The crew of Turanor PlanetSolar, the largest solar-powered yacht on the planet and aiming to be the first to complete a circumnavigation, now break their radio silence to give the story of their trepidatious journey through the Gulf of Aden. Here, Raphaël Domjan, co-founder and expedition leader, tells the story of their preparations, their training, their security force on board, their confrontation with suspected pirates and their safe journey into the Red Sea:
They’ve made it through - PlanetSolar in Djbouti
Already a month ago, we were writing our last blog post before crossing the Gulf of Aden in order to reach Africa and the Red Sea. Since 2006, we were aware that we would have to sail through the Gulf of Aden if we were to successfully achieve our journey around the world. We were hoping that the situation would settle down, but quite the contrary happened: the area became more dangerous almost everywhere west of the Indian Ocean.
To ensure our safety, we sought the help of Christophe Keckeis, former chief of the Swiss Army. In collaboration with Gérard d’Aboville, the captains of the PlanetSolar and myself have designed a security concept enabling us to cross this dangerous area in the best possible conditions for our security.
We have selected and mandated a private security firm employing exclusively former soldiers and elite forces from the French Army. Hence, 6 men trained and used to that kind of missions joined us on board in Abu Dhabi.
First, we had to make the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar almost impossible to access. We installed barbed wire at the sensitive areas, notably on the struts and on the back marina. PlanetSolar actually transformed into a bunker … After official 'good bye' with the team of the Swiss embassy in Abu Dhabi and its ambassador, Wolfgang Bruehlart, we discreetly left the Emirate Palace Marina for Djibouti. The start of a long navigation that would last 1800 nautical miles (3300 km) without stop.
On board we have now 4 crew members, Patrick, Jens, Christian and myself, as well as 6 men responsible for our security, and Oliver, our cameraman who we will disembark at our planned rendezvous point after the strait of Hormuz, where another boat is waiting for us with weapons and ammunitions.
We sail with caution. We make sure to keep as much energy as possible in our batteries in case we would need to make evasive manoeuvres. There are two men keeping watch on the bridge and one watching our backs. Everybody is very focused on its job. The farther our sight, the better we will be able to react and ensure our safety. We are using all our detection systems, radar and radar detector, night vision, etc. By night, we are sailing silently and without lights. We are almost invisible. Only the phosphorescent plankton stands out in the night during our navigations.
We have to account for the weather while keeping a reasonable distance from the coast. Having weapons on board, we cannot reach the coast of Oman , and Yemen in particular, where we would be immediately arrested. We are organising several exercises. We have to wear flak jackets and helmets. The men in charge of our security have also trained using live ammunition. It was impressive to see the spray of water resulting from the fire arms, the cartridges falling on our solar panels and the noise… Here we are, this time, it is for real. This is a sad first, the first firing from a solar boat. Let us hope that this will remain a drill only.
Thursday, February 16, 0845, a suspect ship is moving toward us… I am keeping watch, we keep it in sight as well as follow it on the radar. I notify Patrick and we change our course to see how it will react. We are less than a mile away and we are observing each other. Thanks to a powerful telephoto lens, I am able to take a good quality picture. It seems to be a mother ship with pirates on board. To be that close of such individuals is strange scary feeling. Finally, we show that we are protected and well equipped and, after observing and carefully avoiding each other, this suspect boat continue its way opposite to ours. We will not see it again, all the better.
Besides this dodgy situation, our crossing is going well, the weather conditions are rather good even though we have sail through stronger streams and the wind is pushing us less than expected. This is one of our longest navigation, 20 days between Abu Dhabi and Djibouti. In Djibouti, we resupply PlanetSolar for sailing up the Red Sea, we organise our mail to be dispatched, we do some laundry. It is here as well that we meet Erwann and Gérard d’Aboville again and that we say good bye to Patrick. We will see him again in a few weeks in the Mediterranean Sea to cross together the finish line of this first world tour with solar energy.
After this short stopover, we headed North to pass the dangerous straight of Bab-el-Mandeb and we arrived in the Red Sea. We are the first solar ship to sail in those waters and the first to try its crossing. Then, after a month, we say good bye to our security team that we disembark in high sea 600 km North to Djibouti. Those men were our guardian angels during this difficult crossing. Thank you all Jordi, Mike, Frank, Jeff, Yves, and Marc !
We now have to sail up the Red Sea to reach the Suez Canal. The weather conditions will be dodgy and, for the moment, it is impossible to get close to the coast of Ethiopia (sic). It is too dangerous.
To learn more about the expedition and what Turanor PlanetSolar is trying to achieve, visit their www.planetsolar.org!website.