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Maldives to the Red Sea: Travelling solo through the HRA (High Risk Area)

By SV Rogue Brit — last modified Mar 27, 2015 01:26 PM
The SV ROGUE BRIT travelled as a single sailboat from Male' in the Maldives to Platform 18N040E in the Red Sea between March 6th and March 20th, 2015. Like everyone else, the owners of the ROGUE BRIT, Trev & Kristy, did not know what to expect.

Published: 2015-03-25 00:00:00
Topics: Piracy & Security , Red Sea , Indian Ocean
Countries: Yemen , Egypt , Israel , Maldives , Somalia , Sri Lanka , Sudan

One thing became clear pretty quickly. The piracy situation since 2012 has changed remarkably.  Back then, the unequal contest was between armed pirates and unarmed sailors.  Now, every ship is armed and the unequal contest is the other way around, between hesitating Somali fishermen/pirates and trained, armed ex-soldiers.  But even though the risk of an attack has lessened considerably, of the 20,000 ships transiting the Red Sea in the past 18 months, one was attacked, and others encountered suspicious vessels that might have become pirates if the opportunity arose.  So piracy concerns are still valid today, and a security force industry has come into existence in a very short time and appears to be well set up for the long term.

Gushing Streams of Information - What to do?

We sucked up information from all sources, listened to everyone, read everything and found ourselves treading water in a huge "information" pool.  With much of the information correct for 2012, but wrong for 2015, and even more information developed by the uninformed, or by people with a special agenda.  We flirted with the idea of travelling alone or with others in a convoy, travelling unarmed or using guards and weapons, picking up guards and weapons in either Muscat in Oman, or Male' in the Maldives.  We even considered taking an extra 12 months and travelling to the Mediterranean via Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro, or perhaps Cape Town and then north along the west coast of Africa.

Possibilities

The convoy idea died while still in Phuket when it became clear that the convoy leader was dead set on travelling via Muscat (Trev had previously worked in Muscat negotiating contracts, and knew only too well how the quoted prices would change once we were in Muscat and committed - he wanted no part of that). Muscat happens to be the other side of the greater HRA, so most of the time, one is unarmed.  Finally, the quoted price tag of $26K had no appeal.

The South African Route idea died when it became clear that it would not take just an extra 12 months, but a whole 24 months via that route to reach the Mediterranean.  Deep down, we really wanted to visit the Med now, so ultimately, there was no choice.

Decisions Reached

We followed with great interest the trailblazing trip from Male' to the Red Sea by friends Jason and Piers SV Tamarisk.  In a convoy of two boats they found it extremely difficult to match speeds with the other boat.  This encouraged us to make the trip alone, but with more weapons and guards.  We wanted two armed guards and an additional gun for Trev. The security company was concerned that a solo 14 meter (46 feet) sailboat with a sugar scoop rear was particularly vulnerable to being boarded, and recommended four armed guards and the installation of coils of razor wire around the entire vessel perimeter.  We compromised and settled on three security guards, three semi-automatic rifles, a shotgun and no razor wire.

As negotiated, within the lump sum price, we would be allowed to take nineteen days to make the trip.  Each additional day would involve an additional charge of $600.  We could not possibly burn $600 worth of diesel a day if running late, but more urgently, every extra day taken was a day when pirates could attack, so it was a "no brainer" to decide to maximize the amount of diesel on board.

Security Company

We used the security firm of Advan Fort to provide guards and guns for the 2,300 mile trip from Male' to platform18N040E.  As mentioned above, we originally wanted two security guards and three semi-automatic rifles (one for Trev), but followed Advan Fort's recommendation for an additional guard, and a fourth weapon, a shotgun for Trev.

A minor issue occurred when they inadvertently sent the security guards to Male' several days before we had even signed the contract.  But it all got resolved, and we left Male' on good terms.

Our armed guards were well trained ex-soldiers from the Croatian and Nepali armies.  The team leader "Paky" was a gregarious, shaved headed, Croatian, ex-Special Forces sniper who had also served for three years on an anti-terrorist task force.  "Oli" was an ex-NCO in an infantry Battalion from Katmandu in Nepal with 14-1/2 years of experience.  He had a BA in Political science, was very eager to practice his English, and we were glad to help.  "Dev" also was an ex-NCO from an infantry Battalion in Nepal with 13-1/2 years of experience. He was the quiet one.  Our time with them was cordial, and we found them to be undemanding.  Their common-sense approach to keeping us safe was much appreciated.

Convoy Once Again?

We were surprised to find that the three boat convoy that we had backed out of in Phuket had not headed out for Muscat after all.  That plan had been scrapped and they were now following in SV Tamarisk's footsteps - as were we (Phuket, Male', Platform18N040E then Port Suakin).  The presence in Male' of these friends from Phuket was most welcome.  They offered us the opportunity to rejoin the convoy, and we might have done so, since we had not yet signed a contract with Advan Fort.  But it was at this point that we discovered that Advan Fort had already sent guards for us to use.  They were staying in a nearby hotel and had been here for days.

Legally, our position was unassailable, we had signed nothing, and agreed to nothing.  We had no contract.  But people would have been hurt if we had insisted on our right to go with the convoy.  Advan Fort, Assad, Rasheed and the guards would all have suffered a loss.  So we reluctantly said goodbye to our friends as they left two days before us, and continued with our solo plan.

Real Sea Hawks of the Maldives

This is the company name of our agent, Assad who is based in Uligan to the north, and his local rep Rasheed (m.rasheed@realseahawksmaldives.com) based in Male'.  Both were great to work with.  We would have no hesitation in recommending them to others.  Assad was very patient with our many questions.  His best response is quoted here.  We asked what would happen if one of the proposed security guards were to get sick.  He jokingly responded that we were asking the wrong question.  A better question would have been to ask what we should do with the stack of corpses that would no doubt result from the many gun battles!

Rasheed and his men were extremely friendly and efficient, but were a little lost when dealing with us since we had no cell phone.  Normally everything they handle involves a cell phone.  So they just "got on" with everything and notified us by email if they could.   A case in point was that they knew that we needed a lot of diesel fuel.  Nothing was arranged, but at 9:00pm one night, a fuel barge showed up and provided 1,400 litres of diesel - no mess, no fuss - a nice surprise!

Clearing out of Male' in the Maldives

We found the process mysterious since it was dominated by the need for the weapons to be processed from the local armoury, and delivered to the boat by the Ministry of Defence.  We were seeking to start the trip with the same-day arrival on the boat of the guards, guns and clearance documents.  This would become day one of the nineteen day trip beyond which we would owe the security company for extra days.

On the Thursday at 3 pm, we were inspected by the port health officer who again checked our list of medications, the number of pills remaining in each bottle and pronounced that everything was OK.  On the Friday at lunch time, we received three hungry guards.  This gave us something to do while waiting for the guns.  These men had endured fish curry or chicken curry for every meal in the past eight days.  They were ready for and needed real food to satisfy three empty stomachs.

The team leader used our second cabin.  The other two guards were forced to "hot-bunk" the bed formed when you lower the salon table into the surrounding cushions - comfortable but definitely not private.

The guns were delivered by the Coastguard on Friday at about 5:00 pm, checked, tallied and signed for.  This was a Sabbath day and Rasheed had persuaded them to make an unusual delivery on their normal day off.    We did notice that there was one individual - the immigration officer that originally cleared us in, and later appeared as a mechanic to repair our starter motor was reincarnated yet again - this time as a Coast Guard official.

Adding diesel capacity for the 2,441 mile trip

Of course we would use the sails to the maximum extent possible, but we planned as though we needed to motor all the way with no reliance on the wind at all.  To make the 2,441 miles trip from Male' in the Maldives to Port Suakin in the Sudan, the SV ROGUE BRIT pessimistically, would need to leave Male' with 462 gallons of diesel on board.  The main tank holds 100 gallons, and the additional 362 gallons would weigh 2,600 pounds.  This would be too huge a quantity to place in jerry jugs around the deck perimeter.  Besides, this would be a huge weight up on deck which might destabilize the boat in heavy seas.

We hated the thought that we'd be sighting massed diesel storage cans everywhere and sought at all costs to avoid diesel odours in the living area when the diesel was being transferred around the boat.  We settled on adding seven "modules of diesel", each containing 50 gallons or more, with all except two placed at or below the water level (the modules were four diesel "coffee tables", two 55 gallon drums and one set of 12 - 20 litre jerry jugs).  Below decks in the living space we constructed four wooden coffee tables of varnished plywood held together with tie down tapes - at least, they looked a little like coffee tables.  Each coffee table held three 60 litre plastic containers of diesel.  We thought this would make the living area too cramped, but we have since learned to like them and will keep them after the Red Sea trip.  In the cockpit we added two 55 gallon drums lashed into place.  In the back lazarettes we already had 12 - 20 litre jerry jugs.  The total available capacity was thus more than 462 gallons, but we held to that quantity as fuel in the Maldives is not cheap at $1.10 per litre.

To transfer the diesel into the main tank, we built a half-inch diameter delivery system with a small 12 volt fuel pump that pumps 3 gallons a minute directly into the main tank.  This allows transfers to be made even when at full throttle in heavy seas.  The whole system stores neatly below deck in the second cabin.

Saturday March 7th - Gunfire

The guards practiced with the semi-automatic rifles until satisfied that everything was in order.  Long before that, Trev & Kristy were ready to take the life raft and go.  There was nowhere on a 14 meter sailboat that one can go to get away from the noise of gunfire.

Sunday March 8th - Alternator Failure

Two days out, our alternator failed.  All future charging of the batteries would need to be done using the generator.  We thought that this merely represented an inconvenience as the generator only uses about half as much fuel as the main engine, it would represent only a minor increase in fuel usage.  But the additional diesel usage mounted up.

Note to self: Next time we fill our diesel tanks in Male' - FILL TO THE MAXIMUM.

Five days Out - Disposing of the spent diesel drums at sea

The two 55 gallon drums lashed in place in the cockpit were emptied first, we were tired of clambering over the lashing ropes, and could not wait to get rid of them.  After five days at sea, they were empty.  We drilled them full of holes and sunk them in 12,000 feet of water.  It was quite a relief to re-install the cockpit table for an air of civility.  No more eating off our laps!

March 12th - Pirate incident?

We met up with a supertanker that thought WE were pirates.  It turned on its high pressure hoses, ala' the movie Captain Phillips, and turned sharply away from us.  How about that?  Perhaps they remembered that yachts were the original pirate ships.   Eons ago, yachts were effectively used as pirate ships against the old square-riggers since they could sail upwind and square riggers could not.  The word "Yacht" comes from the German word "wolf" - literally "Wolf-boats."

Saturday March 14th - The coast of Somalia

We passed the Yemeni Island of Suqutra during the night and were sailing south west into the entrance to the Gulf of Aden - Somalia forms the south shore all the way along.  We had about 620 miles to go to reach Djibouti, but sailed straight past on our way to the Red Sea.  The sea was like glass and there was no wind.

We had two great days of sunny weather. The music was blasting, fishing poles were out, and we were sunbathing on deck while we kept a lookout for pirates. We could hear the big container ships telling each other to watch out for a small boat in the area without AIS. They probably meant us. But we didn't want to break radio silence.  We did see several small fishing boats but our guards held up their guns and they went away. The shipping channel was ahead, and we crossed it the following evening.  From there on, we were sailing in the shipping channel on the Yemeni or northern side.

We were trying to maintain a blackout at night with no navigation lights. But at night there was so much bio-luminescence the boat was lit up naturally. It looked like there was an underwater turquoise light shining from below. There was a long blue luminescent ribbon trailing the boat for about 100 feet and in the white frothy wake there were hundreds of diamond lights twinkling. Fish made streaks of light next to the ship and dolphins jumping added splashes of colour. It was beautiful, magical, but it sure did not help our cloak of invisibility. We took turns sitting on the back of the boat in the sugar scoop with our legs dangling in the pristine blue water.

We found it impossible to use the Red Sea relay station of SAILMAIL. It has never answered. By comparison, the Brunei relay station at almost 4,000 miles always manages some response.  Later, SAILMAIL administration told us that the Red Sea relay station had been shut down permanently a year ago during the Egyptian political unrest - who knew?   We also couldn't get Gmail until we had internet when tucked up in a nice berth in Port Said, Egypt, two weeks later.

Sunday March 15th - The Cavalry Arrives

In the Gulf of Aden, we reached the main shipping channel where an international force of warships do patrol duty.  The first sign of this was when a helicopter of the Japanese navy started circling overhead and asked to know our vessel name, nationality, port of registration, and the nationality and number of people on board. Origato!   From then on, we saw distant naval patrol boats either escorting convoys or on single boat patrols.  A truly welcome sight.  Hourly over the radio, we heard a Korean Navy warship requesting that we report any suspicious activity and to contact them if we needed assistance.  Our armed guards relaxed and started working on their tans.

At 1:00 pm, the Japanese Navy passed a message that our friends were behind us.  This would be the convoy members that we saw in Male' - Couldn't be too far behind - What fun!

March 17th - Arrival in Red Sea

When we arrived at the entrance to the Red Sea there was a storm raging immediately inside the narrow Bab Al Mendeb strait. Our choice was to either wait it out in the “pirately” Gulf of Aden or head into 40 knots of winds and 10 feet waves. We chose the storm.

We sailed with the special storm main sail and our staysail to be able to control the boat.  But the wind got so frantic that the staysail got torn, and bits twisted around others so we could not move it from our safe position back in  the cockpit.  Trev crawled to the bow in the 40 knots wind, lashed himself to the deck and went to work getting things freed.  The boat was rocking violently and each waves had a vertical face as it crested.  This face hit the side of the hull like a two by four smacking a garage door.   We enjoyed two days of this intense pounding until the storm abated.  Welcome to Africa!

March 18th - No Platform at 18N040E

We made the journey across the Indian Ocean in spectacular time and arrived much earlier than planned at our rendezvous position. We passed the convoy that had started out two days before us and they were now several days trailing behind.

But oh horror, the platform we were heading for to disembark our weapons and guards (actually a fancy name for a ship that stays for months on end in one location) had left to be resupplied.  We were told that it would return to its normal location on March 20th (two days hence).  So we had nowhere to go until it returned.

March 19th - Waiting Around

While waiting around, we made an exchange with another boat that was also waiting. We agreed to take the three armed guards of a huge general cargo ship in exchange for 60 gallons of diesel - a good trade as we were getting low.  We met up with the MV Wisdom in heavy fog. Trev climbed up the 40 feet high vertical side on a rope ladder, and was led through many coils of pirate frustrating razor wire to meet the captain up on the bridge.  After a nice chat, we ferried discarded soap containers full of diesel, water cooler bottles full of diesel, jerry jugs full of diesel, weapons and guards via dinghy in several trips.  But the seamen on the Wisdom were not very good at measuring diesel and we ended up with over 100 gallons of free diesel!

It turned out that all six guards worked together regularly.  There was no difficulty with the cramped quarters.  A lot of laughter and chatter ensued.  Also, the group of six could really eat.  We were stripped bare by the time they left.

March 20th - Platform 1940N03850E

At that point, we were informed that the Sea Lion would not be returning to 18N040E so we headed for its new location at 1940N03850E for debarkation of the six guards and weapons.  We rendezvoused with the platform at about 11 pm.  Lack of English was a problem.  The voice on the Sea Lion kept asking if we wanted a cargo net or a crane.  The correct answer was "Neither."  They sent out a Zodiac which in 15 knots of wind and six-feet seas took off first the weapons and luggage, and then came back for the guards.

March 21st - Port Suakin

We arrived at about 2:00 pm simultaneously with the convoy that we had last seen in Male'.  On shore we met our agent Mohamed Abubaker (mohamedabubaker49@yahoo.com).  A tall distinguished man in white robes.  He was a welcome sight and came on board with the provisions we had ordered - Sudanese bread, eggs, fruit, milk and vegetables.  We wolfed down the delicious, still warm bread and mangoes to start and then went through the business of clearing in.  He arranged for a mechanic to repair our alternator (final charge $30) and for a welder to repair one of our brackets (final charge $5) agreed to provide 820 litres of diesel (70 cents a litre), 6 gallons of gasoline, shore passes, a cruising permit and a Sudanese flag.

Costs

Diesel purchased in Male' cost $1,510
Negotiated price from Advan Fort for 4 guns & 3 guards $17,500
Total charge for everything in Port Suakin was $930.

Trev & Kristy
SV Rogue Brit

Editor's Note: MSCHOA strongly encourages yachts intending on transiting the HRA to register in advance (with the Yacht Passage Advice Form) and to report daily during the passage. See Piracy for more details.

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Frans Prijkel
Frans Prijkel says:
Mar 26, 2015 09:58 PM

I sailed around the world mainly single handed between 2000 and 2005 on sailboat Triton. In 2005 I sailed from the Maldives to Oman taking a northerly route. In Oman I decided to go solo right in the shipping lanes to the entrance of the Red Sea, tiring being singlehanded,but quite save, vessels all around ....Actually I was asked to join a convoy in which sailboats Gandalf and Mahdi reported being atacked close inshore. I declined, I dont believe in convoys, they dont stay together.
I dont carry arms onboard.
The voyage reported doesnot make sense to me:
1. ok, so you have armed guards with machine guns, barbed wire, etc. I just takes one pirate boat equipped with an anti-aircraft machine gun to blow you out of the water and they can do that being out of range of your machine guns.
2. If you feel it is to risky, a viable alternative is putting your boat on a cargo vessel or specialized pleasure boat carrier, as friends of my did recently from Thailand to Turkey
As far as I am concerned, this is overkill and certainly not pleasure sailing....

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