Crossing the pirate-infested Indian Ocean can be a life-or-death guessing game (published October 2012)
There were times—many times—in the past few months when Chris and I asked ourselves, “How on earth did we end up in this situation?” Times like when we were caught in the spotlight of an unknown ship, possibly a pirate mothership, searching for us in the middle of a dark Indian Ocean night. Or like when we were being taught how to make Molotov cocktails in Muscat. And like when there were skiffs all around, probably Somali pirates, debating whether they should attack or not. Times when we were screaming at each other from the stress of it all.
The truth is, there didn’t seem to be much choice. Regardless of where you start your world cruise, if you follow the winds, sooner or later you seem to end up in Malaysia or Thailand. To continue, you are faced with two main choices, neither attractive. Either you brave the Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, or you brave the severe wind and weather around the Cape of Good Hope.
We procrastinated as long as we could. In the end, word was that pirates were now an issue even on the South Africa route, so the logical choice seemed to be to join a convoy and head across the Indian Ocean. Sailors before us described a week of worry and convoy hassles, running the gauntlet between Salalah in Oman and Aden in Yemen. A week of worry…yeah, we could handle that!
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE SHIP KIND
It started well. We had a meeting in Thailand with our convoy group, 30 boats strong, and decided to regroup in the Maldives. There were murmurs about a rapidly worsening situation, but hey—we are optimists.
However, by the time we got to the meeting point in Uligamu, Maldives, there was straight-out panic in the ranks. The situation had worsened. The pirate attacks had exploded into a frequency of up to three attacks daily. The pirates had huge tankers as motherships and access to tracking technology. They were now attacking using RPGs and assault weapons. They had spread out their area of activity to include the whole Indian Ocean, not just the Yemeni Coast.
It was said to be suicide to try and cross directly to Salalah, as in previous years. The only safe-ish route would be to hug the Indian Coast all the way up to Pakistan, then cross to Muscat in northern Oman and then hug the Omani Coast down to Salalah. This would add an extra 1400 miles and one month to the journey, most of it to weather. There would be fuel issues and visa issues, as none of us had expected to land in India.
This proved too much for most to stomach. Some turned around and headed back to Thailand, some went south, and 16 of our 30 boats decided to spend $30,000 to freight their boats directly to Turkey. Great, if you had $30,000. We did not.
Of our convoy of 30, we were six leaving the Maldives and heading north toward India. On the second day out, our lead boat developed a transmission issue and was dead in the water. One of the other boats agreed to tow them to Cochin in India. Now we were four. By the next night the two faster boats gained so much distance on us that we agreed to stay in radio contact and meet in Muscat. Now we were two! It was just us and a young South American couple and we decided to stay within eyesight of each other. They were armed and had decided from the beginning that they would rather die than be taken hostage. We had opted for a passive approach in case of trouble, but they were the boat we were with, so we knew there could be a gunfight. We had to make the best of it.
We made our way up the Indian Coast, getting more tired and scared with each passing day. We maintained radio silence on the VHF, speaking only on SSB when necessary. We had no nav lights except a small white light encased in a sock, visible for 165 feet. We turned off active AIS and took down our radar reflectors. We were trying to be as invisible as possible; so were a great many huge ships. We were not supposed to be in shipping lanes, but the pirates have driven the merchant ships to alter course, just like us, and to travel with mercenary crews, no nav lights and no AIS. There were many close encounters.
A SOBERING REALITY
At this point we were still clinging to the thought that no yachts had been captured in the Indian Ocean for two years. Perhaps the pirates were not interested in us as we were too small. We had been fighting the winds heading north for about two weeks. We even got a little cocky and started to discuss taking a shortcut. Perhaps we could sneak across on latitude 18° instead of going all the way north. No one had been taken on latitude 18°!
The very next morning, we got the news that Quest, with four Americans on board, had been captured on the 18th latitude just a few miles from one of our intended waypoints. We were all very quiet on the radio that day. We did not even have to discuss the rejection of our latest plan. We just kept plodding northward, now with the knowledge that our last fragile thread to a feeling of security had been severed. They were not just after merchant ships; they would take a yacht and had done so.
Four days later, the news came: “They have killed them all.” It is hard to describe how we felt at that moment. My mind was full of images of the horror that must have played out on that yacht. We grieved for those people, part of our yachting community. We also knew that we had made a huge mistake in judgment. This was not a simple cat and mouse game between us and the pirates. We were risking not just our freedom, but our lives. Some time later, Danish yacht ING was taken with seven crew, three of them children. Things were going from bad to worse.
We had almost reached the border to Pakistan when we were forced to try to refuel in India without visas. Despite invoking an emergency clause, we were detained by the authorities for two days while we were interrogated and at least 30 people searched the boat. The police analyzed our laptops and we were suspected of being spies for the Pakistanis. In the end they let us go, shaken and in no mental state to make the crossing to Muscat, but go on we must.
The crossing went well, except for being mistaken for pirates by a warship, which shined spotlights on us and fired off an illuminating flare. Another time, a navy helicopter flew over us and gave away our position to anyone listening within 200 miles by calling us on VHF with our exact latitude and longitude. Finally we reached Muscat, where the two faster yachts waited.
MUTINY ON THE HIGH SEAS
Here, a bizarre part of the story commences. One of our fellow yacht’s owners decided to bring in an extra crewmember to help sail the rest of the way. This new party quickly interjected his strong personality into our plans of how to proceed. In truth, he took over and we let him.
He insisted that we needed to forget any notions of not offering resistance in case of attack. “The people on Quest have been killed—we have to fight back! And we need weapons!” Soon, he had assigned the duty of ramming the pirates to the two aluminum boats, of which we were one. In the meantime, he was going to show us how to manufacture Molotov cocktails. Better still, he found Styrofoam pellets to add to the mixture so the fire would stick to the skin of the victim; in essence, a Napalm bomb.
It fills me with shame that Chris and I allowed ourselves to even consider such tactics. I think we were so shell-shocked and weary that we looked favorably at anyone who had the energy to suggest a way to get out of this mess. We were weakened, he was strong. He took over, we let him.
Luckily, he was not the leader for long. Our mini-convoy of four was joined on the second day by the lead boat, which had been repaired in India. They were against the new aggressive strategy and gave us a choice. Follow them and adhere to their rules, including passive resistance, or stick with the other guy. For us, it was an easy choice. The Molotov cocktails went over the side and we continued down the coast of Oman.
We were on a very dangerous part of the trip. There had been five attacks along this coast in the preceding month. We had scares daily, but all the skiffs turned out to be fishermen. Until day four.
Mid-morning, we sighted a skiff directly ahead, another two on each beam and one behind. We were surrounded. These were new skiffs, nine to 10 guys in each, no birds circling overhead. They were not fishing. They circled us for over an hour, stopping and discussing the situation among themselves. We could do nothing but stay in close formation and tremble. In the end, they decided we made too complicated a target and left.
This exact situation is why anyone silly enough to attempt to cross these pirate-infested waters must travel in a convoy. If we had been on our own, we would without the slightest doubt have been held hostage in Somalia. What kept these pirates from attacking was that we were five boats. They did not know if any of us carried weapons and would shoot them in the back while they tried to attack another of us. They could not assault all five of us at once. Numbers saved us.
The next day, we arrived in Salalah. We all felt that our arrival meant we had the worst behind us. The stretch of Salalah to Aden is quite well-patrolled, and although attacks still happen there, most happen in the Indian Ocean.
In Salalah, we were joined by other boats and the rest of the journey through Bab-Al-Mandeb into the Red Sea went smoothly. We were all extremely relieved to anchor in a beautiful bay in Eritrea called Lalahab Deset. Finally, we could celebrate leaving the Somali pirates behind.
Although many months of hard slog lay ahead of us before reaching Turkey, the rest was cruising, although in remote, politically unstable areas. We were to remain tired and nervous for the remainder of the trip. Emotionally, it would take months to regain our composure. There is elation at having made it, but also guilt for surviving where others did not. We feel sad to have put our families through the worry, and angry with ourselves for having put ourselves in so much danger.
However, that night at Lalahab Deset, we were just happy to be alive and free, having a drink and a laugh, enjoying the moon and stars above us, and savoring the fact that the worst was behind us. It was a harrowing journey, but we had made it.
Chris and Desiree Trattles sail on their Shearwater 39, Skylark II. Chris is a retired engineer and Desiree is a retired chartered accountant. They started their journey from New Zealand in May 2007 and have been to Tonga, Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, across Micronesia, Kosrae, Phonapei, Yap, Palau, the Philippines, Borneo, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Turkey. Next up? Who knows! For now, they are keen to rest awhile in the safety of the Med.