What a shame it is that the theme of our final ocean crossing is the issue of piracy. It’s an issue that few people understand, so a few words on its history are in order. Since the Somali government collapsed in the mid 1980’s, the Somali coastline was left undefended as anarchy ruled. Foreign fishing trawlers seized the opportunity by illegally fishing throughout the Somali seaboard, while western corporations used the opportunity to dump toxic waste along the Somali shores – a cheaper alternative than legal methods of disposal, and without risk of prosecution under the laws of any nation state. This devastated the fish stock in Somalia, and with fishing being one of Somalia’s biggest industries, it also left many Somalis in a desperate situation. Fishermen began taking hostile action towards illegal foreign vessels operating in Somali waters, which eventually morphed into the piracy industry that continues to disrupt ship traffic for about 1000 miles around Somalia today. Decades later, hijacking remains a risk today, despite the coalition efforts of 21 countries to patrol the Horn of Africa region with warships and a variety of military assets onshore, offshore, and in the air.
This security situation has made preparing for our Indian Ocean voyage a major challenge . The bulk of our passage literally takes place inside a war zone, and as one of the first private sailing boats to attempt this passage since 2012, it would be stupid to underestimate the threat. Increased security has caused a major decline in the number of piracy incidents since 2012, but whether “soft targets” like us are safe in these waters remains an untested theory. So we chose to go with a security plan that prepares us for the worst, which means we had to prepare for a gunfight if necessary. In Thailand we installed bullet proof metal shielding around the cockpit and made a pan for embarking high caliber assault rifles prior to our entry into the HRA. But like pretty much every other plan we’ve made in the past three years, this one too went pear shaped soon after we set it into motion.
The plan went like this. First we linked up with another boat in Thailand, Shapirit, whose skipper (and his ex-Army crew) had similar intentions to ours and agreed to join forces with us for the Indian Ocean transit, essentially providing mutual support to each other in a convoy format. We also called up our friend Lee, who used to serve as a sniper in the Israeli Special Forces, and asked him to come aboard as our security officer. He agreed, the only thing missing in our combined plan with Shapirit was the sourcing of weapons.
So we and Shapirit made a deal with a supposedly reputable security contractor to rent the weapons from an armory in Sri Lanka. Shapirit was to pick them up and meet us at sea following our week or two of cruising around the Maldives. But on arrival in Sri Lanka the contractor couldn’t deliver the weapons as agreed – whether it was a money making scheme or a problem with the Sri Lankan authorities still isn’t totally clear, but once we realized the weapons weren’t coming aboard, the reasons didn’t much matter. We were in a situation we called a “clusterf*ck”… sitting in the Maldives with a Special Forces soldier aboard, Shapirit departing Sri Lanka unarmed, the wind direction leaving us little option other than sailing into the HRA, and not a single weapon among us. With the help of a resourceful agent in the Maldives, the frantic calls went out to all the security contractors with weapons in the Maldives armory. Within 24 hours we had found one that agreed to rent us some weapons, we signed the contract, made the payment, and were making a mad dash for Male, two days south where the armory is located. En route, the questions from the security company started flying at us about our maritime security credentials (we have none), Lee’s registration with a licensed security firm (also none), and so on…. apparently their usual clients are security firms, and they just assumed that’s what we were. The closer we got to the weapons, the more questions came at us, and the less certain our weapons deal was. Eventually the dreaded email arrived from the security contractor. This is how it unfolded from there… via email:
I do apologize as there is a misunderstanding, we need to have a custodian for this transit. We need to cancel the weapons rental and we will transfer the funds to you right away. I truly apologize for this matter.
Please do not load the Weapons.
And upon learning from our agent we had already loaded the weapons and were sailing away, the security company replied:
Please turn back and return the weapons to Male. It is serious, you might be arrested. You are not allowed to use the weapons without a custodian. Kindly sail back.
And with that chaos occurring on our computer screens, we put Male astern and motored away into the sunset in gorgeous but windless conditions. We were armed and thus safe… a major victory.
So it’s been a mostly smooth 12 days since then crossing the Arabian Sea and first half of the Gulf of Aden. We saw few ships of any type for the first 10 days, and our only hiccup was some broken sail rigging that took our mainsail temporarily out of commission for a morning. Asier was able to fabricate a replacement part in the engine room, which we installed on the mast that afternoon, and by the end of the episode we had given Asier his official nickname: the Maestro.
Here in the Gulf of Aden, things are getting more interesting as the land masses push all transiting ships into a narrower and narrower bottleneck, where the piracy activity is more concentrated. The wind also has forced us to travel further south than we had hoped, pushing us to within 50 miles of Somalia’s coastline at one point. We see an occasional fishing boat and work hard to avoid any near approaches and try to avoid detection all together, preferring to run without nav lights most of the time, and with our AIS system switched on only occasionally. We try to stay within a mile of Shapirit in case we need to converge quickly, which is our plan in case of any approaching skiffs. We see warships on the horizon and hear their chatter on the VHF – their purpose is to protect the merchant ships inside the transit corridor, but their presence offers us additional comfort.
But for the time being, we’ve had no worrying incidents other than a few close passes with fishing skiffs, and we’ve felt mostly safe, but in a slightly nervous and unsure way. So we sail on at full speed towards the entrance to the Red Sea, where the risk goes up by several orders of magnitude. We’re enjoying flawless sailing conditions and couldn’t ask for a better start to our 2015. Next stop will be a quick stop in Aden, where we hope to buy diesel and bread, then onward and westward into the most risky section of the voyage, the straits of Bab Al Mandab.