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Is the Indian Ocean safe for yachts?

By Tom Sampson — last modified May 08, 2013 04:23 PM
Somali pirates are now less keen to attack vessels. But is it too early to consider a warm-water circumnavigation? Tom Sampson reports. This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Yachting Monthly.

Published: 2013-05-08 00:00:00
Topics: Circumnavigation , Indian Ocean , Piracy & Security
Countries: Brunei , Cambodia , China , East Timor (Timor Leste) , Hong Kong , Indonesia , Japan , Macau , Malaysia , Myanmar (Burma) , Philippines , Singapore , South Korea , Taiwan , Thailand , Vietnam , BIOT (Chagos) , Djibouti , India , Maldives , Oman , Seychelles , Somalia , Yemen

For circumnavigators, the route from India to Suez is far preferable in terms of distance, wind direction and sea conditions than trying to round South Africa. Yet since 2011, due to the pirate threat off Somalia, extending into the Indian Ocean, the risks of taking the northerly route have become unacceptable.

However, last year the EU Naval Force disrupted pirate activities so successfully that it gave hope that the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea might once again be safe for yachts.

Is there hope?

Statistically this argument looks strong. In 2011 there were 237 attacks on commercial vessels, with 28 of them captured. In 2012 there were 75 attacks and 14 captures.

The yachting figures are even more compelling. In 2011 there were four yachts captured, with ten hostages taken and five yachtsmen murdered. One crew was rescued and nine ransoms paid. In 2012 no yachts were attacked or captured.

The reasons for this success, according to EU Naval Force operations commander, Rear Admiral Duncan Potts, are fourfold:

1 The deployment of armed security guards on commercial vessels

2 Pre-emptive action by coalition forces who have been seeking out and arresting suspected pirates and destroying their equipment

3 Increasing intolerance of pirates in Somalia at national and local levels

4 The destruction last May of pirate logistics dumps on the Somali coast

The constant harassment of the pirates has had other effects. Early this year, one senior pirate, ‘Big Mouth’ Abdi Hassari, announced his retirement, claiming he had persuaded more than 100 pirates to do likewise. It has also become increasingly difficult for the pirates to find recruits. Stuart Carruthers, spokesman for the RYA and ISAF, reports that the families of recruits are often held captive to ensure that they remain at sea until they have taken a vessel. This has resulted in the death of around 1,500 young men who have perished after running out of fuel and water, or been killed by the new security teams on commercial ships.

The full story

However, statistics do not tell the full story. The reason no yachts were captured in 2012 is quite simply because there were none to attack. Few, if any, made the passage.

The authorities warn that despite the limited achievements of the pirates over the last year, they are still very active. Rear Admiral Potts warns that the hard-won progress against piracy is still extremely fragile.

Ian Millen, director of Dryad Maritime, which provides intelligence services on piracy activity to commercial shipping, predicts that the pirates will turn increasingly to more vulnerable targets, primarily yachts, which can easily be captured using heavily armed skiffs capable of 25 knots.

He strongly cautions yachtsmen against any thoughts of making the Indian Ocean/Gulf of Aden/Red Sea passage until the threat is all but removed. He also says the capability of the pirates remains intact and their motivation is not diminished to anywhere near the point of defeat.

Stuart Carruthers agrees, warning that even with a warship in close proximity the pirates could easily capture a yacht, and once that has happened there is little that can be done to effect a safe rescue. This was sadly borne out by the death last year of four captured yachtsmen on a Davidson 58 Pilothouse sloop, Quest – despite the boat being surrounded by a number of US warships at the time.

The average price for a hostage is US$400,000, so a yacht’s crew makes easy and valuable pickings. The ransom paid for the seven crew (including three children) of the yacht Ing, who were released in August 2011, was $3m (£2m).

The International Maritime Bureau monitors and records all piracy attacks worldwide. The bureau’s director, Pottergal Mukundan, says they continue to receive reports of motherships and skiffs trying to attack vessels in the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, and he strongly advises yachts not to make the passage.

Jimmy Cornell recently launched his plans for a Blue Planet Odyssey, the main route of which is through this area. But he insists they will only take the route if they can be certain there is no piracy risk at all. If there they have any concerns they will re-route via South Africa.

The EU Naval Force recently issued a Somali Piracy Warning for Yachts, stressing that yachts should remain out of the designated High Risk Area or risk being attacked and held for ransom. They also advised that as the pirates become more desperate, yachts will become more attractive as low-risk targets with a very high ransom potential.

Despite their poor performance in 2012, the pirates are expected to quickly evolve their tactics, just as they did in 2011 when coalition forces started to gain an upper hand. From using skiffs and only operating near the Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor, they started using motherships, which gave them an almost unlimited range, with attacks occurring as far away as India.

They have also now become highly proficient at using radar and GPS, while their financial backers scour the internet and monitor blogs looking for information on the value of vessels and cargo, and the number of crew they can expect to find on board. In the same way, they are able to gather information on the positions and intentions of organised yacht rallies.

So, is it safe?

As YM went to press, coalition forces captured nine pirates at sea and seized their equipment. Rear Admiral Eris Dupont of the EU Naval Force says it proves there is still a real threat to shipping in the region, adding: ‘It shows that whilst pirate attacks have reduced, Somali piracy has not gone away.’

The unanimous opinion of most experts is clear: it is not safe and the figures for 2012 must not be taken as suggesting the threat has diminished. The pirates’ modus operandi will evolve and if that means going after low-risk targets, yachts will be the obvious choice.

It’s even arguable that the risk to yachts in the area is now actually higher than ever – and that situation is unlikely to change for the 2014 passage season.  W

Tom Sampson: In 2004 Tom Sampson and partner Nicolette set out from Bridlington on their Nauticat 331, Katanne, completing a circumnavigation last year. During the trip, in 2010, Tom organised a yacht convoy through the Gulf of Aden, known as ‘pirate corridor’, successfully avoiding attacks (see YM October 2010).

Our thanks to Yachting Monthly for giving noonsite permission to reproduce this article. To subscribe to the Yachting Monthly digital edition go to

 


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