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A Few Thoughts on Piracy: Australia to Turkey, September 2002 to June 2003

By doina — last modified Jan 21, 2009 12:36 PM

Published: 2009-01-21 12:36:23
Topics: Piracy Archive 2000-2005

It has now been 5 months since we completed the above passage and from this perspective, I felt that it might benefit other cruisers if I took the time to record a few of the considerations and tactics that we employed as precautions against Pirate attack.

First let me say that luck was with us and despite passing through several threat areas we arrived unscathed in Turkey. I'll deal with the areas of concern in the order of passage. ARGONAUTA I is a 44 foot Beneteau sloop.

From Bali to Singapore, we sailed in company with CARILLION, a 50 foot classic wooden sloop. From Singapore we sailed alone to the Maldives. From the Maldives we maintained radio contact with three other yachts until well into the Red Sea. Up the Red Sea, we joined with two Dutch yachts until Port Suez. Once in The Med, we sailed alone. Information was absolutely key to the planning process. We benefited from the Pirate Attack Summary available via INMARSAT as EGC messages, from applicable Noonsite Web Pages, from Passage Notes put together by several helpful yachties and of course keeping a schedule on the HF radio. Also helpful were thoughts about piracy expressed in the Cruising Guide to SE Asia Vol. II, 1st Ed 1999, S. Davis & E. Morgan, ISBN 0-85288-378-1.

South China Sea

We took no special precautions in this area and encountered nothing that could be construed as a threat. The main hazard was to stay clear of the many vessels, some unlighted, engaged in fishing. Night passages were a special challenge. We nevertheless avoided the approaches to Singapore Strait which is reputed to pose a pirate threat. Instead we passed south of Bintan Island and then up the Riau Strait. We found the passage benign.

Strait of Malacca

From Singapore, we planned day trips. The INMARSAT EGC messages reported frequent pirate attacks against freighters and fishing boats. There were no reported attacks against yachts. Apart from those in The Singapore Straits, all the attacks in the Straits of Malacca were on the Sumatran or western side of the Strait. We found that shoreline fishing activity often forced detours. Thus it seemed safer to be out next to the northbound big ship channel. With our onboard navigation gear, we were able to maintain a course which kept us just to starboard of the fairway. Thus, large vessels passed us on our port side and we were far enough off the coast to be clear of fishing activity. Instead of day trips, we found that overnight passages kept us out of trouble.

Gulf of Aden

The stretch from Langkawi to Phuket and on to Sri Lanka was benign as was the subsequent passage to Uligamu, The Maldives. On to the Red Sea, we devised a sail plan aimed at avoiding the Arabian Peninsula. There had been strong suggestions from several sources that at places like Salalah, Oman and Al Mukalla, Yemen, information on yacht movements might be passed to people engaged in piracy on the coast. Our concern was that this might have led to pirate attacks on some transient yachts. The concern arises from reports on pirate attacks of previous seasons as documented in available web pages or e-mails. The pattern is that several of these attacks followed a visit to the above ports.

I felt that from these reports, there was sufficient coincidence to warrant taking precautions. Needless to say, as skipper of an unarmed minimally crewed vessel I was determined to exercise every possible measure to avoid trouble.

We decided that it would be beneficial to remain unseen hence our decision to avoid the Peninsula. Thus we made for a point some 80 nautical miles North East of Socotra Island and then tracked up the center of the Gulf of Aden. We had plotted the location of the two pirate attacks on yachts (Ref the submission from BAMBOLA, Pirate Attacks In The Gulf Of Aden 2003: Conclusions ) and established a danger area through which we would have to pass: Longitude 048 50 E to 046 25 E. Approaching the area we enjoyed some excellent downwind sailing: genoa poled out to starboard and our big colourful DWS out to port. I recall we remarked on what a wonderful sail this would have been were it not for the real threat posed by pirates. To reinforce our concern, March 14 we heard a Mayday call from a small freighter, MV TRADER, passing between the Somali mainland and Socotra. They had come under pirate attack and were involved in a fire fight with several attacking vessels. They had the fire hoses going and we could hear gunfire over the VHF as the crew screamed for assistance. Eventually a Coalition Orion aircraft arrived on the scene at which point, the pirates broke off the attack. Yes, the war in Iraq added an extra bit of security for vessels in the Gulf of Aden!

As far as I know, pirate attacks of the past season occurred well offshore. With respect to the BAMBOLA incident and another involving five yachts a week later, these appear to have been perpetrated by persons engaged in illegal immigrant transfers perhaps from Somalia to a quiet spot on the Yemeni coast. Piracy of opportunity was perchance an extra dimension. Both incidents occurred in roughly the same location which is why I was able to establish a danger area. Our passage through the area was about a week after the latter incident. Later in Eritrea, we met with several of the crews who had encountered pirates including Michael Briant. The two attacks had distinct similarities: two or three life boat type vessels carrying passengers.

We arranged our passage to reach the established danger area at last light. With all speed we motor sailed throughout the night, running without lights, checking for traffic visually and with radar. As luck would have it, there was a full moon! In any case, we saw only the odd freighter. By first light, we had passed the vicinity of the attacks and by evening of that day, we were clear of the area. We had been advised that pirates making the recent attacks had been in converted lifeboats not capable of high speed. Thus we resolved to keep a keen lookout! At first sighting of any vessel that might be manned by pirates, we would turn to put them on our stern and motor sail at maximum speed. We hoped that this would force any threatening vessel into a lengthy tail chase keeping it well out of automatic weapon range. Fortunately, such action did not become necessary. Later we learned that one yacht having sighted a suspicious craft employed this tactic. They observed the suspect vessel emit black smoke as its engine powered up to give chase but soon it gave up.

The Red Sea

We encountered no problem although unfavourable North Westerly winds kept us at anchor cumulatively for about a month. We were not aware of any incidents of piracy in this area during the period March to June, 2003.

Conclusion

Measures taken by National Authorities to discourage piracy have been effective in some areas, particularly the Malaysian Malacca Coast and among the islands between Langkawi and Phuket, Thailand. I understand that Yemen has implemented a counter piracy program but have no idea how effective it has been. What is always worthwhile, however, is to be sure that nations welcoming visiting yachts are made aware of negative incidents such as piracy occurring in their waters. One might hope that this would encourage more vigorous counter piracy action.

Incidentally, I am unsure how effective the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia really is as well as the 24 Hours Anti Piracy HELPLINE and E-mail we hear little of their activity other than the compilation of daily and weekly reports. I sent the Centre something similar to what I sent Noonsite. There was no acknowledgement.

A vessel intending to make the passage from South East Asia to The Mediterranean or vice versa will find the principal cultural threat to be piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Monitoring HF radio and INMARSAT provides invaluable real time intelligence. We presumed there are two distinct pirate threats in the Gulf of Aden: coastal and off shore. All reports suggest that off shore pirates posed the greatest threat to this season's transient yachts. As far as we know, there were no coastal piracy events. Coalition warships and aircraft tended to inhibit pirate activity. At the very least, there was a powerful entity ready to respond to a Mayday call. As well, we heard that some freighters were quick to respond to calls for assistance.

We will never know whether the approach we took to passage planning and the precautionary measures we employed en route were effective. Perhaps we were simply lucky? We would definitely NOT recommend going it alone beyond the approaches to the Gulf of Aden but we got away with it. Would we do this passage again? Perhaps, but only in close company with yachts of similar capability.

Hugh Bacon, ARGONAUTA I

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