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Sailing the Gulf of Aden - One cruiser's account

by Horace Costa,Yacht Online/ Sail-World on 12 Jul 2010
Pirate alley - convoy sets off &copy Horace Costa
While all authorities, including the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) recommends that yachts stay away from the Gulf of Aden, hundreds of yachts are making the transit by staying close to the Yemeni coastline.

Here it is believed that the Yemeni Coastguard controls the waters, and the Somali pirates stay clear.

Here cruising sailor Horace Costa, aboard deciBel, a 39ft aluminium yacht, tells his story of transiting the Gulf of Aden's 'Pirate Zone' in March this year:

Pos 14°56’N 59°45’E, Indian Ocean:
It is night and we’re sailing with the genoa and mainsail, powered along by a fresh Force 4 monsoon wind that is allowing us to make very high daily averages. We are heading for the Mediterranean via Aden though what is known rather delightfully as 'pirate alley'.

Having crossed the 60° longitude east line, we officially entered the pirate danger zone a few hours back but we are in contact with the authorities who are monitoring the traffic in this area in an attempt to contain this problem. A couple of months back we registered with the MSC-HOA (Maritime Security Centre-Horn of Africa) and provided them with complete details of our route, boat and crew. Over the next few days we will be sending them a daily e-mail containing our position, route, speed and ETA to UKMTO (United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations) and MARLO (Maritime Liaison Office-Bahrain).

We are bound for Salalah, in Oman, the last safe outpost before we take on the Gulf of Aden. This is where all the sailing yachts gather and organise themselves into a convoy so that they can travel the 700 miles of sea between Salalah and Aden as safely as possible.

We’ve heard over the radio that all of the crews that made the passage before us (two convoys of more than 20 yachts each and several independent mini-convoys) didn’t encounter any problems and are now sailing back up the Red Sea.

That’s very comforting.

Thanks to the Indian Ocean Net, an English-language radio programme provided by several boats, anyone sailing the Indian Ocean can provide their position and ask for information and advice on a daily basis. It seemed a bit crazy not to take part. In this part of the world you give your position in numbers rather in the usual latitude and longitude which would be very easy for anyone listening in to lock on to.

There wasn’t the same pirate-ridden atmosphere then as there is now. Inevitably it will involve a lot of pressure. Before you’re actually in the middle of it you don’t know what awaits you, but the 1,255 miles we’re covering are really winding us up into a state that’s probably just a foretaste of the stress we’re in for. The closer we get to Salalah, the more we’re feeling it. Yesterday, we saw our first dhow on the horizon and thought, 'This is the start of it…' Our yacht deciBel has just finished a round the world voyage begun in 2002.

There are two of us, but we’ll be joined by a third friend who’ll be bringing with him a replacement Iridium– we parted company with our last one in the Bay of Bengal! The authorities recommend having a sat phone aboard: if we were ambushed, the Vhf radio might not have enough of a range for us to call for assistance.

They also suggest that we commit to memory the emergency numbers so we can use them quicker. We’ve also installed a new Vhf-DSC which means we can automatically send our position to the coalition’s naval vessels. Ingenious! But if we’re attacked will just pressing the Distress button be enough to save us?

Pos 16°56’N 54°E, in Salalah:
There are 34 boats in the port of Salalah! Mohammed, the customs clearance agent who arrives in a huge white off-roader, tells us that around 300 boats pass through each year normally. So far we’re up to a hundred and no one’s been involved in any incidents.

The Vasco de Gama convoy, made up of 27 yachts of all nationalities, casts off. We see them go – 27 craft in a straight line. The VHF is squealing:: 'charlie five, charlie five, charlie five to alpha three, alpha three, alpha tree', 'yes this is alpha three, alpha three, alpha three, come back charlie five', 'ok, charlie five moving starboard ten degrees'...They have to keep a certain formation and a certain distance between each other. There’s an almost military protocol to follow. It’ll be tough-going to do that for 700 miles.

According to the Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB), ambushes increased in 2009 but the number of successful attacks fell, a sign that the boats have learned to fight back. It seems like the now well-patrolled Gulf of Aden is becoming less enticing even though vessels continue to disappear. Since the International Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) was set up, the attacks have focused on the corridor itself rather than the Yemeni coast, so the cruising yachts sail 15 miles from shore. Along the coast you avoid both the military and the professional pirates but you are still within the range of the fishermen…

We clarify how the passage will go. If there’s no wind, a mini-convoy in contact with the European Union Naval Force Somalia(MSCHOA) and staying 15 miles from the coast of Yemen is the best option. If there is wind (and, therefore, a sea), then it would be difficult for pirates to board anyone and so we can take more risks.

Four of us cast off together: Miaplacidus (a 33’), Akoya (a Baltic 60’), an Amel and ourselves. We keep 15 miles off Yemen. No matter how small it is, a convoy is still very reassuring and more difficult to attack. But we’re not forgetting what the MSCHOA told us: 'Our advice to all sailing vessels is not to come here.'

The French invite people to put their craft on a cargo ship. The Royal Navy bounce us back to MSCHOA. The Italian Crisis Unit don’t recommend the trip without a military escort. Megayachts here tend to get their own private escorts. We saw one preparing to go. There were five ex-military aboard, all armed to the teeth. Maybe they don’t have any choice but in our case 100 metres of heavy fishing line would knock out the propellers of anyone chasing us.

A VHF-DSC to automate contact with the coalition and a satellite are essentials. Regarding way lights, some people recommend turning them off and keeping a light on in the cockpit so that we’ll only be visible from close at hand.

We cast off on March 2nd. We’ll try to stick as close together as we can. We’ll sail with regular way lights but on low to keep a low profile and we’ll have a fixed VHF channel and an SSB frequency to talk to each other on. Few, but essential, rules. The positive thing about this group of friends is that we are all quite relaxed as we set off and not too worried about the stretch of sea we’re about to cross. As they say in these parts: ‘nch’allah.

Pos 12°45’N 43°18’E - Through 'Pirate Alley':
The convoy cast off in very light head wind and immediately began to come out of formation. We stayed within sight of each other at all times but keeping to within a half mile turned out to be very tough. Only in the evening when the wind dropped and we turned on the engines did we manage to stay that close.

Unfortunately, as we are near the coast, we are feeling the pull of the Aden counter-current which can get up to 2.5 knots. The first night proves that navigating with low lights has a boomerang effect. It’s very difficult to see us and were it not for the radar it would be downright dangerous. We decide to light up the tricolour on our masthead and even though we feel more visible, we also feel safer.

On the second day the wind drops away altogether and our convoy turns to engine power: it’s much easier to stay close together but you can’t be distracted for a second. Ra’s Fartak makes us sweat, while the wind and counter-current make rounding the cape an exercise in Zen. Spending two days at 3.4 knots with the log always at 6 is frustrating.

To get away from the current, we decide over the radio to move further out from the coast.

On day three, an ENE wind gets up and we latch on to it to do a bit of sailing and give the engine (and our poor ears!) a rest. We only make essential VHF contact and broadcast on low power so that we don’t feel so far from each other. When the wind does come, the different sizes and types of our boats make themselves felt. It is very, very tough-going to stick together in a united group.

It takes three days for us to get into a genuine convoy and by dawn of the fourth day, we are waiting for the ones behind to catch up. We have to drastically cut our sails to stick together. But if we do stay close we won’t look quite so tempting a morsel to the pirates.

On day six we finally find ourselves off Aden. All’s well that ends well. We didn’t meet anyone apart from two ships going in the opposite direction and some fishermen. The convoy splits up: two boats go ashore at Aden while we and Akoya will push on to the Red Sea.

It hasn’t been easy but it was a great experience in human terms. The only boats we met were fishing craft. It seems almost as if the pirates don’t exist at all. Slowing down a boat in a place you’d instinctively go faster, is a test of nerves.

From day three on, as we approached the corridor, we heard the coalition vessels calling incessantly on channel 16 to offer assistance to shipping. But the answer to the question, 'Did you notice any suspicious or illegal activity?' was always in the negative. We got the feeling that the pirates have turned their attentions elsewhere. Maybe now it’s the southern Indian Ocean that needs avoiding.

Sailing across the Gulf of Aden is challenging but the pre-start stress and media pressure about piracy were much more stressful than the crossing itself. Convoys may be slow but I would heartily recommend them to anyone crossing 'pirate alley.'

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