Pirate Alley. Two words that strike fear into the armchair sailor, apprehension into those who actually sail it, and have the effect of filling my pants out of shear fear when that phrase is uttered. In one podcast I asked a number of rally participants whether they were worried about piracy and none of them admitted that they were. Liars! Push them further and you’ll have them admitting that ‘of course we are worried about the piracy situation, that’s why we are on the rally’.
Let us not forget why we were all on this rally: security, and do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Still, put that aside, what other considerations go through the mind of a yottie preparing for a trip through these waters?
There were another two words that were at the forefront of our minds: Lynn Rival. This was the boat that was captured back in November with Paul and Rachel Chandler on board. They have been held captive in Somalia since then. That incident was a very real reminder of the danger yotties put themselves in when undertaking a passage through these waters. I was criticised by many an arm-chair sailor in sailing forums who made statements like “don’t expect sympathy from us when you get caught”, or even worse, “give my regards to the Chandlers”. Nice.
Unbeknown to many of these critics, however, was the fact that almost every single piracy attack has happened to a commercial vessel, hence the military presence of coalition warships. Their patrol in the originally recognised boundries of Pirate Alley has meant that its boundaries, i.e. from Aden to Salalah, had expanded. Piracy attacks were being reported further into the Arabian Sea and out into the Indian Ocean. Throughout our journey up the Yemeni and Omani coast we were constantly aware of regular attacks, sometimes up to four each day. Remember Liz and I overheard one such attack on the VHF so this wasn’t something that happened elsewhere in another world. It was all around us.
Imagine being one of these pirates: I have read they need take part in only five attacks. The ransom received from these will set him up for life, so the risk of being at sea for months is negligible compared to the long-term gain. According to the British Navy many pirates leave Somalia and are never seen again (secretly many a sailor hopes the Chinese and Russian warships are blowing the pirates out the water!). Pirates are after the big ships but if they are unsuccessful they’ll begin to run out of supplies and will therefore have no hesitation in taking on a sail boat or fishing boat in order to replenish their stocks of food and water. It has been known for the pirates to kill fishermen and sink their boats after doing this.
Standing: Graham (Eeyore), Gibson (Mistral), Tony (Full Flight), Jamie (Esper), Nadeesh (Mistral), Jean Claude (Anthea), Nigel (Eeyore), Armin (Slamat), Morris (Cobble), Roger (Storm Dodger), Robbie (Rhumb Do), Jordon (Storm Dodger), Anthony (Divanty), Cillian (Cobble), Marco (Easy and Free), Terry (Roam II). Seated at the front: Dan (Still Dreaming), Michel (Shelter)
The final thing to put in context of sailing Pirate Alley was the difficulty of organising 15 boats, skippered by 15 mavericks, to motor in close proximity for an extended period of time. We had 650 miles of this arduous task ahead of us, within the context of the above-mentioned scenario, so how would we cope? Further strain was put on the rally when, after arriving in Salalah, we were told we would have to continue another 350 miles in convoy because of the extended piracy activity. If I told you that it was the hardest thing I have ever undertaken, that might put it in some kind of perspective.
Mary (Still Dreaming), Pilar (hidden, Shelter), Marlene (Anthea), Pat (Full Flight), Debs (Eeyore), Astrid (Storm Dodger), Fiona (Roam II), Div (Divanty), Liz (Esper), Leah (Storm Dodger), Francesca (Easy and Free), Monica (Slamat)
So why do it? Because if we believed everything we read in the papers, was intimidated into not undertaking something because of the risk, or was not realistic about the advantages of sailing in a convoy, we’d never have left home. Sometimes risks have to be taken. In reality very few sail boats are attacked by pirates and we decreased our chances of being one of them by sailing together with the ‘strength in numbers’ advantage a convoy offered.
Yet despite all this, the next 1,000 miles were the hardest thing Liz and I had ever undertaken. We are sure that, if you got an honest answer from the other rally participants, they too would agree that Pirate Alley was a real test of both seamanship and character. See the next post to understand why…