Our plans to sail through a no-go pirate area

Fishing boats, commercial ships, cruising yachts and tourists have been kidnapped and killed for years by Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group operating out of Sulu province, Philippines. The group has stretched its tentacles as far as east Sabah on the island of Borneo which has become known as a no-go area for many sailors.

Orangutan family

The sad part about this is that the region is also home to some of the most beautiful places in Malaysia: world-renowned dive sites, pristine rainforest and unique wildlife. Until recently, we believed we would never be able to take SY Esper to the area, at best we would make our way overland if we had time.

But this all changed when we were invited by the organisers of the Sail Malaysia Passage to the East Rally 2020  to join them in the last leg of the passage. The rally begins early April in Langkawi and finishes at Tawau at the end of August. We have agreed to film from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau and will be covering it here in the blog and on our YouTube channel.

Now, we’re not big on rallies, in fact the only time we took part in a rally (of sorts) was in 2010 when we joined a motley group of sailboats from Turkey to India through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden at the height of piracy. At that point all the advice from MSCHOA (Maritime Security Centre- Horn of Africa) was NOT to go. We had no military escort and it was bloody scary. “Never again,” we said.

But this is different.

Malaysia has zero tolerance on kidnapping which is why ESSCOM (Eastern Sabah Security Command) is taking the lead throughout the passage from Kudat to Tawau. They will escort us for the entire period. Now that is commitment! Knowing this has put our worries completely at ease.

ESSCOM at work

There is a small price to pay for notoriously independent cruisers (we’re all skippers and don’t like taking orders!) because we are required to register and sign an agreement saying we will adhere to ESSCOM’s guidance in eastern Sabah.

In the past there have been rogue yachts who wandered off with total disregard of ESSCOM’s guidelines. This causes extra work and potential danger, so the instructions are clear, “If you think you are likely to be the next ‘wanderer’ then eastern Sabah and this rally is not for you.”

Pygmy elephants

For the rest of us who are grateful to follow instructions from the military, there will be the anxiety-free opportunity to see places like this:

Proboscis monkey

Yes, our current plans are still to sail to the Philippines, but we will be steering well clear of the danger area in the Sulu Sea. And we will be back in Kota Kinabalu in time for the full ESSCOM briefing in July before we join the rally towards Tuwau.

To find out more and sign up to join us, click here

We can’t wait to get started on this fantastic adventure!

Peace and fair winds!

Liz, Jamie and Millie xxx


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10 thoughts on “Our plans to sail through a no-go pirate area”

  1. once again yr travels necessitated that I whip out the maps and research the area ! Pretty fabulous diving/snorkeling underwater vids and bird/animal /island above water vids to come to us via you two, but wow am I feeling intimidated by the safety factor .

    1. We were talking about the diving/snorkelling last night, it’s supposed to be superb there. I’m also excited about encountering some of the unique animals in this part of the world. Pygmy elephants!!!

    1. I think there are even more places than Africa and SE Asia. Venezuela had a bad reputation for a while and now there are places in Panama where sailboats have been robbed and crew hurt. It pays to keep a careful eye on the situation as you travel, it’s a fluid situation. We’ll be taking loads of footage and images and covering the whole trip on YouTube. Cheers!

    1. That’s just how we feel. Although we could do it on our own, we (I!) would be too anxious to enjoy it. This way we get to see this part of the world at a leisurely pace in the knowledge that Sabah security is doing all it can to protect us. I’m hoping we’ll also make some new friends on the rally. Cheers! x

  2. Catherine Hammond

    If you have time between repairs, the Phillipines and getting ready for the rally, try to do some land travel from KK to inland Sabah. It sounds really fascinating and interesting, with not many tourists. We just did a one day drive to Mt Kinabalu and Rawau, but there is much more.

    1. Oh we want to so much! At the moment we can’t leave Millie because of the meds regimen, but once that’s finished we’ll be able to get about. We did manage to visit Mulu Park when we were in Miri and it was so fantastic we want to go back again! Cheers. x

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