Pirate Alley Day 5: 160 miles northeast of Aden, 15 miles from the Yemeni Coast

One morning early in our trip, we saw a recreational fishing boat come rushing towards us out of a harbor along the New Jersey coast. It passed close by, and was soon followed by another, and within a short time more than a dozen boats came flying past us. These were the 35 foot, triple decker, shiny white jobs with gigantic fishing poles springing aft, each piloted by a sun-glasses wearing fisherman, leaning into his wheel, intently staring at the horizon and the flopping fish that were calling him out. We watched them with mild interest, remarking in an early blog that some harbors seemed to be dominated by recreational fishermen, some by the commercial type, and others by sailors.

Something similar happened today, but the experience was more intense.

We are in the midst of pirate alley, and have taken all possible precautions for our safety, one of which is to be extremely vigilant about approaching boats. There have been fewer attacks along the Yemeni coast recently, but when they happen, a high-speed fishing skiff, or possibly two, comes rushing towards you at high speed. For a sailboat, it can be over pretty quickly. We were first alerted to something when our radar alarm went off. We set up our radar such that an alarm sounds when any boat comes within a set distance. This morning, the outer barrier was set at about six miles, but with small boats, radar does not pick them up until they are just two or three miles away, and so it was this time. We picked up the binoculars, and saw a cloud of white wake behind a small skiff, coming towards us from the Yemeni coast at a high speed.

We went into piracy response mode. Some things we had prepared long ago, when we left the Maldives, and they include the following measures:

  1. To add crew, we have set up two dummies on the back of the boat, using our bright red survival suits and two old t-shirts. (They are named Speedy and Yogi the Bear, based on their shirts. And no comments from the peanut gallery about the other dummies aboard.) They look like Halloween props, and not very good ones at that.
  2. We have shade cloths around the cockpit, so those approaching can not see who or what else is aboard.
  3. We do not put up sail during the day, because the sails increase the distance from which we can be seen. Similarly, we have taken down our radar reflector and run without lights at night. The pirates supposedly have no technology whatsoever, and operate by sight only, but official guidance says to do this, so we do.
  4. We have registered our trip with a number of authorities, and provide daily position reports to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Organization, or UKMTO, which serves as a liaison between ships transiting the area and patrolling military forces. Paul’s sister Cathy and friend Peter Andersson, in Oslo, have also served as contacts ashore, monitoring our daily reports and forwarding to us information about on-going pirate attacks. The UKMTO also sends us such reports, but irregularly.
  5. Through Cathy, Peter, the UKMTO, and our own research, we have gathered intelligence about all attacks that have occurred this year and last, and have plotted their locations to better understand patterns and avoid hotspots.
  6. We did not sail directly across the Arabian Sea, on the rhumb line from the Maldives to Salalah, but instead sailed due north along the coast of India, before taking a sharp left hand turn along 17 N in order to stay clear of areas where attacks have recently occurred. This added about 350 miles to our trip, which meant an extra week underway, but kept us out of danger for that leg. Now, however, coming through the Gulf of Aden, there is less wiggle room. We have chosen to sail close to the Yemeni coast, rather than within a supposedly protected transit corridor, for a number of reasons, even though the advice from the authorities is to use the corridor. First, the transit corridor is about 70 miles offshore, and so would require that we travel an additional 140 miles, or more than a day, through unprotected waters, to get to the corridor from Salalah and leave it and get to Aden. Second, there are two sources of pirates here. In the past, when Somali pirates have encountered yachts, they have kidnapped the crew, sometimes taking the yacht as well, and sometimes setting it adrift. Crew are then held for ransom. The Yemeni pirates, on the other hand, have focused more on petty theft. No one likes to be robbed, but opportunistic Yemeni fishermen and people smugglers are the lesser of two evils. Third, almost all the attacks in the Gulf of Aden occur IN the corridor, or just adjacent to major ports, specifically Aden. That’s because that is where the big ships are. It follows, then, that we want to be away from heavy shipping areas, if that is where the pirates tend to be. Fourth, we have been told that the average response time, ANYWHERE in the Gulf, is about 30 minutes. We were told that we’d “have to keep them busy for about that long.” As a slow moving sailboat, we could keep the pirates “busy” for only a tiny fraction of that time, unless we could interest them in some card tricks or a game of scrabble. The military authorities are interested in hearing about suspicious activity, but do not respond unless there is an actual threat, like the sighting of weapons or the firing of shots. But by the time we would be able to discern that an approaching skiff meant harm, rather than wanted some cigarettes, the game would be over. So, military help is more likely than not to be of little assistance, and our best bet is to avoid pirates in the first place. Fifth, scores of other sailboats have made this passage this year (we’ve seen estimates ranging from 140 to 300), and we are unaware of any of them traveling through the corridor; they have all traveled along the coast. Though we have closely monitored all reports of attacks, there have been no reports of attacks on sailboats this year. So, we travel about twenty miles offshore, and watch on pins and needles for suspicious activity.
  7. All valuables, such as passports, hand-held electronics, credit cards, cash and cameras, have been hidden in various places in the bowels of the boat. Second-string, “pretend” valuables, such as backup binoculars, a wallet with meaningless IDs and credit cards, funny-money cash from around the world, an old walkman, and a broken external hard-drive, are kept in a mock “safe,” which we would surrender if we were robbed.
  8. Only one berth is made, and the others covered with bags and equipment, to make it look like Paul is single-handing. (To get into character, Paul’s been growing a beard, to Sima’s dismay. Paul likes his beard and thinks he looks like Sean Connery, but Sima thinks Charles Manson or Sirius Black. Well, at least those chaps stand a good chance of frightening off bad guys.) All of Sima’s personal effects have been put away. With respect to Somali pirates, a single hostage is less attractive than two, especially a husband and wife.

When we saw the skiff coming at us at high speed, we took the following additional planned precautions:

  1. We attempt to move away from its path. But if it is moving at 25 knots, and we at five, its a bit like a slug trying to leap out of the way of an onrushing train. This tactic works to differentiate friend from foe if we’re coming at each other head to head at great distance, but not from most other angles. Our movement this morning made little difference.
  2. Because the skiff kept coming, we telephoned the UKMTO, just to let them know what we saw. If it deems necessary, the UKMTO would notify a nearby “asset,” or naval vessel. We have the UKMTO’s number programmed into the phone as “1.” (So Paul pushed “1,” and the phone rang. “Alo?” came the voice on the phone. “Is this the UKMTO?” asked Paul. “Alo? Efendim?” Not recognizing the voice, Paul hung up. Looking at the number on the screen, he realized that he was supposed to push and HOLD the number “1” for five seconds. He hadn’t quite managed to get to five, and so the phone dialed the last number called, which was Sima’s home. We had to apologize later to Sima’s brother, Burak. (“I recognized Paul’s voice,” Burak grumbled. “Why the heck did he call at 5:00 a.m. and then hang up? Mom was worried sick!”) Paul tried again, reached a UKMTO Watchkeeper, and described what was happening. “Do you see anything suspicious?” asked the thick British accent. “Other than that they-are-bearing-down-upon-us-at-high-speed suspicious?!” “Yeah. Do you see any guns, like?” “No, just three or four fellows, but they are still about a mile away, and it’s first light, so it’s a bit hard to tell.” “Well, OK, we’ll post this. Thanks for letting us know. Call us back if you see anything suspicious.” We realized, then, how ridiculous this was going to be. If we DID see guns, they’d be within a hundred yards or less, and by the time I uttered those words to the fellow at the UKMTO desk, we’d be through exchanging formal introductions with the gun-toting fellows. We came to the stark conclusion that the military is somewhat of a false comfort for sailboats here. In fact, from the reports that we’ve seen, they seem to be a false comfort for all shipping, as ships are either hijacked or the pirates have been rebuffed with water hoses and such long before the military arrives.
  3. If guns were fired, we would activate our EPIRB, or Emergency Positioning Indicator Radio Beacon. The official guidance from the military authorities here is purposefully vague about whether to activate an EPIRB, saying that it “will quickly draw attention to you but remember these are emergency devices intended specifically for saving life.” Clearly, a pirate attack is a life-threatening situation. But this too is a lose-lose proposition. If you’ve got it wrong, and they turn out not to be pirates, you’ve inadvertently called for immediate emergency assistance, and some rescuers have been known to insist that EPIRB-activators abandon their boats. On the other hand, if it really is a pirate attack, by the time an EPIRB response comes, you’re probably on your way to Somalia.
  4. Sima grabbed some laundry that was hanging to dry, put her few remaining personal belongings into a ready-bag, and began to move into a small chain locker hidden at the front of the fore peak. She fits in there comfortably. Well, she fits. There is a good likelihood that she would not be found there, as it is an out-of-the-way locker hidden behind bags and equipment.
  5. If guns were fired, Paul would fire a flare gun, and, depending upon the circumstances, would direct a round or two at at the approaching skiff. We practiced with the flare gun one day well out to sea, with no one around, and it was quite impressive. The range is not great, but we have been told that the skiffs often carry gasoline in open containers, and are particularly unhappy about flares. We have thought about this carefully. The official guidance from the military authorities for sailboats is not even to carry weapons because “there is a serious risk of escalation of the levels of violence.” If someone is firing weapons directly at the yacht, however, with the intent to kill, it’s not exactly clear how the pirates could up the ante. It is certainly true that on those several occasions where sailors used weapons, things have sometimes ended poorly for the sailors. After a long conversation with a private, armed security team that operates in the area and which we met in Salalah, however, we concluded that pirates are often looking for quick, easy, soft targets, and an initial show of of readiness may effectively deter them. We think that there is a window of before they are very close or aboard when a show of force might be helpful. We would hate to have to make the choice, but we are ready to use that option should we deem it prudent.
  6. Authorities are also called on the Single Side Band and VHF using an emergency alert system called “DSC.” But see above — there is little likelihood that they would arrive in time. (We were even told by one official to send an email if we could not get through by phone or radio. Sheesh.)
  7. If we were boarded, Paul would smile and relax, and give them whatever they want. And maybe show a few of his card tricks. Or try to talk about the World Cup, because goodness knows he’s really excited about that. And, it is in Africa after all . . .

On this day, the boat continued toward us. Paul hid away the few remaining valuables, including the computer upon which this is being typed, and continued to watch the approaching boat. He could now more clearly make out a man standing in the front, holding the painter, several more crouched amidship, and another at the motor. It was still coming hard at about 25 knots, and now less than 500 yards away. As he watched, Paul saw that the skiff was shading toward a direction just off of Leander’s stern. Then Paul noticed a second boat, this one a mile away, moving toward an area in front of the boat. We’re they circling us?

Then, in the distance, came two more boats. And then, happily, the two lead boats continued their course, passing Leander 1/4 mile afore and astern, respectively.

And then more boats came, none of them even seeming to notice us.

It was a fish run!

Sima moved away from the fore peak. Paul called the UKMTO back, ate breakfast, and we went back back to passage-making.

As an additional safety measure, we had been sailing in company with another boat, and he was two miles away when this encounter occurred. We have subsequently parted company because we were taking very different approaches to our passage. He liked to sail during the day, which we did not think was a good idea, as noted above. He also wished to conserve fuel, and so was traveling about a knot slower than our slow speed. We did not think it a good idea to spend an extra day out here. Also, we have each been approached by fisherman on different occasions. When they have approached us, we have adamantly insisted that they not come close to the boat, and they have complied, in a surprisingly good-natured manner. On the other hand, when he was approached by fisherman asking for water, he went below and came up with some bottled water to give them, for which they were extremely happy. We also thought this was a bad idea, particularly as Leander wishes to make it look like we’re single-handing, and he actually is single-handing. Sometimes those with bad intentions will approach on a ruse to scope out a boat. The overwhelming majority of these fishermen probably intend no harm, though on the other hand it is probably uncommon for fishermen to go to sea without sufficient water for their time out. He also slept at night and through daybreak, when attacks are a particularly high risk, according to past reports. He does not have alarms on his radar,which he does not keep on anyway because of it consumes too much power, and cannot hear his radio when he sleeps (or most other times, for that matter, as it is close to his engine). Yesterday morning at daybreak, he passed through a collection of fishing boats, without seeing them. He recognized this to be a problem, and so has headed further offshore, where there are fewer fishing boats to contend with. This seems less safe to us, as the bigger problem are the Somalis. Also, he is going to Djibouti, which would take him away from the entrance to the Red Sea and closer to Somalia, and so our routes do not match.

We think that this is an OK development. Some say that there is safety in numbers, but we note that of the accounts we have read where yachts were attacked in the Gulf of Aden, one boat was traveling in the corridor, and the other two were traveling with companion boats. One, in fact, was traveling with a German boat. Single-handing! Going to Djibouti! Enough said!

On the VHF radio, we hear the warships in the corridor from time-to-time, inviting ships to call them to report suspicious activity, and sometimes we hear just such calls from merchant vessels. But no attacks. We hope our good fortune continues.

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