Armed Adventure

14 48 N, 42 57 E

Paul’s mom’s cousin was a Colonel in the Air Force. She talked about him on occasion, and always admiringly.

Paul met him only once, towards the end of his life.

He was avuncular in the true sense of the word, giving lots of advice on many topics. He criticized the fact that Paul was, at the time, still single. “What are you, a tire kicker?!”

He said lots of other things. One of them was to be open to friendships that can be made through chance encounters.

He explained.

“You know, you could live next to a fellow for thirty years, and exchange a mere thirty meaningful words in all that time. Maybe you don’t click. And that’s OK. But then, riding a train somewhere, you bump into someone and strike up a fifteen minute conversation, and both promise to follow up, and, because something does click, you do. And things happen from there. ”

Like what, Paul asked.

“Like what?! Like someone who sees characteristics in you that you didn’t, and helps you with a career move. Or vice versa. Like learning about a lucrative investment opportunity . Or maybe meeting a lifetime friend, or better yet, a lifetime partner. ” He spent some time telling anecdotes of when he had been fortunate enough to have such chance encounters.

On his wall were pictures of him with a variety of the “friends” he had met this way, including a photo of him dining with Ernest Hemmingway in Havana. And he told another story of meeting another fellow and his wife in a shop there, with whom he became good friends, and who turned out to be a vacationing James Michael Curley, the great “Rascal King” mayor of Boston.

So Paul took his advice to heart, and Sima now shares it. As we travel, we are always receptive to such encounters, and maybe some of our earlier notes tell that story.

Bob Dalferro is a good friend of Paul’s, whom Paul got to know working with the Friends of Lynn Beach back at home. So when Paul’s Mom sent him a note reminding him that Bob’s daughter had married someone from this neck of the woods, Paul sent an email to Bob saying that we were here. (Paul’s sister Patricia, in turn, had urged his mother to call Bob Dalferro when his mother mentioned the connection to Yemen in passing.) But as we were here for a few days only, which would include a flight up and back to Yemen’s capital in the north, Sana’a, we did not expect that much would develop.

But develop it did. Bob sent an email to his son-in-law, Karim Abuhamad, who then immediately sent an email to FIVE of his friends in Yemen, saying that we were here, and asking if any could make time to see us. Two of them then emailed us, inviting us to visit them in Sana’a. Mind you, all of this took place over a single 24-hour period over two mismatched time zones on opposite sides of the globe.

One of the notes came from Karim’s friend Haitham Alaini , who was currently in Sana’a, and graciously agreed to show us around a home that kept there. “It is just a small annex to a place that my folks own that I fixed up, but I think you’ll enjoy seeing it.”

Yowza! The “small annex” that had been “fixed up” was a meticulously restored Sana’a dwelling, parts of which were hundreds of years old. We’ll spare you the details about how many Italian artisans spent how many years living on the premises to get the job done, but suffice to say that the place was spectacular, and that you could have fit the square -footage on which I grew up with my eight brothers and sisters onto one of the four floors.

Haitham was entertaining business guests and, as we had only made plans to meet him that very morning, we apologized for interfering with his evening, and after seeing the house, moved to leave. “No, no,” he insisted. “I’m a sailor too, and I’d love to hear about your trip, as would my guests.” (He also had a sailboat, a “40” just like ours. Except that ours is 40 feet, and his 40 meters.)

So we sat down and talked, sipping on water and Coca-Cola, in a country were alcohol is taboo. It was an enjoyable conversation. Haitham has his hands in a number of ventures, and one of them turned out to be – wouldn’t you know! – providing armed security for vessels transiting the Gulf. We had tinkered with the idea of hiring such personnel to accompany us through pirate alley, but at $20,000 for a week-long passage, it didn’t seem like a rational economic decision.

It was time to go, but Haitham excused himself for a moment. He came back.

“Hey guys, I’d like to arrange for security aboard your vessel for the remaining part of your trip through the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea. Would that be OK?”

His tone of voice was one of someone asking us for a favor. “If you’ll permit me,” he added.

If we’ll permit him? Well, sure, but what would the cost be?

“Oh, please, I insist. Let me do this for you. There will be no cost.”

We were too stunned to . . . to . . . to . . . well, to refuse!

Haitham quickly set things in motion, and I do mean quickly. We were leaving in two days. But after a flurry of phone calls, emails, and texts with his right-hand-man, Shehab Abulahoum, at Haitham’s company, Griffin Security Ltd., things were put in place. We later got a call from Commander Shuga Al-Mahdi, the General Director of Operations for the Yemeni Coast Guard. In a familiar and friendly voice, he asked us about our itinerary, and confirmed that officers would be joining us. Commander Al-Mahdi made several more calls to us to confirm that “everything was OK.”

The arrangements were made for two officers and one enlisted man from the Yemeni Coast Guard to join us. They would sail with us from Aden, near the northwestern corner of the Gulf of Aden, through Bab el Mandeb, at the entrance to the Red Sea, and up the start of the Red Sea to the Port City of Hudaydah in Northern Yemen. This would take us clear of the area where any known pirate attacks had occurred.

We had been anxious about this last part of the trip. Pirate strikes had taken place just outside of Aden, in the Straights of Bab el Mandeb itself, and also near the Hanish Islands.

Late that afternoon, a Coast Guard skiff pulled alongside Leander, and off-loaded smartly-uniformed Captain Mohammed Al-Fatimee, Lieutenant Marwan Al-Bakhiti, and Soldier Mohammed Al-Nowah. With them also came three Kalashnikovs and a rather ferocious looking machine gun (an M-3?), which would get mounted on the bow.

To say that we felt more confident about this passage than the two we’d just made would be an understatement.

We spent some time making introductions, and then showed them the boat, how it operated, and our relevant equipment, especially those things we used for emergency response. We discussed our various roles, and what each of us would do in the event of a perceived threat. And then off we went, back into the Gulf of Aden.

(Well, not so fast. A alarm from the panel pierced the quiet as we motored out of the harbor. It was the low oil pressure alarm on the engine. Sima shut down the engine at once and Paul hustled below. Opening the engine room door, Paul was stunned to see the usually spotless basin beneath the engine now filled with oil.

The just-replaced oil filter had come off. He put on a new Westerbeke filter, but that one “popped” off too as it tightened. What the heck!? He tried a Fram filter instead, and this one held just fine. The part sent by the Westerbeke distributer seemed to be the problem.

With Lt. Marwan’s help, Paul spent the next 90 minutes cleaning up the spilled oil, so that it wouldn’t splash about as we continued the trip. Done. OK, exit the harbor, take 2!)

It was now dark, and the Gulf of Aden met us with heavy rollers. After having worked below for two hours, we didn’t feel too great. But we nibbled on some food, drank some water, and soon recovered. We went back down below, made dinner for all, and we set up watches for that first night.

We had our first encounter the next morning, just before sunrise, when we passed by a drifting boat. It seemed innocent enough, but Lt. Marwan woke Captain Mohammed when he could see no fishing gear on the boat. With the Coast Guard at the rail, armed, we passed by the bobbing skiff in the half light, and moved on.

We passed through Bab el Mandeb later that day. We’d been sweating about this part of the trip for months, worried about the winds we might encounter there, and concerned that they might be adverse by the time we arrived. But they were benign, and we motor-sailed through calm waters first through the Small Strait, separating Yemen from the Miyum Island, and then through the remainder of Bab el Mandeb itself.

Later that day, as we passed Al Mukha , a somewhat sizeable city on the Yemeni Coast, something strange happened.

First one, then another speed boat approached us closely from the west, away from the coast. The boats did not appear to have any gear in them whatsoever. As we were hundreds of miles from Somalia, and quite close to the Yemeni coast, they had to be Yemeni. The Yemeni were not supposed to be involved in piracy any more, but it was unclear what these two were doing.

Then we saw two more boats, similarly skimpily outfitted, these two closing from the coast.

As we had agreed, Sima and I went below, out of harm’s way, where we watched the show from the hatches and port lights.

The four boats passed just behind us in pairs, scissoring between one another like synchronized swimmers,. They swung and danced around us for the next fifteen minutes. Sometimes two would stop, talk, and then come back at us for a closer look. They did not appear to be fishermen. But were they up to no good? Were they just trying to get a rise out of us?.

After twenty minutes of this, Lt. Marwan said, “If they don’t move off soon, I may fire a couple of warning shots to get them going.” But he waited, and they finally did move off. Perhaps the sight of the three fellows toting automatic weapons did the trick.

Later, as night fell, another boat approached. On this one, the men WERE heavily armed, with a gun at the bow bigger than ours. Lt. Mowan quickly assured us that all was OK, telling us that this was the Yemeni Navy.

From stories of other cruisers, however, this did not necessarily call for complete relaxation. There were stories of Yemeni Navy vessels forcing sailboats to stop and extracting “fines” because the sailboat was in a “prohibited area” or had committed some other such transgression. Maybe those stories are apocryphal? We didn’t know.

We were sent below again, and noticed that our guards had become tense again. We listened to the conversation, in Arabic. It started off amicably, but turned less so, with gruffer tones.

The navy boat moved away, finally. We came back on deck. But the navy boat had moved only about 200 yards back, and it returned a short time later. Back down below we went. This time there was shouting. Finally, after what sounded like an ultimatum from our guards, the Navy boat moved off a second time, and eventually moved away completely.

Lt. Marwan told us that the Navy boat had inquired about the identity of the armed guards, and were initially satisfied with the credentials that they were provided. But they came back a second time, insisting on being told in detail about the purpose of the armed guards, asking for identification, and suggesting that they intended to board. Lt. Marwan had told them, he told us, that they had absolutely no right to stop the boat after being told clearly the purpose of the mission and the names of the officers, and that if the Navy wanted additional details, they could call its own operations room, which was fully aware of the trip. It was this that caused the argument, with the Navy eventually backing down. We had no other scares.

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