Sunday, March 27, 2011

Al Mukalla in Yemen.

Al Mukalla is a small town on the coast of Yemen where we decided, with the other members of the Seabirds convoy, to stop for rest and provisioning. As most countries in the middle east this year, Yemen is under some political unrest and we heard that demonstrations were held in Aden, further West, but no reports of any activities in Mukalla. We arrived all nine boats at the same time in the tiny harbor causing some headaches to the port authorities but nothing they could not handle. While being anchored just a few feet apart we met with Maher who acts as a local agent helping yachts with their clearance and supply needs. Danielle and I got our organizational skills in action again and by the end of the afternoon we had arranged with Maher to get 2000 liters of fuel for all the boats, water and booking buses the next morning for the 19 of us to go at the bank and supermarket. We were told at this time that the authorities didn’t want us to go ashore after 1:00pm because of a demonstration in town. After all it seemed that Mukalla was maybe not as quiet as we had expected! Everyone was very happy of the work Danielle had done to organize everything in Mukalla and they let her know.

The next morning the crews of the nine boats all gathered on the main wharf, which was the first time we would all meet since we left Uligan 14 days ago, and after kisses, handshaking and group photos we all stepped into buses and went shopping. Yemeni are extremely welcoming, almost to the point of being embarrassing. They would help us at the grocery store, talk to us on the street, obviously some would ask for money but in general we felt at ease. We came back at the harbor before noon, again because of demonstrations in town, and got the fuel in the afternoon. Our plan was to leave early the next morning but the extent of the boat repairs we were facing made us extend our stay for two more days.

That night we had a little party on Chocobo, yes 19 peoples do fit in our cockpit! We had a very good time and it was the time to celebrate our achievement so far as well as confirming that we were still a strong team ready for the next leg. Indeed, the experience of sailing so many days at sea together can be so daring that many members of other convoys would never talk to each other afterward! But the Seabirds were now very good friends and chances are we will remain so for a long time. The next day was time for repairs. Our hydraulic autopilot was, I thought then, completely gone but Brian on “Glide” apparently can fix anything on a boat and after a couple hours of twinkling we managed to get it back on track. As a matter of fact that day it became obvious to us how much can be done with the crews of nine boats working together to fix stuff and getting things going.

Even though we had almost every part between the nine boats to fix every issue we had we still needed to go shopping for some parts and spares. Jean-Claude, Graeme, Martheen, Max and I went the next day with Maher to shop for what was missing and get some internet. We first stopped at a computer shop for Graeme to get a charger for his laptop. The store was on the West side of the river while we could see demonstrators on the other side. Apparently, a demonstration was being held even though we were still early in the morning. We then went to a tiny hardware store where, although it’s apparent small size, we found pretty much everything we wanted such as my seals for the hydraulic RAM, bearings, engine coolant, tools, connectors, lubricant etc. We dropped Martheen, Graeme and Jean-Claude at the Internet Café while Max, Maher and I tried to get propane for the boats but were unsuccessful due to incompatibility with the bottle connectors. We then stopped at the supermarket where I went alone to get a sort of cream cheese they make that is just to die for. There I met John from “Amante” and chat with him for a couple of minutes then we went our separate ways. From the grocery store to the internet café we had problems with the traffic in the streets. The demonstration was turning sour and we could hear gunshots from the police probably shooting in the air to disperse the crowd. When we arrived at the internet café Jean-Claude was outside chatting with some local vendors. I went inside and told the others that things were getting ugly outside and we had to go now. Thirty seconds later they were out of the café! We then had to go back to the harbor but the streets were jammed by the demonstration.

Maher took a backstreet and was able to move forward. Around us we could see people running while on the adjacent streets people were shouting and the police shooting. Maher was nervous but he took us out of there and drove around the hill, which took us about 20-30 minutes to reach the port instead of 10 minutes. Danielle started to be worried because when John, who I’d met at the supermarket, came back he told her that he had met me alone at the supermarket and that things were getting very ugly in town. She was then imagining me running in the street of Mukalla from a mob of Yemenis with sticks in their hands! Of course there was nothing so dramatic; I was just trying to dodge bullets from the police! Anyhow this was our clue that we had to get out of this place first thing the next morning. We tried to relax that afternoon but it was more a panacea than anything else. However, that night we all felt deeply asleep under the chants of the call for prayer coming from the nearby mosque in this city of the Middle-East which beside what it may appears at first, still makes us dream.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Arrived in Egypt.

We arrived at the Island of Wadi Simal, Egypt on March 22, 2011 after a 384 nautical miles (714 km) passage sailing north in the Red Sea from the village of Suakin, Sudan that took us 3 days and 1 hours for an average speed of 5.3 knots.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pirate waters: The Arabian Sea.

On Feb 7th, 2011 at 09:00 sharp ten boats raised their anchor off the shore of Uligan in the Maldives for a trek they will all remember for the rest of their lives. The Seabirds convoy, as we called ourselves, was to sail 1503 nautical miles (2796 km) in formation for over 13 days in what is considered today as the most dangerous waters in the world. Many challenges awaited us on that sunny day of February. Sailboat convoys are not uncommon in this part of the world and the goal of a convoy is to make the boats a less attractive target for the pirate attacks. But in the past they were targeted to cross the Gulf of Aden, a much shorter distance, during which boats would go under motor only in order to have control on their relative speed and stay in close formation for many days. But the pirates have moved from the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea hence more than doubling the distance to cover in groups which now exceeds the fuel autonomy of almost every sailboat and therefore forcing us to move under sail, which makes it extremely difficult to control our speed due to the large disparities in the different boat characteristics. Sailing in formation for 6 days under motor is considered very difficult but sailing under sail for 13 days is insanity, and insane we all were no doubts about that! The map here shows you the two legs we would eventually cover in this trip and the first one, in red, was the one we were beginning when we left Uligan.

One thing about sailboats is they break all the time. On a long passage, such as this one, it is expected that a few things could go wrong. When you put 10 boats together it becomes a certainty. Our first problem came at the very start of the journey when everybody were leaving the anchorage and getting into position. Njord, a Scandinavian boat called the group to notify that their engine was overheating. We all slowed down and a few minutes later they had managed to get their cooling system back on track. Not 30 minutes later, another boat, Amante had also a cooling problem and also was able to fix the problem in matters of minutes. If the first couple hours were to be at the image of the entire trip it would take us six months to go through that sea! We all got to our rally point about a mile off Uligan and positioned ourselves into formation but as we all started to get used to sail together Njord called again for an engine problem. Their cooling system was just not up to the job and they now considered their boat unfit for such a passage. Njord then decided to turn back with the intention to sail back to Sri Lanka to fix their engine correctly. The Seabirds convoy was then down to 9 boats and will remain so for the rest of the ride.

There is not much one can do against pirate attacks. They are fairly organized and very well armed with automatic and semi-automatic weapons as well as rocket propelled grenade launchers (RPG); all kind of things a sailboat is unable to deal with when comes the worst. The only thing we can really do is to sail in group in a seemingly organized fashion and hope that we then become too much of a hassle for them to bother with us. Should we be approached by threatening boats our procedure was to execute “Excalibur” which consist in regrouping quickly in a very tight formation at maximum speed to make it harder for the pirate’s skiffs, small boats used for boarding, to isolate their target and board them. We obviously had to practice getting into our attack formation and we did so the first day once everybody was getting comfortable with sailing as a group. We were able to regroup in about 12 minutes, which may sound long but under the circumstances was not that bad really, and if anything else it was a very good photo shot opportunity with all the boats sailing just a few meters apart.

Nights are very demanding. We need to be on watch at all times and constantly monitor our relative position to the other boats. To reduce our exposure we sail with minimum lights, most people using only small single LED garden lights. One of the boats, “Margarita”, positioned roughly in the middle of the pack became our de-facto night coordinator with Anders and Birgit spending all nights, eyes on the radar, telling one to move a bit starboard then another to slow down while the next boat should speed up. After 13 nights at sea their characteristic voices, tinted by a distinctive Danish accent, became so part of our nights that one member later joked that he should have recorded them because he was unable to sleep at night without Ander’s voice in the background! On one cold and rough night, with winds up to 25 knots, everybody was struggling to keep the boats steady. It was daring but Anders and Birgit didn’t give up and for 12 hour straight they would place a call on the radio to correct the position of the boats at an average interval of 5 minutes. Doing that kind of work for four hours would be considered a marathon but for 12 hours they guided us through the night like the beacon of a rocky shore. That day, Anders and Birgit gained our respect and our gratitude and after that their authority at guiding us at night remained unchallenged. This was the spirit of this convoy and that’s what made this whole endeavor possible in the end.

Of course we had our share of mishaps and breakdowns; engine cooling problems, sails being ripped off or autopilots dying along the way. On Chocobo we even had the knuckle of our port shroud half snapped, even if it was less than two years old, and had to stop the convoy to lower our sails and were able to change the broken piece in less than 20 minutes before resuming our course. Boats were causing many troubles and people too with some falling asleep then drifting toward the other boats or having difficulties in slowing down the boats. But as demanding the whole endeavor was, everybody kept a reasonable control over their emotions which showed to be crucial in keeping the convoy safe and coordinated. It was indeed physically exhausting but the psychological side was not at rest either. All along we would be in daily contact with UKMTO who would keep track of our position and update us with the possible threats in our area or the most recent pirate attacks. During our crossing there have been many pirate attacks but none of them affected us more than the attack on the American sailing yacht “Quest” who was boarded by the pirates and redirected toward Somalia while the four crew members were taken hostages. The psychological blow was immediate and shattered in pieces our main assumption that pirates were after large cargo ships and didn’t bother with small yachts much. It was even more difficult that, although we didn’t personally knew the crews in question, Danielle is quite certain that we were moored not too far from Quest in Ao Chalong during our stay in Thailand. This put the whole thing into a very different perspective. However, when this news came we were well past the point of no return and all we could do was to keep going.

The Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea are constantly patrolled by military warships dispatched by different countries and once in a while we would cross one of the ships or be flown by a surveillance airplane or helicopter. But as reassuring as the presence of these forces might be the fact is they cannot do much for us in case of an attack. For one thing, the Arabian Sea is about 1500M wide and this represents about half the size of Canada! The whole area is simply too big to be kept under strict control and adding to that the rules of engagement of the militaries who will not engage unless they are being fired at even if they very well know where and who are all the pirates in the area. They simply have their hand tighten by the western moral rules because the populations of these countries, living in their comfortable and seemingly safe environment, do not consider proper to shoot the poor pirates at sight and instead lead the situation in the area to degrade to the point where the lives of hundreds of hostages are ruined and destroyed every years!

After a bit more than 13 days at sea together all nine boats of the Seabirds convoy safely reached the port of Al Mukalla, Yemen for rest and resupply. But during our approach of the coast, the night before, three of the boats got caught in fishing lines but with no permanent damages. At about the same time, the four crew members of Quest were shot dead by their captors. This news was very depressing especially after we heard that another boat, Danish this time, had been taken hostage. The whole family, parents and children, were taken toward Somalia as we entered the Yemeni port. But we had other concerns more immediate to us since Yemen and pretty much all Middle Eastern countries were under political unrest which would just make our stay in the area more exciting. Why would one want to stay and work in an office when he can go sailing with merciless pirates at sea and riots on land? What we just had achieved, sailing 1503 nautical miles (2800 km) in a convoy was impressive and we were all proud that we made it safe and sound to Mukalla but this was not the end of the story. We still had the Gulf of Aden to cross and although the goal of the Seabirds convoy was only to cross the Arabian Sea it was clear in everyone’s mind that since we were now so used to sail with each other it just made sense to keep going all together for that last part of the pirate alley.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Maldives, the organization of a convoy.

We spent probably the weirdest, or for sure the least expected, five days of our trip in Uligan Island in the Maldives. We arrived mid day on Wednesday and were very tired since we didn’t have any time in Sri Lanka to rest and we just stayed on the boat after the custom people had come aboard for the clearance. Our original plan was to sail directly from Galle, Sri Lanka to Salalah, Oman but just before our departure from Sri Lanka we received an email from the crew of “Imagine” telling us we could stop in Uligan for a few days without paying the exorbitant cruising permit fees demanded by the Maldivian authorities. We then decided to stop to cut the passage in two and get some rest. On the first day we heard there was a 4 o’clock meeting ashore among the 20 or so boats anchored in Uligan to talk about pirate attacks in the area. We didn’t go since we understood this was a daily meeting anyway.

If I had a definition of the Garden of Eden I would point Uligan as a reference. The 400, or so, inhabitants of Uligan are probably the nicest people in the world living in this clean and peaceful island where the word stress exists probably only in the dictionary. They understand our position and don’t look too close when we stay a few more days when our 3 day permission is over. The second day we went to the meeting and witnessed the most amazing collective paranoia we’ve ever encountered. About 30 to 40 people were gathered and sharing the reports of the latest attacks in the Arabian Sea. There was lots of info but nothing useful in any practical ways other than scaring everyone. We hadn’t until then appreciated the extent of the treat in the Arabian Sea where pirates now seem to have moved to operate instead of the highly military patrolled Gulf of Aden. We obviously didn’t have any convoy in line for that long 1500 miles leg and were hoping to join up with “Imagine” and maybe another boat “Pegasus”, with who we briefly met before our departure in Sri Lanka, for a buddy boating of some sort. Everybody looked genuinely scared but simply didn’t know what to do. Some were there for more than two weeks and didn’t know on what foot to dance. Danielle and I looked at each other and, without any words, the message was pretty clear. “We need other boats in a convoy and if we don’t do anything about it ourselves nothing is going to happen.” Then we did something many would find unbelievable at first, and we are still scratching our head to figure out how we pull that off; we put together and organized a 10 boat convoy in 3 days with formations and procedures and all. Usually people take over 3 months to do that! To fully appreciate what happened in our head at that moment you have to remember that Danielle and I are two professionals working in the high tech world; Danielle as a computer scientist and me as a microchip designer. Years of university education and a decade and half of working in very competitive fields trained us in operating in an environment where being structured and organized is not a choice but a matter of survival. When we saw the situation in Uligan our brains automatically switched into “work” mode and our instincts kicked in; we didn’t think, we didn’t rationalized we just got to work like two wolves unleashed in a hen house!

We started immediately at the end of the first meeting when everybody were exchanging useless info and scaring at each other but on guy stood out of the crowd, John from “Seeamia”. He was standing with a chart, showing a southern route to go to Salalah, and trying to convince people to join up and go but no one was really listening too busy they were at being scared. Obviously the guy had never worked in an office and tried to gather everyone to go at the same restaurant for lunch. Danielle and I took a piece of paper and asked the few people around John if what he was proposing was something they would be interested in and wrote the names of their boats. Then we moved to another group and told them “We are a group of boats who are going together to Salalah following a south route. Are you interested? We will call a meeting tomorrow at 10:00 to talk about it.” After 10 minutes we had a list of 10 boats, which would grow up to 19 and in the end we would be 10 boats to actually leave. At 0800 the next morning I placed a call on the VHF radio telling everyone there would be a meeting at 10:00 for the convoy. About 14 boats showed up and we discussed many tactical concerns but were not moving fast enough to sort out all the points we needed to organize a bunch of people to sail together in formation for 12 days! The best way to describe this is “to try herding cats and make them walk in a straight line!”

For 3 days we gathered information on the boats, the documentation we had on convoys and on MSCHOA, UKMTO and MARLO the 3 military organizations supervising the military activities in the area. At the second meeting, Martin from “Anima III” brought a copy of the procedures used by a convoy last year organized by Tom Sampson who had 27 boats sailing from Salalah to Aden. This document was a breakthrough in our time schedule and was key in speeding up the process. While Danielle busied at sorting out the communication with the three military organizations I modified Tom’s process to match our reality of 12 days under sails, instead of 6 just motoring and the possibility to split up should the speed of the boats be too different and impractical. Of course we had boats getting in and out of the group until 18:00 the night before departure but in the end we managed even though we were exhausted especially since we also had to prepare the boat for that leg. But as tiring was the whole process, on Monday February 7th, 2011 the Seabirds convoy, formed of 10 sailboats, left Uligan in an amazingly organized fashion for three possible destination; Salalah, Oman, Al Mukalla, Yemen or Aden, Yemen. One note about convoys for those of you less experienced in sailing, we might just say that most people would find sailing two boats together for a couple of days under sail a very tough experience. If asked about 10 boats in close formation for 12 days over 1500 miles chances are they would tell you it is almost impossible! Danielle and I were very proud of what we had achieved and the crews of the other 9 boats were very happy that someone had stepped out of the collective paranoia with a positive attitude and took them out of their psychological misery. But at this point we had only succeeded in organizing the convoy in a record time but the real test was still to come in actually performing the passage in question; organizing is one thing but delivering is another!

The ten boats who left that morning to cross the Ariabian Sea were; Anima III, Tiku Moyé, Chocobo, Seeamia, Asia, Margarita, Kathleen Love, Glide, Amante and Njord. The crew members were to the image of the UN coming from Austria, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, England and USA. And although the threat of sailing these daring waters was real and that we always had to possibility to sail south around Africa, which means sailing the dangerous East coast of Africa then through the very rough waters around South Africa and adding two ocean crossings as well as one more year to the trip, we decided to sail through together mainly on the calculated assumption that Somali pirates are after the multimillion dollar cargos for the huge ransoms and that no yacht as been attacked in the past year or two especially when sailing in convoy where the fish school effect acts as a deterrent to their attack. But like any stock broker would tell you, the past is not always a guaranty of the future. And that’s what we would eventually find out but only when it is too late to turn back! Read the rest in this amazing adventure in the next post…

Monday, March 14, 2011

Arrived in Sudan.

We arrived in the Bay of Nawarat in Sudan, from Massawa in Eritrea, on March 12th, 2011 after a short but though ride of 187 nautical miles (348 km) that took us 1 days, 14 hours and 0 minutes for an overall average speed of 4.9 knots.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Five days of visit in Sri Lanka.

The North-East monsoon being very short we didn't have much time to spend in the amazing country of Sri Lanka so with only one week in front of us we decided to open our wallet and arrange with Dee Dee Yacht Service a 4 days/3 nights tour around Sri Lanka and one day in Galle itself. Dee Dee was quite helpful and efficient at arranging everything as well as taking care of the laundry and refueling while we were visiting. We took 484 pictures of Sri Lanka and I could write an entire book on what we saw during that week. We give you here only a snapshot of this land of wonders. On the first picture you can see two fishing boats in the port of Galle. Fishing is a huge economic activity for this sea town which was half destroyed by the tsunami few years ago. Tens of thousands of deaths and huge inflation later peoples of Galle still know how to enjoy their national sport; cricket!

While visiting Fort Galle, an old Dutch fort built a few centuries ago, the street entertainers would tame their cobras while playing a little flute or let us pet a little macaque while some boys would just have fun jumping off a huge rock into a shallow pool of water underneath.

Fishing means catching fish. The way you do it can differ greatly from one place to another. We were also shown amazing stone carvings of Buddhism symbols or simply admiring the simple life of the charming Singhalese Sri Lankans and the overwhelming presence of foliage everywhere.

Buddhism being the main religion in the area we couldn't visit Sri Lanka without going through many Buddhist temples and somehow the followers of this religion seem to like huge Buddha statues. It is, no need to say, in sharp contrast with one of the main dogma of this religion being the simplicity of a material life but surely not more than the other main religions claiming the same thing. This temple built mainly underground presented no less than 40,000 paintings of the life of Lord Buddha dating many centuries.

On our way to our first night stop in the town of Kandy we stopped to a nice waterfall in the surrounding valley where some people were taking a bath, not swimming but really washing up themselves, while tourist vendors would try to sell us fake old dutch coins or simply ask for money. Some more clever would ask us to change some Canadian coins that were likely given to them by other tourists. Our room in Kandy was very comfy with mosquito nets and a stunning view over the valley. No need to say that the food offered on the first floor was exquisite. Curries, spiced vegetables and rotis were real delicacies.

The second day we took a train for a three hour ride from Kandy to Nany-Oya to admire the unique landscape of Sri Lanka composed of hills, jungles and of course tea plantations. You can see me here with Sana, our driver for this tour, as well as the old style train that was a treat on itself.

Just a few more pictures from the train ride. On the dock with a red shirt is our guide Ekka with his stunning smile. Our Tamil seat neighbor was too young to remember the troubles that his people went through a few years ago in the North of the country but was quite curious about these two fellows beside him with such a pale skin. Maybe he thought we were sick or something probably because we didn't have this black painted dot between our eyes that protects him against the bad spirits and illness.

A tour of Sri Lanka wouldn't be a good tour without the visit of a tea plantation. Here we stopped at Mackwoods tea plantation and processing plant where we were introduced to the seven steps of tea processing and, of course after the visit, invited to take a look at the visitor's boutique to buy at high price a sample of their excellent tea.

Here you can see pictures (really too few for what can be seen) of the Cave Buddhist Temple. The statues in orange robe you see on the first one are all man size statues in line for an offering to Buddha. After climbing for 15 minutes or so we arrived at a set of five caves where statues, mainly Buddha, were carved directly in place from the rock bed. Many though were brought in over the centuries. One interesting thing here was that among the many Buddhist sanctuaries was built a small Hindu temple! This is just reflecting the reality of the region where all religions live in the same place. In Galle we saw Buddhist temples, Mosques, Catholic Churches and Hindu temples all living in peace together.

Then the visit continued with a stop at a spice garden where a guide showed us many spices from the plants and asked us to identify them. Strangely I was able to give the right answer for almost all of them but a very few. Of course if I was able to recognize vanilla, cinnamon and mace I miserably failed to name .. black pepper! At the end I could enjoy a spice massage that was actually quite relaxing after three days of visiting. In the evening we assisted to a traditional dance show along with about 100 other tourists. Of course, local Sri Lankans are more interested in modern pop music like everybody else. That type of shows is for tourists.

After the dance show Ekka and Sana took us to an amazing temple called the "Toot temple" in Kandy. Beside the splendid architecture and the many stunning artifacts, such as this marble statue of Buddha and many others, the temple claims to be the host of one of the teeth of Buddha himself that was recovered from the cinder after his cremation. The whole story of the path followed by the toot during the last 2500 years or so is all depicted in one of the halls and people gathers here every day to see the "toot" which supposedly reside in this golden vase. Now whether Buddha's toot is really in the vessel or not is something we would never know but tons of people gathers here to have a peak at it. I mean, Lord Buddha himself was surely a great figure of humanity and worth veneration to many but to think that his toot bear any spiritual signification is a bit a stretch of the imagination. But at least it sure brings many paying tourists including, of course, your two favorite world explorers who never miss an opportunity to help the financial situation of the tourist industry!

The only thing worth showing of our last day of visit was a stop at a bathing site where a herd of elephant was brought by their rightful owners at this location for the tourists to see. It was actually quite fun and they were even selling small bags of bananas to feed the pachyderms. They were even selling a sort of handmade paper made out of elephant . dung! Do I need to tell you we passed on this one? After returning from our tour of the country we had one day left to get our fuel delivered, to shop for food and get ready for our next leg. Sana took us in his tuk-tuk for shopping and in the evening we were invited at Ekka's place for dinner with his wife, Sana and Dee Dee. We stupidly forgot the camera but it was very nice. Our plan after that was to sail directly from Sri Lanka to Salalah, Oman but we received an email from another boat, "Imagine", telling us it was straight forward to stop a few days in Uligan, Maldives without paying the exorbitant cruising fees imposed by the Maldivians authorities. So, we decided to make a pit stop in Uligan in order to cut the pear in two for that 1800 miles crossing but we did not realize the extent of that decision until we arrived in this remote island of the Indian Ocean as what we found there was not at all what we expected! But this is a story for the next post..