As the range and ferocity of Indian Ocean piracy rapidly increased this year, scores of cruising sailors became trapped in the Maldives and India.
Their plans of how to transit the danger zone, derived from successful transits of convoys from earlier years, had to be scrapped.
What was meant to be the adventure of a lifetime had become a nightmare. Here one cruising sailor, Graeme Mulcahy sailing on Kathleen Love, tells their tale.
Some of the anxious cruising sailors with big decisions to make - .. .
Ten days of mixed sailing from the Andaman Islands took us past Sri Lanka (which seemed to generate extra strong winds around its south end) to get to Uligan in the Maldives by the end of January. Here we found about 30 yachts at anchor, agonizing over what should be the next move.
It had become apparent that pirate activity had become much more extensive, as they now operate from mother ships over all the Arabian Sea, concentrating on the major shipping routes. Some of those yachts were from our group, Thailand to Turkey(TTT) convoy, which had become somewhat fragmented. TTT's leader was currently stuck in Sri Lanka having sail repairs and with engine problems. A lack of communication from him left us in ignorance of how his plans for TTT might be modified in the light of changed circumstances.
Most yachts there were uncommitted to a convoy, but some also were participants in the the Blue Water Rally. We heard that others in the latter group were in Cochin and being extremely secretive about their collective plan.
Uligan although undeveloped was lovely, very pleasant people. And we could buy carrots and onions! A bit old but everything came from India. They also arranged diesel and water supplies, and put on a local feast for us.
Possibilities for the next stage were:
The irony was we have wonderful sailing - .. .
1. To sail a more or less direct route
2. To sail as far as possible up the Indian coast, even to Pakistan before crossing to Oman incurring up to 1000 extra sea miles
3.To return to Thailand/Malaysia and hope the situation improved in a year's time
4. To have the boat shipped to Turkey (at $650/ft = $25,500 for a 40ft boat
5. To sail round by South Africa (nasty seas and an extra 12,000 miles to get home).
We, together with another 9 yachts including three TTT yachts, chose a slightly modified version of the first option, skirting south of what appeared to be the main areas of pirate activity and sailing in convoy.
This convoy was put together by two Canadian boats, Chocobo and Seeamia, at short notice, but who provided a spark of decision and leadership which was entirely appropriate at the time
Each of the other options had takers, other small groups of compatible boats followed our example and some boats took the direct route solo. We had some encouragement from the fact that all the recent pirate attacks had been on commercial vessels, there had been no attacks on yachts in this region for over a year (tragically this was to change).
Those that chose to have their boats shipped then had a long wait, two weeks more than originally scheduled, were charged $650 for the cruising permit for the Maldives while they waited for the ship to arrive and were not made welcome at the various islands, particularly those with expensive resorts.
So after a thorough briefing we set out. Each boat (with a code name - we were Eagle 3) had an allocated position in the convoy which we stuck to as closely as possible. A schedule of VHF channels was determined, changing each day. One boat acted as liaison with the authorities via satphone and gave daily position checks with reference to waypoints.
Within a couple of hours of leaving, one boat had a severely overheating engine and had to return, leaving nine to continue. Lights at night were to be kept to a minimum, weak stern lights only.
At night we travelled with only a weak stern light - .. .
The boats included:
Anima a 36ft gaff ketch from Austria (singlehanded)
Asia, 28ft Polish boat whose lady skipper will shortly be completing her third circumnavigation in 6 years, mostly singlehanded,
Amante (US) a 51ft ketch
Chocobo, 40ft cat (Canada)
Kathleen Love (UK)
Seeamia (Canada) and
Tika Moye (Switzerland)
The varying sizes and performances made position keeping tricky, particularly at night, and we found that we were sailing much of the time reefed, and playing with the sailplan to stay with the slower boats. The pity is that we enjoyed some of the best ocean sailing conditions we have experienced - moderate winds, flat seas and almost unbroken sun.
So we settled into the routines that the convoy needed and plodded on, committed to sticking together, a tall order for a passage of 1500 miles. Some periods it was necessary to motor to keep up a reasonable speed, when we might have been content to sail slowly if on our own.
The cat developed a rigging problem one morning so we all hove to while they fixed it. Another boat's transmission cooling failed and they were taken in tow for 24 hours by the largest yacht while a replacement system was put together. Some boats were more prone to wander than others, but groupings were then restored as necessary.
The two Canadian boats who had brought us together and led the convoy did an excellent job in diplomatically keeping us all in order. As we went on, the discipline of keeping position improved, aiming to stay within 2-300m of our neighbours.
We practiced a manoeuvre to take close order in the event of suspicious vessels approaching. We did not, however, perfect 'formation gybing at night'! Speed targets were set periodically by the slower boats according to what they could manage under sail or with motor assistance. Keeping in formation did require a high degree of concentration, particularly at night, so 'happy hour' was celebrated on most days only with tonic water!
One morning a warship appeared on the horizon and diverted to have a look at us, before heading off back along our route, possibly to check on other small groups of yachts which we knew to be following. We were also overflown by a couple of helicopters and reconnaissance planes. The presence of the military was reassuring but, realistically, it is unlikely that any real protection could be expected.
Towards the end, we changed our destination from Salalah in Oman to Mukallah in Yemen, following close north of the protected shipping corridor through the Gulf of Aden.
One night here we encountered large convoy of commercial vessels eastbound, accompanied by two warships who kindly shone bright searchlights directly at us destroying our night vision! An extra complication had now entered the equation as we heard that middle east political disturbances had reached Oman and Yemen, and Aden in particular would be a very ill advised stop.
Closing the Yemen coast in the early hours we saw the flashing lights of small fishing boats and their markers; in quick succession, three boats got caught on fishing gear so we hove to until daylight and made our final approach after 13 days at sea. It is a tribute to the leaders and participants that such a diverse group managed to stay so closely together over 1500 miles.
In our few days in Mukallah we were able to refuel, provision (excellent supermarket, hooray) and catch up on the news, which unfortunately included that of the US yacht Quest, sailing alone, whose crew were all killed several days after being taken by pirates. Our last visit to the city coincided with a political demonstration accompanied by some gunfire, so we decided to leave and head direct for the Red Sea, bypassing Aden.
Another four days in convoy saw us enter the Red Sea, which greeted us with increasing winds which characteristically funnel between the land masses. Here the convoy split, having reached the end of our commitment to one another. Four boats chose to head into Assab for a much needed rest and thence to Massawa whilst others decided to continue on. In spite of US State Department warnings, we found a warm welcome in Eritrea.
It is a mark of the success of the convoy that many of us have chosen to sail loosely together in variable sub groupings as we progressed up the Red Sea All have now completed their Red Sea passages, and there is a collective sigh of relief to be in the Mediterranean!