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.