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Running the Gauntlet; Piracy Looms

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
September 25th, 2019

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation, Hugh and Heather arrived in  Singapore, explored Malaysia and Thailand and got ready to head to Africa.   This segment of their world cruise sees them going through pirate territory as they enter the Red Sea.

Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track.


This 2600 NM passage from Sri Lanka to Eritrea on the Horn of Africa meant we would pass through the Gulf of Aden. Piracy was our overriding concern during this leg of the passage. Gulf War Two began as we entered the Gulf of Aden. As one might imagine, it was the most dangerous and stressful segment of our circumnavigation. Nephew David continued with us as crew.

FEBRUARY 2003 INTERNATIONAL MARITIME BUREAU PIRACY WARNING CENTER.

GULF OF ADEN.:  SOMALIAN WATERS ‑ HIGH‑RISK AREA FOR HIJACKINGS. SHIPS NOT MAKING SCHEDULED CALLS AT SOMALI PORTS SHOULD KEEP AT LEAST 50 MILES AND IF POSSIBLE 100 MILES FROM THE SOMALI COAST. USE OF RADIO COMMUNICATIONS INCLUDING VHF IN THESE WATERS SHOULD BE KEPT TO A MINIMUM. THE NORTHERN AND NORTHEASTERN SOMALI COAST IS PARTICULARLY RISKY

The recommended season to sail up the Red Sea begins late March, which is when southerly winds prevail at least until the halfway point. February 20, 2003, we departed Galle, Sri Lanka for Uligamu Island, the northernmost part of the Maldives. We stopped briefly there and then planned to go non-stop to Massawa, Eritrea. We elected to avoid the Arabian Peninsula, as there had been strong suggestions from several sources that information on yacht movements might be passed to people engaged in piracy on the coast. As well, we would keep well north of Socotra Island off Somalia.

Once abeam Aden, we expected the danger to diminish as the Yemeni Navy was conducting daily anti-piracy patrols. Our satellite radio kept us up to date on events in the Persian Gulf. At the time, it was known that pirates were using converted life boats similar to those carried by cruise ships. Their speed was limited and a far cry from the high speed vessels which later came into use. As well, at the time, a typical attack was an armed boarding and robbery. Hijacking, kidnapping and murder came later.

Uligamu village

We arrived at Uligamu Island mid-morning February 25. The 440 NM passage was slow with winds from nil to perhaps 10K, variable from NW to NE.  We motored about 57 hours during the five day passage. Fuel consumption was higher than normal, since we were unable to careen the propeller before leaving. Depth charges being detonated in Galle Harbour made this unwise!

We found Uligamu to be a picture perfect tropical island: crystal clear water; abundant fish, coral gardens, white sand beaches, and a friendly Muslim community of about 250. Six officials came to the boat. We completed many forms using five of our crew lists. Bureaucracy was alive and well! The village was a combination of thatched cottages, solid concrete ones and thick coral walls. Women wore lovely saris, some covered heads, others not.  Locals were forbidden to visit yachts, but Heather dropped into a school and showed pictures of Canada. Nevertheless, we detected a certain antipathy to foreign interference by this very structured Muslim society.

We formed a flotilla with three other yachts and agreed on a sail plan which included coded waypoints: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta etc. We could then pass our positions to each other discreetly via HF radio.  Delta was established at 14 00.00N/054 30.00E, 1163 NM into the passage and the closest point to Socotra Island at 77 NM. At Delta, we planned to track down the middle of the Gulf of Aden some 568 NM to a point 41 NM south of Aden. We would then continue west until crossing the north/south shipping lanes, prior to the Red Sea entrance at Bab el Mandeb. This would keep us clear of the Yemeni Coast and well north of another area of piracy said to be south of the inbound track to Djibouti.

We fueled up to maximum; about 555 litres. This included a full main tank, 9 jerry jugs and two bladder flex tanks on deck. Motoring range was about 1000 NM in still water. We were able to add to our already extensive provisioning and thanks to the water maker, we had lots of that necessity, about 800 litres. To give us every advantage, we gave Argonauta I a thorough bottom cleaning, including the Maxprop. Even an average speed increase of 1/4 knot makes a huge difference on a trip of this length: 6 NM per day or 120 NM over 20 days.

The weather forecast suggested we would experience light northerly winds until approaching the Gulf of Aden, so we anticipated a slow trip. We intended to keep motoring to a minimum. March 4, 2003, we upped the anchor and as a flotilla of four yachts, departed for the Horn of Africa. Flotilla sailing was a first for us. Unfortunately, different sailing characteristics of the vessels (three keel boats and one catamaran), quickly revealed that unless yachts resorted to motoring to match speed and course, we would soon lose visual contact. Our course to Point Delta was 295 degrees magnetic and with north to north-westerly winds at 7 to 14 knots, it meant we were pretty much on a beat or close hauled. Argonauta I had an amazing ability to point and thus she was just able to maintain the rhumb line, although I sacrificed some boat speed by pinching a bit. Day two found us only slightly port of our rhumb line, but the others were about 40 NM off and behind us. March 14, when we reached Point Delta, the rest of the flotilla was about 150 NM in our wake.  That is because the other yachts had to tack to regain the rhumb line, otherwise they would have come too close to Socotra. Of course we had the choice to slow down, but we opted to continue, perhaps heaving to at Point Delta.  Once there and within 77 NM of Socotra, we considered it unwise to linger so we continued while maintaining a twice daily HF schedule with our friends. Thus we ended up going it alone through the area of real and present pirate threat in the Gulf of Aden.

Point DELTA and area of attacks

March 19, 2003, five days after we had sailed by Delta, the bombing of Iraq heralded Gulf War Two.  On March 20, United States Navy guided missile destroyers and cruisers conducted Tomahawk Land Attack Missile strikes from the Red Sea. We found ourselves heading right there! It was encouraging to learn that two Coalition Warships had been dispatched to patrol the Gulf of Aden. Maritime Patrol Orion aircraft were conducting airborne surveillance. We heard this activity on our VHF radio. We concluded that perhaps a satellite repeater had been established for most maritime VHF channels. Coalition Warship 992 invited transiting yachts to announce their presence to the ship. We chose to remain silent.

Plotting the location of two recent pirate attacks, we established a danger area through which we would have to pass: Longitude 048 50 E to 046 25 E. We had been advised that pirates making the recent attacks had been in converted lifeboats not capable of high speed.  Thus we resolved to keep a keen lookout! At first sighting of any vessel that might be manned by pirates, we would turn to put them on our stern and motor sail at maximum speed. We hoped that this would force any threatening vessel into a lengthy tail chase, keeping it well out of automatic weapon range.  Fortunately, such action did not become necessary. Though a day or so later, one of our flotilla sighted a suspicious craft employed this tactic. They observed the suspect vessel emit black smoke as its engine powered up to give chase, but soon it gave up.

Here’s an excerpt of David’s email:

As my friends sit on the beach in Cancun enjoying spring break, I sit here on Argonauta I in the Arabian sea (of all places in the world) about to approach the danger zone (Between Somali and Yemen coasts). On the plus side the warships are patrolling the area, so I can probably trash the email I prepared for my Dad about who gets which one of my DVD’s!

Downwind in light air in the Arabian Sea

Heather’s journal entry on March 15, 2003 reads:

We are sailing from ASIA to AFRICA, crossing the Arabian Sea. In fact, we have just entered the Gulf of Aden. There is a wind of about 5 knots, Hugh has Argonauta I configured “wing on wing” with the colorful spinnaker on port side, genoa polled to starboard. It is incredibly stable (auto pilot) and totally comfortable. There is a 3/4 moon which lights up the sky like daylight. It is what enthusiasts think of when they extol the joys of sailing. If only all were benign! We are approaching the Danger Zone ‑ most frequent site of pirate attacks between the coast of Yemen and Somalia. Unfortunately, fears are based on more than idle hearsay. There have been three pirate attacks within the last week ‑ two right on our path. Bambola was boarded and lost electronics and cash. Five yachts were approached by three motor boats and shots were fired. They managed to outrun the attackers. Two days ago we heard Astarie relay a ‘mayday’ call for a coastal freighter, MV Trader. It was off Socotra, 110 miles away at the time. Four boats with four crew in each chased and boarded the freighter.  The crew responded with fire hoses and iron bars! We could hear gunfire over the VHF! Their ‘mayday’ call brought a coalition aircraft which flew over and happily, the pirates withdrew. So, we are, understandably, on edge. Practically speaking, this afternoon I packed away passports, papers, cameras, VHF radios, hand held GPS…I put out “decoys”: wallet, purse with $US. The Leica, valuable but unused can be sacrificed, ditto Army binoculars. I only hope they are not trigger happy! It may well be that we traverse this area with no incident. But it is a lonely voyage.

 Strangely enough I am not terrified. I have a fairly fatalistic attitude and, of course, the ability to use black humour as a coping technique. There is an ironic contrast between externals and the interior drama being unfurled. Our weather is beautiful; blue skies, sunshine, never a drop of rain, moon almost full, starry nights, warm days, nights comfortable. There is such a juxtaposition of circumstances here ‑ the really quite impressive conditions of passage, the menacing threat just over the horizon, the interplay of human relationships. Despite the natural beauty, tranquility, adventure…I would rather be “at home”.

Tranquility in the Gulf of Aden

Two days later, on March 17, 2003, Heather’s journal entry title ‘No Shamrocks but Maybe Some Luck!’ reads as follows:

Lights out at night; active piracy zone…Beginning this entry on a nerve edge. We entered the High Risk area around 1930h last night. I woke up at 0120h, thinking it was 0400h, my on watch time, but I did not go back to sleep. My shift was beautiful, despite engine noise and open SSB (security reasons). Moon was full. No traffic until early AM. A light on the horizon was a shock. We were sailing lights out. It was a freighter going opposite. Woke Hugh at 0545h because there was something huge right behind us. He took diversionary action and although it still looked scary it passed us on the left. It had the configuration of a warship and might have been. Why did we decide to travel during just another “American War”???  Today we saw a car transport, a few freighters but no small boats. My two men slept all afternoon. Challenge had been addressed. Now it is so calm and pretty outside that the memory of the Threat seems remote. But my imagination still reigns…what might have been? Now I must try to find all the things I had hidden!

Coalition Warship F 218 Patrolling the Red Sea

Once through our established danger area we still had some 480 NM to run to reach Massawa. We passed about 40 NM south of Aden sailing in good downwind conditions. Night sailing, now with lights, was very comfortable and we were still able to see the Southern Cross to port and the Big Dipper to starboard. Approaching the entrance to the Red Sea at Bab el Mandeb or Gate of Tears, it was disturbing to turn on our satellite radio and hear the latest war news. We heard two coalition warships interrogating commercial traffic. German Navy Frigate Mecklenburg‑Vorpommern Side Number F218, approached and its helicopter gave us the once over. Ironically, we felt safer for the surveillance!

In the Red Sea, there was no pirate threat. On March 21, adverse winds forced a stop in Anfile Bay some 100 NM south of Massawa. It was an opportunity to do some maintenance: head, boomvang, and electrical. Several other yachts were there too so we joined the party. The pirated yacht Bambola arrived from Djibouti a day after us. Over drinks in their cockpit, Michael, the skipper, told us his story. He was fired upon, ordered to drop sails, boarded, held at gunpoint and robbed. He lost radio gear and about USD600. His lady hid in the head and was undiscovered. His crew person was unharmed as was Michael who kept cool and handled the situation well. The accompanying single handed yacht, Josephine was not boarded but was fired upon and a running back stay was almost severed in the hail of AK 47 fire. A Coalition warship responded to Michael’s Mayday call but it arrived on the scene after the pirates had departed.

Michael said that the three boats which had intercepted Bambola were full of what appeared to be very frightened illegal immigrants presumably bound for Yemen. We conclude that pirates posing the principal threat to us were Somalis running illegals into Yemen to be landed on a quiet bit of beach. That is why the area of attacks could be defined; it was evidently the corridor used by the Somalis.

Port Smyth Anchorage at Shumma Island with the sandy beach, Massawa anchorage and a bombed palace

Two days later in light winds we continued overnight to Port Smyth, Shumma Island. There we spent a pleasant twenty four hours before making the final 35 NM run to Massawa. No sooner had we lifted anchor, a 25K north westerly wind set in. Fortunately we had to motor into it for only 6 or 7 miles before turning left for a fast, wet, rough close hauled run to Massawa. There were a lot of signs of the recent two year war with Ethiopia, lasting from 1998 to 2000. We found the yacht anchorage to be a well-protected bay at the head of the harbor pretty much free of war detritus. At least 20 other yachts were there, all having survived the piracy gauntlet of the Gulf of Aden. One sported a bullet hole from another brush with pirates.  It was March 26, 2003, twenty three days after leaving the Maldives. We felt light years away from Canada and Australia.


Stay tuned to the next episode: exploring Eritrea before sailing a further 1000 NM up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and on to the Mediterranean.

Tags


AfricaPiracyRed Sea

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