Christian Colombo, a former French Navy sailor and his wife were on their way to fulfil their dream of sailing the world until their yacht, the SY Tribal Kat was attacked by Somali suspect criminals off the coast of Yemen while passing through the Gulf of Aden on 9th September 2011.
Helicopter photograph shows Evelyne Colombo, sole survivor off the hi-jacked French yacht ’Tribal’ is seen while being threatened by a Somali pirate brandishing an AK machine gun to her head
Christian Colombo was killed during the attack, his body thrown overboard and his wife taken against her will by the suspect criminals.
She was being moved by skiff towards Somalia when by a combination of good fortune, considering the vast area to be searched, and close cooperation between the French frigate Surcouf, a United States Navy maritime patrol aircraft and the Spanish ship Galicia, a complex operation and dangerous rescue mission by EUNAVFOR succeeded in recovering Mrs. Colombo uninjured.
Tribal Kat hostage
The SY Tribal was only the most recent of about 10 yachts attacked and their crews captured by Somali suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in the past three years.
Nearly every recorded attack on a yacht has led to the crew being taken hostage and moved to Somalia where they were kept on land, their yachts being discarded.
On land, the level of risk and hardship on the hostages is increased.
They are removed from their familiar environment and exposed to a rough country with a harsh, hot climate. Often, hostages are held in the most basic conditions, i.e. no electricity, no sanitary installations, rationed basic food and water.
Pirates have frequently moved hostages at short notice to avoid detection, increasing the stress and strain for the hostages.
The ordeal hostages have to endure can include every form of abuse. Physical and psychological mistreatment can include physical violence and mock executions.
Tribal Kat under tow
In some cases, crews and families have been separated for extended periods of time exposing hostages to the stress of uncertainty on the fate of their partner or child.
When hostages were separated, pirates have simulated killing one or more of the hostages with machine gun fire out of sight of the remainder to increase the pressure for a ransom to be paid; the hostages are assumed to be very rich and the ransom demands can be for millions of dollars.
On average, maritime hostages have been held for over 7 months. However, for Paul and Rachel Chandler from the SY Lynn Rival, their captivity lasted 388 days in the Somali bush, and South African couple Bruno Pelizzari and Deborah Calitz, still in captivity, have also exceeded a year in in the hands of pirates. They are, as far as known, the only cruising sailors in the hands of Somalis at the moment.
They were eventually released after payment of a ransom however others are not so fortunate; French yacht-owner, husband and father, Florent Lemacon, was killed in April 2009 during the liberation of the SY Tanit.
In February 2011, pirates shot and killed four Americans aboard the SY Quest off the coast of Somalia when U.S. naval forces were trying to negotiate their release.
The presence of warships from EUNAVFOR, NATO and the Coalition Maritime Force, in addition to other naval forces, in the Gulf of Aden has significantly reduced the success of piracy attacks in this area.
However, there remains a serious and increasing threat from piracy from the southern Red Sea, through the Bab el-Mandeb to the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia and into the Indian Ocean.
This area is the same size as Western Europe and there are only between 12 and 18 warships in the area, with far higher priority tasking than protection of yachts and their crews, so if attacked, the chance of release is remote.
The risks to yachts from pirates are significant – they operate from one or more small skiffs, able to reach up to 25 knots.
Increasingly, pirates use small arms fire and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) to stop and board vessels. Attacks have taken place mostly during the day, but pirates have also attacked at night.
Pirates are likely to be aggressive, highly agitated, and possibly under the influence of drugs, (including khat, an amphetamine like stimulant).
Yachts cannot out-run the pirates and are unable to prevent boarding.
Merchant ships, which have higher freeboards and can adopt the self-protection measures recommended in the fourth edition of 'Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy' (BMP) improve their chances but even these only delay a determined pirate. The British Government has recently passed a law which allows British merchant ships, for the first time since the Second World War finished in 1945, to carry arms.
There is only one sure way of avoiding your yacht and crew being captured – freight the yacht across the high-risk area, or skirt the area completely and sail south around Africa.