Sunday, March 7, 2010

Day 4 in the Gulf of Aden

Local Date: Sunday, March 7
Local OMANI Time (4 hours ahead of GMT): 13:40
SOG (Speed Over Ground): 4.2 knots
Wind: NE 15 knots
Seas: 2-4 feet from the SE
Distance to Aden, Yemen: 244 miles

"Bravo Five, this is Delta One", at 01:00 in the middle of the night, I call out on the VHF over and over.
"Alpha Six, this is Delta One, looks like we have a sleeper coming our way."
"Roger, Delta One, let's watch him closely so we don't get run over."

Bravo Five has fallen asleep on watch and gone off course. We were already within 1/4 mile from them before they peeled out of their convoy and started heading towards us. Nice.

Alpha Six and I continue to try to hail them on the VHF to no avail. When they are within shouting distance of us, we pull out our signal horns and blast them. It works. They wake up, groggily respond on the VHF that they weren't asleep (yeah right) and head back to their group. No apology, no "sorry we won't do it again". Everyone is tired, but some boats have really had trouble keeping good watches and keeping their VHF radio's on. Pretty irresponsible and dangerous in my book.

Another hour goes by, but the excitement never ends. At 02:00, a fishing boat is spotted on radar by the fleet and heading our way. It looks to be a traditional dhow closing in fast with a speed of 10 knots. The chatter goes around the VHF for everyone to pay close attention and get ready to try to get out of the way, that is, if you even can. The boat approaches Alpha Five on the upper right triangle of our convoy still going 10 knots. Everyone's breath is held and the VHF is totally silent. All of a sudden it turns south suddenly and begins crossing just off the bows of the Alpha Group, the lead boats in the convoy, close enough to almost touch and still doing almost 10 knots. The Alpha Group slows down fast and barely misses the fishing boat, then the dhow turns and runs down the width of the convoy along the side of Bravo Group.

Bravo Group collapses in towards the middle of the convoy, a couple of the boats come within a few hundred feet from me, extremely close in the night, one of my eyes fixed on their green and red running lights and one fixed on the radar screen. A lot of confusion is happening in the group and then I notice a sailboat from the Alpha Group doing a 180 heading after the Dhow, just missing Bravo One, the lead group of Bravo, and looking totally out of control.

They finally stop and do a 180 with the realization of what just happened. Mark, the captain, gets on the radio sounding totally confused trying to make sense of what just happened. What happened was he had to wake his crew to take the helm while he dealt with an emergency VHF call from a coalition boat down below. His crew, still asleep and hand-steering, all confused from the Dhow fishing boat, thought the Dhow was Alpha One, the lead boat in our convoy, and pulled out of the convoy to follow it. They didn't realize what was going on until almost colliding with Bravo One. The Dhow fishing boat speeds away having no idea what kind of scare and chaos it just created.

It very well could turn out that we are our worst enemies in these waters.

We mentioned already that our convoy is made up of 20 boats. Our leader is a Dutch boat named, "Halfskip". Joost, the Captain, has really been doing a great job trying to manage this lot. There are a few other Dutch boats, a boat from Belgium, a few French boats, some Kiwi's, and the rest split between the UK and the Americans. As you can imagine, we are all very different sizes and styles, ranging from a 32' monohull, to a 65' catamaran, not to mention how different we all are as far as being sailors. All of us have 2-3 people on board, the ones with 3 definitely have it easier with the amount of intensity directed towards keeping a tight course and very attentive watches.

This morning another shift in the ranks. Charlie Two, an American boat, asks permission from his group leader and Alpha One to change to our group, Delta Group. He has been having trouble with Charlie One, the group leader, for days. Charlie One and Charlie Two don't really see "eye to eye" with where they should be in the convoy position, and to Charlie Two's credit, I have to agree with him. The Charlie Group have a tendency to wander all over the place, sometimes drifting a mile away from the convoy and sometimes way slower. The group leader almost always thinks he is in the right place, however, and as you can imagine, leads to some frustration among the group members.

So now Delta group is back to 5, all the Yankees in the same group. Funny, yeah? Put all the loud Americans in the back of the pack. Besides Delta 5, our new addition is one of the most talkative in the convoy. Now they are right next to each other.

We are only two days out from Aden, but now in the very real infamous stretch called "pirate alley" where most of the commercial boat hijackings happen that you read about in the news all the time. Even though only 1 sailing yacht has been taken in this area in the last 2 years, the commercial boats and tankers are chased and often boarded weekly by the Somalia pirates.

The coalition convoy is closely monitoring us but they are also watching and patrolling the "corridor" just south of us. The corridor is a U.N. patrolled shipping lane where all the commercial tankers and cargo ships transit from and to the Red Sea. Right now on our AIS display, I can see 35 boats, from 40 miles to 200 miles away. Just 50 miles south of us at this very moment I can see a commercial/tanker ship convoy of boats in tight formation, just like we all our here. There are 23 boats from 400 feet to 1000 feet long right next to each other traveling at 11 knots. They are smart. Most likely they also have the protection of a battleship or some sort of security force.

Like I said, we are now officially in the "high risk" zone.

The winds have come and we now have 15 knots right on our tails with the seas picking up to 2-4 feet. It is rolly. Really rolly. The direction of the wind and waves is all wrong for us little sailboats. Stuff is slamming around in all the cupboards and I am starting to get seasick trying to write this. Overall, however, we are holding up ok. Everyone in the convoy is tired and definitely holding anxiety, but we are doing ok, happy to be nearing the end of this and grateful for our continued safe passage so far.

Big love and many thanks for all the support out there.

"This is Delta 1, over and out for now"

Captain Chuck

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