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 Moy√©, 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…