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Ketch Karaka's piracy experience in the Caribbean

by Tom Blancart on 26 Dec 2009
Karaka skipper Tom Blancart, who tells this story SW
Karaka is a 48 ft steel ketch skippered by French sailor Tom Blancart, travelling with his first mate, Australian Kim, and crew members Tara, Jude and Kway, through the western Caribbean. In the middle of December this year they were boarded by pirates - this is their experience:

After a month of adventures, sailing in the islands of Kuna Yala or the San Blas, a semi autonomous region of Panama, we left the island of Porvenir where the formalities in and out of the country are done and set sail for Cartagena, Colombia, 200 nautical miles to the northeast.

In strong contrary winds - Force 5 or 15-20 knots - and rough 12ft seas, we sailed for three days until we were in the lee of the Colombian coastline, and benefited from some good following winds. Finally the wind died and we decided to power our way up the coast for the 50 remaining miles.

We were motoring about 20 miles south west of the Rosario islands, in dead calm waters when Kway at the wheel called to my attention to a flotilla of small craft scattered in front of us. They looked like fishermen but were very far out and way beyond the continental shelf, in approximatelly 600 metres of water.

As we got closer they started moving and four of them got in a half circle formation in front of us. We could see them gesticulating slowly in what seemed like handline fishing. There were about 6 or 7 men per boat and as we got closer we found out through the binoculars that they all were wearing some kind of mask, handkiershief, hoods or balaclava over their face. We got seriously worried and I got the crew to hide all their valuable away in case we got boarded.

We kept motoring and they let us pass, pretending to fish but not actually landing anything... we figured they were drug runners waiting for a load of cocaine to take to Panama or something like that and that they didn’t have time for us...

So we kept on going and eventually the wind picked up again, so we sailed for a few hours and arrived near sunset at the south entrance of the bay of Cartagena. There are two entrances, Boca Grande in the north and Boca Chica in the south. Boca Chica is the big ship entrance as Boca Grande is very shallow.

At the mouth there are two forts, remains of the Spanish times, and a little fishing village. As we were coming in in front of the village, the sun sank below the horizon and in front of us the lights of the city started to show, 4 or 5 miles away.

Many little boats were zooming around, fishermen coming home and water taxi ferrying tourists. We had dropped the sails and Kway was inside cooking a little skipjack we had caught while the rest of the crew was on the aft deck, already dreaming about the cold beers and the cheese and bread we were going to get at the nearest supermarket, when a little dugout powered by an outboard showed up just beside us with four men on board, banging into the hull.

I was unsuspicious as we were inside the bay and in view of the city which harbors the Colombian Navy fleet, so I naively asked them what they wanted. They asked for some water. That was odd and I got a bit baffled at that but turned around to ask somebody to bring up some water for them. We were just in front of their village but the last time we came to Cartagena there had been a major water shortage for a few days so I figured it might have happened again.

Actually it is one of the oldest trick in the book, but I didn’t have much time to consider this since as soon as I had turned around, two of the guys scrambled on board. I tried to push the closest one back but he had a loaded gun in his hand and was quick to shove it into my belly button.

I backed away while the other one rushed in with an old rusty machete. The two men left in the dugout were now holding on to the side toting machetes and knives. The one with the gun pushed me to the back of the boat with the others while the other one went to attack the three girls who were sitting there.

Kim had the quickness of mind to get him to attach them all together, reasoning that once they were all attached with the same line they were unlikely to single one out later.

The guy with the gun was fairly relaxed but the others were very edgy for the first few minutes, as it was still daylight. The boat was still motoring away with nobody at the wheel and we were coming right against a chanel buoy, so I rushed to the wheel to avoid a colision.

They didn’t like that too much and in my adrenaline rush I didn’t notice but apparently one of the pirates hit me with the flat of his rusty machete as he thought I was trying to fight back. After some confusion I managed to get to take the wheel and avoid the buoy and the guy with the gun stayed beside me while the machete guy started to get inside the boat, where Kway was wondering what to do.

He’d heard the yelling and seen the guys, but we don’t carry weapons on board and there was nothing he could do. I yelled to him to come out without fighting and informed the pirates that he was there, not wanting them to be surprised by him and get violent. The machete guy dragged Kway out and bound him next to the girls on the back of the boat.

All the while night was falling very fast. Soon we were in complete darkness, the moon being full but not risen yet. They ordered me to turn of all lights and to motor toward the dark side of the bay, which I did but reluctantly, claiming that the engine couldn’t go fast because it was overheating. By then three of the pirates were on board and the fourth had taken off with their boat. We were in the middle of the bay, a few miles from town but all by ourselves.

There had been no time to call for help, the boarding took minutes and now another boat could pass by 50 metres away and not notice there was anything wrong.

They had chosen the perfect time to attack us.

The guy with the gun was relatively calm considered the conditions and seemed relatively intelligent so I tried to engage a conversation with him, asking him what was going on, what they wanted and such, calling him 'amigo' and trying to establish a contact.

I figured it would be less likely they got violent if he considered us as persons, not uniquely as wallets. Fighting was out of the question so I figured our best chance was to give them what they wanted and get them off the boat as soon as possible. So we started talking and one thing he told me stuck in my mind, he asked me, while his gun was pointed at me head: 'why did you try to push me back? Don’t you trust Colombians?' I think he was joking...

As we were motoring slowly and thing were calming down a little I asked again the 'gun guy' what they wanted. No water this time, now it was money and cellphones. I have a fair bunch of cash as an emergency fund on board but I didn’t wanted to get anywhere near it as it was well hidden after the morning scare, so I started by telling him we were poor gypsy travelers, that we didn’t have much money, etc etc, but obviously he insisted so I asked the crew if anybody had any money handy.

Kway had 300 dollars easily accessible so he told me where it was and I got that out for them while explaining to him that we don't carry cash but have credit cards to draw money at the bank. He believed that and didn't ask for money after that.

While that was happening the guy noticed my laptop on the navigation table. I had hidden it earlier but was using it to navigate inside the bay and it was in full view. That is the laptop I have all my personal stuff on, including writings and photos and music and whatnot, not counting the nav programs, so I told him straight that this computer was worthless for him but that what was inside was very valuable for me. He seemed receptive but wanted the thing anyway, so I told him I had another one he could have instead. I had two old laptop that were out of order, so I got one out and gave it to him and he was very pleased with that, we put my computer back and came out.

I though that was it as they started to try to locate their boat and call their friend, all the while asking me where were the cellphones. I explained to him we don’t have cell phones as we travel in various countries and bla bla bla and he seemed to believe me. They asked for a lamp to make signal to their friend so we got one out and soon the dugout was alongside.

That is when things started to get worse, as machete guy went inside with the torch and started to rip apart at backpacks and opening lockers, gathering anything that looked remotely valuable. He was going fast over Kway’s stuff in the deck cabin, but since Kway had hidden everything, he only took an empty camera bag and 3 bottles of rum, then came back to get me as he wanted to go inside but seemed worried there was somebody else waiting for him.

He had found Kway’s pocket knife, a little thing that was razor sharp and shove it on the back of my neck, pushing me inside the boat in front of him. I went along and when he saw there wasn’t anybody he sent me back to 'gun guy' in the cockpit and started to rumage through the boat.

He found Kim’s hard drive that I had taken out of hiding at the same time as my laptop and another broken laptop and an old VHF radio that were under my bunk, then he found Jody’s Colombian money, about 60 dollars worth but missed her stash of American money, then moved on to Tara’s cabin and found her digital camera, then hit the jackpot in opening the sail locker in the front where I was storing my stock of rope.

I had bought about 2 km of yacht braid for halyards and sheets in a factory in South Africa and had been selling it around to make some money. I still had 4 rolls of 200 metres each with a resale value of approximately 3000 dollars.

Of course they took that but while they were at it they also randomly took two of Tara’s bags, one containing nothing but books and the second containing her collection of shells. Go figure what goes through the mind of a crazed pirate...

Then they started loading their boat and it seemed they were about to go, but 'machete guy', high on something beside adrenaline and a bit hyperactive, was still back inside looking for more stuff. They sent me to sit next to the rest of the crew in the back, and I noticed that my small accordion was already on deck. I got much distressed by that but then he passed out a small backpack which looked very much like the one I had stored all the passports and the boat papers in. I tried desperately to explain to gun guy that this bag was not valuable but that it would save us a lot of trouble if we could keep it, I proposed to him to open it and look inside but before I could even move the bag was in their boat.

As it turned out later, it was not the boat paper bag but a bag full of sewing gear. That was very lucky, as in his haste to get at my valuables he had pushed the bag away and it had fallen into one of the bottomless Karaka storage holes.

We were all pretty shaken by then but they gave me a final blow by taking out my big accordion. He almost threw it out of the hatch, the thing going bloing bloing in the night and my heart stopped... I have to admit that it was really hard for me then to keep cool... after that they seemed happy with their loot and started to board their boat, 'machete guy' last.

I tried one last time to ask him to leave us the passports but he didn’t respond and just stood there looking pretty happy with his evening. A big red full moon had come out by then and in the dim glow we saw him giving us a little goodbye wave as he turned around to jump in his boat.

They motored quickly away and while Kway was undoing the knot on his wrists and freeing the girls using the rusty machete that they left behind, I put the engine in gear and headed for the closest lights. They had been on board no more than half an hour.

We called the coast gards on the emergency chanel on the VHF, but got no answer so we kept motoring toward the city. We all went into shock from the stress, actually laughing and joking about it all, yelling and wondering what had hit us. There was nothing else to do so we ate Kway’s tuna as we were motoring away.

About half an hour later a patrol boat finally showed up, we signalled to them and they came alongside. We told them our story and they took off in the direction the pirates had gone to while we kept on going. After a while the police came back, boarded us and asked us many questions, before escorting us to safety.

So nobody got hurt, although both Kway and I got hit by 'machete guy', the girls got bruises on their wrists from their ties and I got minor cuts on my neck. They took a fair amount of stuff, which is a big financial loss for us, especially the rope, but the biggest loss for me is that they took my accordions... fortunately they missed most of the money, Kway’s and Kim’s cameras and Kim’s laptop, a back up hard drive and Tara’s ipod, they missed the dive gear, the fishing gear, the spearguns, Kim’s violin and mandolin and they didn’t take any of the ship equipment, GPS, radio, sounder, binoculars, etc... we did pretty well all considered, it could have been much worse. It was a stroke of luck we has hidden everything the very morning...

The area used to be very dangerous 10 years ago, but in recent years there had been very few problems and most yachts entering the harbour would use the same route we did. Everybody around know it is risky to anchor in front of the fishing village, but nobody warned us not to sail through there.

We figure those guys were not doing this for the first time though, as they were well organised and even had gloves on to avoid leaving fingerprints. There was not much we could have done to avoid the attack, apart from not being there at this time of the day. There was no way we could have defended ourselves even if we had had guns as they took us completely by surprise.

The whole crew is dealing well with the situation and after anchoring in front of the yacht club we all went to shore get ourselves some decent food and drinks. None of us could really sleep that night and we sat on the back of the boat drinking and talking about this hell of a trip and about the boldness of those guys.

So a bit of a scare, some loss, but nothing that is going to stop us. We are now enjoying the town, there is a bit of a music festival going on, three of Kim’s friends from Australia are in town backpacking and we are doing our best to laugh about the whole adventure around drinks, fresh food and some good music.

RS Sailing 2021 - FOOTERHenri-Lloyd - For the ObsessedMaritimo 2023 S600 FOOTER

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