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SE Asia to the Med in Convoy through the Gulf of Aden

By s/v Equanimity — last modified May 22, 2015 03:21 PM
We just completed a long trip from Male, Maldives to Port Suakin, Sudan in a 3-boat convoy. This is not a casual trip and needs to be taken seriously, which of course is not for everyone. But if you want to get to the Med from SE Asia on your own bottom, this is the way to go.

Published: 2015-04-16 23:00:00
Topics: Indian Ocean , Piracy & Security , Red Sea
Countries: Yemen , Maldives , Somalia , Sudan , Thailand

Head to the Med thru the Red 2015

We just completed a long trip from Male, Maldives to Port Suakin, Sudan. Wow, what a trip, our second longest ever, 2507nm, 17days 2hrs 22mins 22secs (but who’s counting), average 6.11 knots, anchor up to anchor down. We had most all conditions you’d ever get, calm flat seas, beating into 15-20, 35-45 gale (behind us) for a night and day in Bab El-Mandeb, etc. And we did this with 3 boats in ‘convoy’ trying very hard to stay within ½ mile of each other, an enormous challenge for so long a trip and boats that weren’t very well matched.

We had a motor vessel and two sailing vessels with different characteristics and crew sailing preferences. But the crew’s attitudes were all great and we were committed to making it work, so we did what was needed to stick closely together, particularly in the Gulf of Aden.

Planning

After spending a year trying to find a way to the Med from SE Asia without going around S. Africa or the expense and unrewarding way of shipping the boat (which doesn’t count towards a circumnavigation!) to Turkey, we came upon the idea of hiring armed guards similar to what all commercial shipping does now in the HRA (high risk area). That was an intense year of research and planning as we had no idea how it would work, who we’d get to accompany us, what the costs would be or if we could get enough interest from other boats to join us. No security contractor to our knowledge had done small yachts before, only commercial ships and a few super yachts (also an occasional tug and fishing fleet). And certainly not in a convoy situation where they’d have to split their team across all the boats so no boat was unguarded.

I finally found a website called SAMI, the maritime security contractors association which listed all its members’ details. After a bazillion emails I was finally beginning to ask the right questions and managed to get a short list of interested operators for final consideration. One contractor came pay us a visit in Phuket and discuss the whole operation. He was keen to try this but also wanted to check us out to see if it would work for them. We would all be in the same boat so to speak and our lives would depend on each other.

All the reports of piracy these past few years and the coalition forces still saying that “it’s still too dangerous for yachts” has been creating heaps of fear to head that way. But the contractors visit answered so many questions, we all got to see each other and begin to understand that this was absolutely the right approach and we decided to hire them. So we began to embark on a plan having had our fears and apprehensions taken down a huge notch knowing our contractor had enough experience to go for it. At least the pirate issue faded into the background, we got very enthusiastic about the trip and began to focus on preparation and a ‘plan’.

The Security Team

Our security team were all good lads, Royal Marine commandos, expert snipers, medics, all team leaders, etc., handpicked by our team lead as he knew them quite well. Their CV’s are extensive. But just as important we felt they would fit in well as crew aboard our yachts living together in close quarters for such a long trip. The gut feel was correct as they easily fit in with us and helped in so many ways we hadn’t thought of. They are also easy going, team players with a good positive attitude which makes all the difference in the world. The stereo-type of big yahoo dudes with guns wanting to shoot up stuff just isn’t true, at least with our team.

So, how does it all work?

Getting the weapons in Male

Picking up the guys is easy, they just get added as crew aboard the yachts, though they do come with a fair amount of ‘kit’ (UHF radios, night vision, body armour, bino’s, sat phones, etc.). But the weapons are a whole other story. They can only be embarked/disembarked at certain places and there are lots of people involved. The only reasonable places to pick the weapons up at present are Fujairah, UAE (offshore platform), Muscat, Oman, Galle, Sri Lanka or Male, Maldives as these places have armouries just for this purpose. Disembarking the weapons is on platforms (floating armouries) in the Red Sea, at 17N, 18N, 19N, etc. Each operator has weapons (and possibly guards) at one or another armoury, so it depends on who you use. Some guys spend months going back and forth between the armouries on ships heading in opposite directions. If you use these operators, you never know who you will get depending on logistics and who is available on the day you show up. There are lots of people involved; agents, ministry of defence, transporting weapons from armoury to boat, weapons being available, guys showing up when they say, flights, etc. Many things can go wrong and they do, so planning ahead and paying attention to details is essential.

We had a drama in Male when the agent (Rasheed of Realseahawks) the day before we were to leave, said we had to pay the years’ worth of armoury storage costs for the weapons we were meant to hire as the owner hadn’t paid them. The Ministry of Defence wasn’t going to release them until the bill was paid and the owner (Advanfort) refused to pay it, basically backing us into a corner giving us little choice. This added $11,000 to the bill. After much yelling, phone calls and emails we finally found another much more reputable agent (Abdul of Antrac) and weapons owner to deal with. This delayed our trip for 3 days with us all sitting around anxiously waiting for this to get sorted. In hindsight, the security contractor should have brought his own weapons in from Galle instead of trying to hire them locally. One of many lessons learned, but we knew all along this was a prototype trip and we’d have to iron the bugs out along the way.

If you go to Male, Rasheed of Real Sea Hawks should be avoided. He never did what he said he would, was full of excuses and always late. However, I’d like to qualify that Assad in Uligan (who also works for Real Sea Hawks) was great. A much better agent in Male is Abdul Hannan at Antrac. He is extremely reliable, has been in the business many years with all the right connections and will keep you sorted.

Costs

The costs can vary dramatically. If you use guys that are already on the platforms, you don’t have to pay to fly them in, but you can’t choose who you get. There are agent fees, weapons transport fees, platform fees, etc., and the guys get paid on a daily basis, generally a standby rate and an operational rate. Standby rates are from the time they leave home until you are underway and when they are “on duty”, the operational rate applies. There’s no standby rate for the guys you get off the platforms. The pay rates can vary widely too depending on the nationality of the guards. In this part of the world, you can get UK, Pilipino, Indian or Nepalese Ghurkhas, South African, or eastern European nations, which is listed generally in the order of preference but also expense. They can all be highly qualified but are paid based on what they’d get in their home countries. Speaking English really well was important to us, as was diet and a common sense of culture and life experiences as we are in close personal contact on a long demanding trip, so we used all UK, team lead guys, the most expensive option.

The Convoy and SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures)

We worked on many ideas over the last year about what would work, originally looking for 5 to 10 boats to join. Eventually, we worked out that a 3-boat convoy was ideal. 3 are enough to divide the costs to acceptable levels and not too much to make traveling tightly together too complicated. 2 or 4 could work too.

Typically, the guards, weapons and kit come as a 3 or 4 person standard teams where they can stand vigilant watch and get enough rest. This standard team can be applied to a small convoy of yachts as long as you stick closely together. We worked out that staying within 0.3nm max during the day and 0.5nm at night or rough weather was ideal, but it was often difficult and we would grow a mile apart at times.

GOA_Convoy FormationsWhat’s necessary is to get into a specific formation within 2-3 minutes when a “code yellow” is called, meaning a “suspicious vessel” has been sighted. Our contractor provided an identification chart showing what each of the local vessels (Dhows) looked like and where they normally operated to help identify if one looked “suspicious”.

Our normal routine travel formation was an “offset-V”.

When a code yellow is called we would get into one of two formations; in-line or abreast, depending on where the suspicious vessel was sighted. If from ahead or the sides or we needed to divert around a dodgy looking vessel we’d form a line, like ships-of-the-line.

If the suspicious vessel was coming from the rear, we’d form abreast.

The normal travel pattern allowed us to get into either defensive position quickly but allowed for much easier and safer traveling. It’s important to drill on this early on so everyone knows what to do and how long it takes when the time comes. The line-up defensive position is important so each guard on each boat has clear line-of-sight to the target without causing “friendly-fire” situations. It’s also important never to let any vessel get in-between you, so you must travel closely together at all times or get there fast. This is where having closely matched boats and sailing behaviours of the crew is vital or it will be very difficult.

You also need to work well together as a team. If one boat has a problem, you all have a problem. If one wants to go faster and another slower, you’ll have to compromise. You each need to own each other’s problems and be proactive to find solutions.

We had a security team leader and a convoy leader, which are typically on the same boat. When a code yellow is called, everyone is woken up and a defensive line is formed. If the threat is identified as real, a code red is called and weapons are readied, well before 500 metres closing. If they continue to approach at high speed, warning shots are fired. There are strict rules to the use of force (RUF), but no one is allowed to come within 200 metres of our vessels. It’s become quite common to simply display our weapons and that we are not at all vulnerable and they will go away. Most times warning shots are not even needed.

Pirates these days are using a “soft approach” to ‘test the waters’ so to speak. The last couple of years all ships are carrying armed guards in the HRA which have made all the difference to defeat piracy. The international coalition forces just can’t cover all ships at one time. They are too big, slow and spread out to respond to smaller pirate threats effectively.

The pirates simple can’t win against highly trained professionals with better weapons and they know it. Even if they carry an RPG (rocket propelled grenade), it’s useless against a small target at 200 metres.  A yacht may seem more vulnerable at first until they see the weapons and/or hear the warning shots, there’s no way they will get close enough to even consider boarding. The defensive line-up formations also provide a very scary and powerful force to deter any attempts at piracy. This is well a proven technique.

Yachts and Equipment

Your yachts need to be in excellent condition before you leave. If you break down, that affects everyone. No boat gets left behind. If necessary you’ll need to tow, which is a serious proposition and endangers everyone. If you need to stop to change oil or regular maintenance, then everyone needs to stop. We lucked out with very flat weather in the Arabian Sea one day so we stopped to transfer fuel. The motor vessel carried extra fuel for the two yachts which was much appreciated as we didn’t have much wind the first few days. At the same time, one boat changed oil and we helped another boat sort it’s autopilot problem so they didn’t have to hand steer anymore.

Don’t underestimate the fuel you’ll use. Slowing down with light winds isn’t a good idea as you need to keep moving, particularly in the GOA, plus you are paying daily rates for your security. A half a knot slower than you expect is a whole day extra of transit.

We used AIS very effectively to keep the convoy together. I’d say it is a must to have a transmitting unit, not just a receiver. Class-B systems are low power and can’t be seen more than 7 miles on a good day, which is pretty much the visible range anyway. What it does is allow everyone to accurately see each other’s position at all times and helps you to adjust your speed and range from each other. In addition, approaching ships will be able to see you are not a dhow (or pirate) and can contact you for passing agreement.

Radar was essential as well for night operations. You can’t see anything, particularly on moonless nights. Pirates don’t attack at night, at least that’s the history. It’s better to be able to see as much as possible regardless of what history says. They are more likely to attack at first light so you need to bring the convoy tightly together before first light. Night vision can be helpful if you do see a questionable radar target. The smaller dhows can be hard to see, especially if there is much texture (> 1 metre waves) to the water.

Each boat should have a reasonable autopilot to hold the course accurately. Wandering boats using sloppy vanes or hand steering makes it even harder to hold position. We were the lead boat and used ‘route tracking’ between waypoints to hold a very steady course for the other two to follow.

That part was relatively easy for everyone. But the speed (fore-aft spread) was the hard part as the boats weren’t that well matched. For example, when close reaching during a gust, the motor vessel would slow down but the yachts would shoot ahead. At one point, I didn’t want to reduce sail in order to keep the boat from rolling terribly, so I had to drag warps to slow down as we were the fastest boat under sail. We finally worked out after many days of growing frustration that we would nominate one boat to be the “Pace” boat, which would change depending on the conditions since we got to know how each boat (and crew) performed in different conditions. That helped immensely to settle down misunderstandings and unspoken expectations.

Towards the end of the trip we pretty well worked it out without having to be on the radio all the time to adjust speed and position. We also worked out a simple code system for changing waypoints over the open VHF. We never put waypoints into an email and insisted on keeping this data absolutely confidential. We did also use sat phones to call home and send daily situation reports to the UKMTO as well as get weather reports. The security team came with their own UHF radios and we intended to have a set for the skippers of each boat, but it didn’t work out so in the end we still used the public VHF. Just keep it on low power.

We also found that gyro-stabilized bino’s were very helpful in identifying vessels much further out giving you more time to react.

Conclusion

This is not a casual trip and needs to be taken seriously, which of course is not for everyone. But if you want to get to the Med from SE Asia on your own bottom, this is the way to go. I know of a few boats that have gone on their own without security, but we judged the risk too high for our comfort.

The amount of piracy has dropped dramatically, but it’s not zero and there are still sightings of skiffs with ladders and many more guys than is normal for fishing, hence ‘suspicious’. We don’t believe there is anyone out there just waiting for you to come along anymore (at least at the moment). But there is still a lot of smuggling going on and if they just happen to cross paths with you, they may have a go at you if you seem vulnerable (a guy with a gun is a small business). Yachts are very vulnerable compared to ships as we have low free-board, we’re slow and don’t have a citadel. But that’s a minor point with a well-trained security team and crew that works together well and is committed to make this work. It makes all the difference in the world and this is a very doable trip.

Having matched yachts and crew will be a huge help.

We originally had 5 boats, but Tamarisk was in a hurry to get back to work (can you imagine that!) so worked out another plan early on. The other boat we asked to leave due to lack of commitment. This is an important point. Everyone needs to be committed early on or you can’t plan ahead and everything will fall apart quickly. In the end, it worked out really well to have 3 boats.

You also need a leader that can make the tough calls for everyone’s good and keep it all together. Face the realities of this early on. Teamwork, problem solving proactively and a positive attitude will make all the difference so that you are still mates when you arrive. You will feel like you have really accomplished  something when you get to Sudan.

If you seriously want to consider this trip, I am happy to point you in the right direction. I’d expect the security aspect will cost you $8k to $20K per boat depending on the options you choose. One option we looked at was a stop at Socotra (several yachts have stopped recently) but never fully explored it as our contractor wasn’t interested. You’d have to do the research to be able to stop there with weapons and have you’re security team take a break or something like that. It’s a halfway point and would make the trip much easier with an enjoyable break in the middle, plus being able to re-fuel and re-provision.

Fair winds,
Roger and Sherry
s/v Equanimity
wda7465@yahoo.com

http://www.svequanimity.blogspot.com.es/2015/03/head-to-med-thru-red-2015.html

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Lotus
Lotus says:
May 22, 2015 02:56 PM

I left Langkawi in January 2012 with my catamaran going directly to Galle, Sri Lanka but only stayed a few days as the only place in the harbor for mooring was always awash with heavy swell and waves caused by busy motor launches ferrying sea marshals to and from commercial ships passing by. Leaving Sri Lanka, I rounded the southern tip of India and headed towards Oman and about 150 miles out from Salalah, I turned west and went directly to Aden. I stayed about 10 miles north of the main shipping route most of the way and I saw and had to answer calls from many NATO war ships and helicopters every day and sometimes at night. I really enjoyed Aden, staying a couple of weeks, having some work done at a good machine shop, provisioning and touring the city. Going up the Red Sea against strong head winds and dust, I stopped at Massawa, Port Sudan, Port Ghalib and then Port Suez to prepare for transiting the Suez Canal. I continued through the Med, across the Atlantic, through the Caribbean and Panama Canal, across the Pacific, through Indonesia and back to Langkawi finishing my solo circumnavigation in December 2013. I refrain from getting involved with buddy boats or convoy systems and think going it alone is less hassle, draws less attention and therefore has to be much safer. I do not have A.I.S. and I have never carried weapons nor flare guns, a dog or anything else that requires special containment in ports of various countries. All in all, it was a good trip visiting 22 countries but I would definitely try to do it slower next time.

Wayne
s/v Lotus Mantra
lotus88@generalmail.com

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