Armed Adventure

14 48 N, 42 57 E (The Red Sea)

Captain Mohammed Al-Fatimee of the Yemeni Coast Guard trains his Kalashnikov at several skiffs that have approached Leander in the Red Sea. 

Paul’s great uncle, Ed Casey, was an Air Force Colonel.  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 it like this:  “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 a man and his wife in a shop there.  They too struck up a quick conversation, agreed to meet for dinner, and eventually became good friends.  At dinner, my uncle learned his name and background — a vacationing James Michael Curley, the great “Rascal King” mayor of Boston.

So Paul has taken his advice to heart, and Sima now shares it. As we travel, we are always receptive to such encounters, and some of our earlier anecdotes reflect that story.

Which leads to what has happened to us here in Yemen.  Bob Dalferro is a good friend of Paul’s, whom Paul got to know working with the Friends of Lynn Beach back at home. When we arrived in Yemen, Paul’s Mom sent us a note reminding Paul that Bob’s daughter had married someone from the Middle East, and maybe he could help with some introductions.  Paul sent an email to Bob saying that we were here. (Paul’s sister Patricia, in turn, had urged his mother to actually call Bob Dalferro, because email might take too long.) 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.  Karim 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 at once, inviting us to visit them in Sana’a. Mind you, all of this took place over a single 24-hour period across two distant time zones on distant locations on the globe.

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

The next day, a flight across Yemen completed, we were in Sana’a, standing at Haitham’s doorstep.

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 any one of the four floors.

Haitham Alaini

Haitham ( was already entertaining other guests when we arrived, discussing issues related to carbon credit trading, one of his several ventures.  As we had finalized plans to meet him that only that very morning, we apologized for interfering with his evening, and after seeing the house, gestured to leave. “No, no!” he insisted. “We’re all sailors too.  This is the highlight of our week. We’re dying to hear about your trip.”

So we sat down and talked, sipping on water and Coca-Cola, in a country were alcohol is taboo. It was an enjoyable conversation. We eventually learned that he also had a boat, a “40” just like ours. Except that ours is 40 feet, and his 40 meters.

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 graciously accepted.

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 Seaman 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.

Leander’s new gear — sacks of automatic weapons stored behind the wheel.

Lieutenant Al-Bakhiti asleep at the bow.  To his right, under one of Paul’s old t-shirts, is an M3 machine gun, mounted on a tripod and lashed to the deck.  

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.

Captain Al-Fatimee, left, and Lieutenant Al-Bakhiti, right, outfit Paul in traditional Yemeni Garb that they had gifted Paul upon boarding Leander. 

(Well, not so fast. An alarm from the panel shrieked about an hour into our trip, as we moved out of Aden Harbor and out to sea. 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. Al-Bakhiti’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, none of us felt great. But we ate some food, drank some water, and quickly recovered. We went back down below, made dinner for all, and we set up watches for that first night.

Lt. Al-Bakhiti on patrol at daybreak surveying an unknown vessel.  

We had our first encounter the next morning, just before sunrise, when we passed by a drifting boat. It seemed innocent enough, but Lt. Al-Bakhiti woke Captain Al-Fatimee 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.

Paul provided oils and brushes, which Al-Bakhiti and Al-Fatimee used to clean their weapons of the salt that gathered at sea.  

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 skiffs, again without fishing gear, racing toward us from the coast.

Sima and I were asked to go below, where we watched from the hatches and port lights.

The four boats raced behind us in pairs, scissoring back and forth 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, Captain Al-Fatimee said, “If they don’t move off soon, I’m firing warning shots to move them along.” But he waited, and they finally did move off. Perhaps the sight of the three men toting automatic weapons did the trick.

Lt. Al-Bakhiti pointing out features on the Yemeni coast. 

Later, as night fell, another boat approached. On this one, the men WERE heavily armed, with a gun at the bow bigger than ours. Captain Al-Fatimee told us that all was OK, telling us that this was the Yemeni Navy.

From guidance we’d received from other sailors, however, this did not necessarily call for complete relaxation. There were stories of Yemeni Navy vessels forcing sailboats to stop, and then extracting “fines” because the sailboat was in a “prohibited area” or had committed some other such fictional transgression.

We were sent below again. Our guards grew increasingly tense. We listened to the conversation, in Arabic. It had started off amicably, but turned less so, with gruffer tones and and then shouts.

The navy boat finally moved away, and we came back on deck.  Our guards were happy that the encounter was over.  But it was not, I explained to them.  I showed them the radar.  The navy boat had not moved away, but had instead dropped back a few hundred yards in the dark, still trailing us.

A moment later, it came roaring back, and this time the Navy personnel were yelling loader, obviously making demands.  A huge spotlight was trained on us, and through the glare we could see numerous guns pointed our way as well.  Back down below we went.  The shouting grew on both sides.  Finally, after what sounded like an ultimatum from our guards, the Navy boat moved off a second time, and eventually moved away completely.

Saying goodbye to our Yemeni guides at the dock in Al-Hudaydah.   From left, Sima, Captain Al-Fatimee, Seaman Al-Nowah, Lieutenant Al-Bakhiti, and Paul. 

Captain Al-Fatimee 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, demanding to board.  Captain Al-Fatimee 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, and arrived safely in Al-Hudaydah the next day. Pirate alley was now finally behind us.

As we said goodbye to Marwan and the two Mohammeds, we were surprised to be greeted at the dock by two other individuals, one packing a substantially-sized sidearm.  We were being handed off to them by the Coast Guard, in the continued care and protection of Haitham Alaini.  Under the watchful eye of this armed protection, we calmly passed our final days in Yemen.

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