats departed Salalah Oman with the understanding that we’d meet at waypoint #1, which was 323 miles away at 1630 hours on March 1 — about 75 hours later. Reported light winds and contrary currents of 1.5 knots dictated that we all needed to allow lots of time to reach #1. Very few incidents had been reported near the Omani-Yemeni border, so a slow trip to #1 was not a concern.

Feel Free was immediately hard on the wind, looking into 12 knots of south-southwesterly wind. It was pleasant sailing along the rugged, craggy, tawny Omani coastline of flat-topped mountains… until the GPS told us our speed over ground was a paltry three knots. This was beginning to look like a motorboat trip. Even with the 70 horses contained within our 37-year-old Isuzu engine, we could still only do 4.3 knots over the bottom — at least fast enough to hook a small mahi mahi for dinner.

Next morning, some 30 miles offshore, we were alone with none of our team within visual range, as we were a long way from our rendezvous point. It was just after dawn, when off our starboard bow we noticed no fewer than four 25- or 30-foot open boats moving very fast and sure toward Feel Free. Sh..!

Friends on Barnstorm couldn’t tell if these were pirates or fishermen.  Could you?

The “what do we do now?” question was easily answered. There wasn’t a damn thing we could do but continue on our way and hope for the best. The four boats were alongside within minutes.  Each boat contained three or four scary looking balaclava-clad men. They were yelling and gesturing at us. But then we noticed that they were also smiling. If they had guns, they weren’t displaying them. Their eyes roamed but they seemed content just to have a good long gawk at all our gear on deck. We waved and smiled at our new arrivals as if we couldn’t have been happier to meet these fellow seamen — which couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was only when one of the men displayed a five-pound tuna, which he appeared to want to give us, that  our anxiety finally dropped along with our heart rates. To our chagrin,  these guys weren’t going to kill us after all. Cool! In fact, they were welcoming us! Soon, their 200-horse outboards left us much relieved and wondering how many other such visitations we could look forward to over the next five days.    

It was our second night at sea when our saltwater engine cooling pump impellor decided to shred itself to death and we found ourselves dead in the water 170 miles from our convoy’s rendezvous point. Fortunately, the problem was diagnosed, and within an hour and a half we were back on track wishing we had another spare impellor and wondering why it had been so brutally mutilated.

Dawn of our third day brought four more high-speed Yemeni fishing boats that diverted from their courses to check us out. Again they offered us gifts of fish, and followed us for a few minutes to admire our boat, inquiring about whether or not we had whiskey to share, and then roaring off. So far so good!

Later that day, we started to see our convoy buddies long before our scheduled convoy point. They all had similar contact with Yemeni fishermen and none had been harassed  We formed our convoy anyway and headed for the first waypoint.  Now you might think four boats wouldn’t have too much trouble motorsailing in a diamond formation, but you’d be wrong. Herding cats is probably easier than getting four skippers to stay in their assigned position for more than 15 minutes. We never were able to maintain a proper diamond for long and found it interesting to learn later that cruisers in other flotillas reported the same difficulty.

2 tuna were caught and rendered on our approach to Aden- just in time for a celebratory sashimi and champagne party aboard Feel Free.

On the morning of the fifth day, we were in the middle of the area where several “attacks” or “incidents” had been reported in the past. Feel Free’s engine water pump was putting out only 25 percent of its output. The engine wasn’t overheating but the water flow was definitely decreasing. Were we in the process of destroying our last impellor? The first thought was that our heat exchanger was clogged by bits of the last impellor. Although there hadn’t been any wind for over 22 hours and the sea was without a ripple, we had to shut the engine off to see what was wrong.  Great, just about the worst place in the world to be with a disabled vessel!

Immediately after announcing our dilemma to our convoy members, Ray and Brenda on Sunchaser offered us a tow while we tried to sort things out. In 22 years of cruising, We’ve never accepted or needed a tow. Now we were in Pirate Central on a windless day some 150 miles from Aden. To accept or not to accept a tow? It took about two nanoseconds to swallow our minuscule amount of pride and accept the very generous offer. The good news was that it was only junk in the intake strainer that restricted the water flow so it was only a 40-minute tow before we were under our own power once again.

Later that day we reached waypoint #3, a lower-risk area, and we had only 100 miles to go to Aden. Although our group  remained  close together  we abandoned our funny-shaped diamond formation  Our last night at sea we were rewarded with not only a full moon, but also a total lunar eclipse and for the first time in days, a useable amount of wind from the east. For about three hours we watched as the shadow over the brilliant white ball increased and then decreased in size. It was a white dawn — white clouds, whiter sky, white sun. Extraordinarily bizarre. The rugged, mountainous shores of Aden could be seen in the distance when the Gulf offered up two respectably sized tuna for our entry into Aden.

We arrived in Aden, very tired but very relieved. That evening, it was a celebratory fresh sashimi and champagne party aboard Feel Free with the couples of our little convoy. We were over the hump.

Hooray! We made it!

Afterthoughts, From Tom

The “pirates” are ranging much further afield than before and the number of coalition warships patrolling the waters of not only the Gulf of Aden, but the waters 300 to 400 miles off the coast of Somalia and Kenya is reported to be in single digits. To effectively patrol these waters is an impossible task.

Given that the pirates are now much better armed with bigger, faster, and technically more sophisticated boats, a convoy of sailboats is a more attractive target to the pirates. I believe there is no advantage to travelling in a group.

I recently saw an advertisement from Dockwise, the company in the business of delivering  yachts on the deck of their purpose-built ships. They’ll take yachts from Oman to the Mediterranean. It is, however, not cheap. Since our transit of the Gulf of Aden, the number of pirate attacks, not only on commercial vessels but on sailboats has dramatically increased. If we were to depart from Thailand now to get back to North America we’d go around South Africa.

Aden Harbor is colorful but the town is ramshackle and the poverty is obvious.

Aden is a culture shock to say the least, after a week at sea. It’s a ramshackle place, very poor, very dusty, very different. The civil war ended in 1994 but it seems like they’re still cleaning up the rubble. You can find just about anything you might need nearby, within walking distance — markets and shops with good produce, restaurants, banks with ATMs, money changers, Internet shops, small stores of every type, restaurants. The Aden Mall near Crater is large and air conditioned, including a huge supermarket. The very modern mall seems totally incongruous in this mediaeval world.

Clearing into the Republic of Yemen is straightforward, easy and free, with Immigration and Customs right on the Pier. We took in the sights in the immediate area- — Arab Town, Malaa, and Crater, using local buses.  The town of Crater is spectacular and a walk around the remains of the ancient, remarkable water catchment system there is worth a look.

Unemployment in Aden is appalling and the men hang out, chewing quat, all day long, their cheeks growing in size.

There’s no shortage of men wanting to be your “guide.” Some just want a Coke and lunch and to be your friend; others want money too. Men dressed in stylish head gear and wraparounds, some wearing daggers in their belts, standing, sitting, walking, chewing “Quat,” a narcotic leaf that grows and grows in size in their cheeks like a bulbous growth as the day wears on; this is the most amazing sight of Yemen. Sad too, as it was a sign of the rampant unemployment.

There’s no alcohol, but quat is the substitute; it’s legal and commonly used by one and all in daily life. The quat market is a sight to behold.

Quat is sold in the quat market and it isn’t cheap.

You can’t tell if the women take part as they’re totally covered head to toe in black garments, with only slits to see out of, some cover their eyes as well. Our guide Jamal told us: “It’s up to them what they wear.” I found that hard to believe.

Our guide said that it’s up to the women what they wear but we find it hard to imagine wanting to dress in heavy black robes head to toe in the hot climate of Yemen.

The ironic thing is that there are women’s negligee and sexy clothing stores around every corner — with male shopkeepers of course. Also around every corner are hairdressers, for men only. Children, boys and girls alike, are beautiful and friendly.

Yemeni kids, like kids all over the world, are friendly, curious, and eager for friendship.

Once, we had a group of little girls swarming us, shaking our hands, hugging us, saying, “I love you!” Just about everyone says “How are you?” and “You are from?”  The call to prayer five times a day booms in over loudspeakers wherever you might be. Yes indeed, we’d reached another world and “Pirate Alley” was definitely behind us.