Saturday, February 6, 2010

On Pirates

Said to be one of the oldest professions outside of prostitution and practicing medicine, piracy has been and still is a reality on the high seas. Famous buccaneers such as Blackbeard, Sir Henry Morgan, and Jack Sparrow, have now been replaced by modern stealthy automatic weapon-toting outlaws that prey upon the massive numbers of marine vessels laden with oil, cargo, and passengers destined for ports around the world. There is, of course, big money involved if you can rob and, most often, hold ransom a commercial boat that will possibly bring the brigands millions of dollars. For in certain parts of the world, there is little security and armed enforcement of the law on the high sea, coupled with poverty and lawlessness in certain countries, there you have the makings for a pirate-culture, outlaws driven to risk their lives to make their fortunes.

Nowadays there are some "hot spots" for pirate activity, just like there were during the "Golden Age" of piracy 300 years ago in Northern Europe, the Red Sea, and the bulk of famous stories coming from the West Indies of the Caribbean. Today, the majority of pirate attacks take place in the South China Sea, Venezuela, the Malacca Strait, and by far the majority, the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden leading to the Red Sea. Most of you have probably at least read one recent news article about the Somalia pirates hijacking a commercial ship or 2 or 3's big sensational news and, as we all know, especially in the U.S., anything that can be mentioned with the word "pirate" sells.

What do you do about pirates? This is the question we are most often asked. As much as we try not to think about the possibility and make light of the situation, we are also trying to be knowledgeable about the reality and will do the best that we can not to be a target. We are now beginning to sail into an area of the world where there are pirate attacks and hence this blog to inform our people about the facts as well as our personal situation. I realize this is pretty factual, but it felt like it was easier for me to write out this way to make sure I didn't miss anything.

Pirate Facts in the Indian Ocean/Gulf of Aden:

1. Somalia pirates are a problem and are to be taken seriously.

2. Somalia pirates most often target commercial vessels (over 99% of the time), but, yes, have at times hijacked small sailing yachts.

3. Somalia pirates most often attack ships in the "pirate alley", a stretch of water between northern Somalia and the coast of Yemen, where boats who transit the Red Sea must travel through. However, as the Somalia pirates become more successful and more bold they are venturing further out and some attacks do occur as far south as the Seychelle Islands, Madagascar, and the northern Indian Ocean south of the coast of Oman.

4. Somalia pirates usually hijack vessels and crew, and then pilot the ship to one of the Somalia ports where the pirates live and work. Then they hold the ship and crew for ransom. Many commercial vessel companies pay millions of dollars to the pirates resulting in the ship and crew's safe release.

5. Sometimes the international navy force intervenes on the ocean resulting in modern-day shoot-outs with mixed results. Just recently we heard on the BBC that a Danish navy vessel freed a hijacked commercial ship with over 20 crew on board. Yeah! However, sometimes the pirates get away and sometimes, although very rarely, the commercial crew and captains are killed.

6. Many of the Somalia pirates travel first on traditional Dhow fishing boats, their fast "pirate" zodiac boats hidden on deck under tarps or nets and then only launched when the target is in sight. They have fast engines, maybe traveling at 20-25 knots, and all carry automatic weapons like AK-47's. Most of them are professionals and some of them have made big money in this profession. They know what they are doing.

7. In 2009 a transit corridor for merchant ships was set up approximately 70 miles offshore of Yemen through the Gulf of Aden. This is patrolled by a multi-international group of battleships. Protected ship convoys move together based upon boat speed from 12-20 knots. Some cruisers (especially those not in a yacht convoy) choose to travel alongside the corridor even though their speed is much slower. Some of the time they are alongside a convoy and other times the convoys pass them by and they are alone until the next convoy catches and passes them again. The convoys have in the past never gone at a slow enough speed (5-6 knots) to protect a group of small sailing yachts like us. This corridor is meant for the thousands of commercial cargo/oil ships heading to and from the Red Sea.

8. And lastly, there are hundreds of small sailing yachts that transit these waters to and from the Red Sea safely, each year, with no problems at all. Listening to the radio net every morning, we already know of at least 30 boats ahead of us from the Maldives to Salalah, Oman, who have had an enjoyable and safe passage in the last few weeks. We also know of a few who have already formed small convoys and made it safely through pirate alley to Aden, Yemen.

So with all that being said, here's what we'll do:

1. Starting with our passage from the Maldives to Salalah, Oman, (in a few more days), we will be checking into a radio "net" with around 30-50 sailing yachts taking part at any one time. Every morning we take each other's position (in code so as not to give GPS coordinates over the radio), be available as a community in case there are problems (outside of a pirate attack), and to give/receive any pertinent information to each other. This radio-net doesn't offer us safety from a pirate attack, but does keep us all informed of each other's location and so we all know if there was/is an issue.

2. We will do everything we can to be stealth. We will travel at night with no running lights or mast-head lights on. We will turn off our "sending" AIS signal (If you don't know what this is, you can read the 'Boat Electronics' page on our website). We will keep the VHF on, but not use it unless an emergency. Also, we have pertinent phone numbers in case of a problem loaded into our satellite phone.

3. We will not be posting our usual "position reports" on the Pangolin Yotreps site that you can link thru our 'Where 'O Where' page of our website. This is a precaution just in case the pirates are checking that information for yachts locations. None of the other boats we know of are doing the same, not posting until safe in the harbor of Oman or Yemen. We will send out daily position reports via email only to our families (just so they can sleep at night).

4. Team DK does not carry weapons. In our perspective, do you really think a small sailing yacht can fight off a boat of 4-10 people that goes 5 times our speed and are all carrying automatic weapons? Plus, we have a fiberglass boat, not steel, meaning it wouldn't take much to shoot up the hull of our boat and put us underwater. We believe pulling out a weapon on a group of pirates will probably just escalate the potential for violence.

5. But, the most important thing we will do when we arrive safely in Salalah, Oman, is to be part of a "convoy" of other boats. There have already been small convoys of 3-4 boats that have safely made the passage. Currently there are a couple of large "super-convoys" already being formed with 20 or more boats involved. We are planning on being part of one of these super-convoys in the beginning of March organized by a boat who has led the "Vasco de Gama" rally from the Med to the Red Sea for many years, knows the countries and officials well, and knows how to organize a large group of boats to safely travel together.

6. The convoy will likely be from Salalah, Oman, to Aden, Yemen, through "pirate alley", a distance of around 550 nautical miles. We will be split up into groups of 4-5 boats all staying close together (this will, I'm sure, lend itself to some good stories based on the challenges and frustrations of this reality), traveling along the Yemen coast 10-15 miles offshore. Despite the fact that most of us feel better in convoys, the simple fact is that if one yacht is attacked other yachts nearby cannot really do anything to help. Therefore the hope is that there is safety in numbers and a group of yachts close together will not appeal to the pirates - especially since this has been not been within their normal method of operation. So far, almost every small sailing yacht that has been attacked has been on their own and not part of a group ("convoy") of other yachts. We will hope that the statistics stay true and that we do not have any problems.

7. Lastly, there is recent talk of an Italian battleship escort for small yachts this year. This is in the works and may possibly be a reality. If it happens then we will most likely be part of whatever "convoy" of boats is choosing to be led by this battleship, most likely in the same time frame at the beginning of March heading through pirate alley.

Well, there you have it, hopefully most of your questions are answered regarding pirates and how we will deal with that possibility. For those of you wanting more information regarding pirates around the world, sailing yachts and convoys, recent pirate attacks, and current news regarding the Somalia situation, a very informative website is:, with many links you can follow from there.

For those of you that know us, you know we strongly believe in being optimistic and putting out good energy. We know there is a slim chance we could have problems, but we feel there is always a much stronger chance to have problems when you turn that key in your car's ignition and drive to work each morning, then what we have to deal with out here. Regardless, please keep sending us positive vibes and keep us in your thoughts and we will hopefully have only good experiences getting to the Red Sea!


The World Tour said...

Hmm, interesting reading. Thanks for sharing.

Have a very safe journey now up to the red sea !

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the informational summary on your journey. A family member is joining a super convey this coming week and it was comforting to find some information on it.

Rafael said...

Thank you very much for the informative text. How was the passage? I'm in Cook islands now and I'm searching for information about convoys, do you know where I can find it? What frequency do you used in the south pacific?

Thank you very much.