February 12, 2011

trying to be invisible

first a little history on pirates. apparently somali pirates started operating many years ago in order to protect their waters, coasts and their fishing industry. nowadays they continue to commit such crimes because the activity has become very lucrative. in recent years somali pirates have attacked hundreds of vessels in the arabian sea/indian ocean region, most of them are commercial ships.

around 2005 the attacks concentrated on the area of the gulf of aden and so the convoys were formed around these waters (around 700 nautical miles). unfortunately over the last few years the pirates have hijacked mother vessels as big as huge freighters and they now operate way off their coast making the entire arabian sea a real threat for attacks. therefore the danger area is now over 2000 miles. also, smaller vessels such as sailboats have become a target in recent years. this year alone we became aware of three attacks to small yachts. One resulted in all 4 on board killed. Other attack was unsuccessful because the yacht had hired and was sailing with their own escort and security, and the last resulted in all 7 on board hijacked. Devastating news for the entire sailing community. this year alone, and only for the last three months the internet posts alarming figures: the total somali pirate attacks and incidents is 107, this means there has been at least one attack every day!!! The pirates have taken 309 hostages and have killed 7 victims. We read they currently have 26 vessels hijacked and the number of hostages under their custody is over 540

we found ourselves in the maldives with this information and such a vast area of dangerous ocean ahead of us. We were too late in the season to change our route and go through south africa so we decided to sail north as we had planned through the red sea and mediterranean but we decided we just could not be spotted by pirates. So we thought the best strategy was to be invisible to them. We figured that if we were seen we might be a target and could never live with the thought of having risked our lives just because we decided to go sailing… . being invisible means sailing through a route we though was safer and away from the reported attacks, radio silence to avoid being heard and picked up by near by vessels, having low or no lights at all at night, and even no sails up during the day. This was very challenging though and it is easier said than done, but we did try to do as much as possible to be under radar for the most part of this journey.

with the decision made, we started plotting all the attacks and we literally saw the map screen being filled up with dots (black for january attacks and red for february. Note this chart does not even include the march attacks which we plotted on the GPS and not on the computer) with no real safe gap for us to sail through… the only possible route was to sail north parallel to the indian coast up to pakistan and from there border the coasts of oman and yemen until arriving in the red sea (the route we did is in green).

this sounds a whole lot easier than what it actually was…. Sailing north meant going against the prevailing winds at terribly slow progress while forcing the engine, spending too much on diesel and sailing even more time and miles but never in the right direction. In addition india was never in our sailing plans. the entire new route changed from an originally planned 1000 miles to almost 3000. all our tentative dates were significantly pushed back, but not so much that we missed a reasonable weather window for the red sea and later for the atlantic crossing.. so this meant more days at sea with harsh wind conditions and fewer ports to rest.

to top this not so great prospect route our convoy of originally 30 boats disintegrated to only a few until we actually sailed with only one other boat all through the coast of india…. this was a very challenging experience. We are simply not used to sailing with other boats.

during our entire crossing through pirate waters we heard a total of five distress calls on the VHF radio; we sailed an estimate of 3300 nautical miles; we were visited by one helicopter off the coast of pakistan, one jetfighter off the coast of iran and one coastguard plane off the coast of india.

we never saw a military vessel from the coalition forces at sea. we did see a few of them in the port in oman. but even if we had seen one while sailing, we were warned in advance that they cannot do much to potect or defend us. they are there to help big ships and tell us that if we do sail these waters we are on our own. perhaps that is why the indian coastguard told us they admired our courage to sail these "pirate infested waters on our little boat"(actual words used by one officer).

despite the warnings these coallition forces did provide useful information to us throughout the journey of the positions of the pirate attacks which we plotted daily. on this same frequency we reported back to them our GPS positions. i am still not sure why, but it somehow gave a false sense of security to know that some authority knew were we where...

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