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Yachts Pursued And Attacked In Gulf Of Aden

By doina — last modified Mar 23, 2007 02:53 PM

Published: 2007-03-23 14:53:30

The following three incidents took place in the waters between Somalia and Yemen the night of 23 February, 2004. Klondike is a US registered sailboat owned by Donald & Kathyrn Radcliffe from Santa Cruz, California.

The first incident happened about 2000 hours local time (GMT 1600) in position 13 degrees 50 minutes North, 50 degrees 05 minutes East. About 1 hour after sunset, and 1 hour before moonset, Klondike was traveling at about 4 knots under sail in 8 knots of wind on a course of 250 true. We were traveling with only a low powered all-around light due to the threat of piracy in the area. We saw a single white light slightly off the starboard bow. Radar indicated a small vessel at 2 miles, and we could see a bow wake as it headed towards us. We responded by turning 40 degrees to port, and the other vessel changed course to intercept us. As the other vessel closed, we turned on the engine, turned on our running lights, turned further to port, and started to accelerate. The other vessel closed to within 50 meters of our starboard quarter, and we could see what looked like a diesel powered boat, 8-10 meters in length, perhaps a ship's lifeboat, with 2-3 men on deck, coming toward the bow. They were clearly trying to approach our starboard quarter, with smoke coming from their diesel exhaust, but we accelerated away from them as our speed increased to 7 knots. They fell in behind us, and we broadcast a Mayday call on VHF channel 16, giving our position and the situation.

The Mayday call was answered by a yacht 12 miles astern, and we advised them again of our situation and position. We extinguished all lights and varied course between 210 and 270 degrees. The other vessel receded behind us, and appeared to break off the chase after about 5 minutes. We came to a course of 210 degrees where the sails assisted our speed, and motor-sailed at 7 knots until the other vessel disappeared from the radar at about 5 miles. The ultimate intention of the other vessel remains unclear, as we were able to avoid contact closer than 50 meters, but it appeared that they were preparing to board us. No weapons were seen or heard.

The second incident took place about 2300 local time (1700 GMT) the same night, in position 13 degrees 39 minutes North, 49 degrees 49 minutes East. While traveling without lights on a course of 250 degrees, we observed a single white light approximately on our port beam, which appeared on radar at 5 miles SSE of our position. By radar, it appeared to be heading on a course to intercept us, so we changed course to 300 degrees, accelerated to 7 knots while motor-sailing, and tracked the other vessel. It continued to converge on us, and we estimated its speed to be over 8-9 knots.

After about 20 minutes, the other vessel was approximately 4 miles astern, so we made a course change to 240 degrees, and accelerated to our maximum speed of 7.5 knots. The other vessel responded by changing course to follow us. After 20 minutes, we repeatedly hailed it on VHF Channel 16, informing it that if it continued to follow us, we would broadcast a Mayday, but got no response. It closed to 3 miles behind us, and we broadcast a Mayday at 2340 with our position and situation on VHF channel 16 and HF 2182 Khz. The only stations to respond to our Maydays were the group of 4 yachts 12-15 miles northeast of us. We requested one of the yachts, Solara, to use his satellite phone to call the authorities. He called Australian Marine Safety Authority (61 2 6230 6811), who told him that they would report the situation to the piracy control center in Kuala Lumpur (60 3 2031 0014), and told him to call back in 30 minutes. We fired 2 parachute flares during this time, which were reported seen by the group of following yachts.

After 20 minutes, the other vessel closed to 2 miles, but had swung in directly behind us, so we again altered course to 180 degrees, allowing us to reach across the wind which had increased to 16 knots, bring our speed to 8.5 knots. The other vessel turned out its lights, making its location more difficult to track, but seem to be falling back slowly on radar. After another 30 minutes we changed course to 140 degrees, slowing our progress to 7 knots, but heading into the waves and hopefully making it more uncomfortable and difficult to follow us. The other vessel did not respond to this latest course change, and disappeared from the radar screen after another 10-15 minutes. We called the yachts following on the VHF and told them to report to the authorities that we were no longer being closely pursued. We held the 140 degree course for another 30 minutes, then changed course to 330 degrees to join the group of four yachts which was following us. We made contact with them about 0130, and had no more incidents the rest of the night.

The second vessel never got close enough to get a visual description, but it was clearly more sophisticated than the first, with a speed of perhaps 9-10 knots, probably radar and VHF radio. It had no problem tracking our radical course changes at a distance of 3-5 miles on a night with no moon. We believe that the combination of the flares, the VHF traffic with the other boats, and their small speed advantage discouraged them from chasing us for more than an hour.

The following morning we were contacted by a helicopter from the Coalition naval forces that had been alerted by Kuala Lumpur, and that afternoon we got a visit from a Spanish warship. A boarding party came aboard to verify that we were not being held hostages and took the details of the incidents. The Spanish warship provided a loose escort our group until we neared Aden. Words cannot express how grateful we were for the escort, as it was through a region where numerous yachts have been attacked in recent years. We had made arrangements to convoy through this dangerous area, but our problems occurred about 80 miles east of the historical attacks.

Was the first boat innocent and curious fishermen, and were we overreacting? Was the second vessel unable to understand English and trying to come to our aid after we set off the flares? We will never know for sure, but when a boat intercepts you at night in lonely waters 60 miles offshore in the Gulf of Aden, we believe it is wisest to assume the worst.

The third incident was the French Yacht Le Notre Dame, who was boarded and robbed by armed fishermen/pirates on 27 February at 13 degrees 30 minutes North and 47 degrees 51 minutes East. The yacht was approached at 1300 local time about 30 miles off the Yemen coast by a small fishing vessel with 5 men on board. The men had knives and automatic rifles, and took cash, cameras, binoculars, and other easily accessible valuables. The crew was shaken but unharmed, and proceeded to Aden. In this case, a Coalition warship heard the relayed distress message on VHF, asked commercial shipping to assist, and responded with a helicopter some 6 hours later.

Communications Both Sailmail and Winlink present challenges in connecting with distance transmitters here in the Red Sea. Winlink with transmitters in Italy and Qatar has been more user friendly. Winlink allows 30 minutes/day per station versus the 10 that Sailmail gives totally. You've got more time to make several attempts at connection to Winlink. Transmitters for Sailmail are located in Belgium, Mozambique and Brunei. Late evening connections to Brunei have given the best results on Sailmail.

Donald & Kathyrn Radcliffe, s/v Klondike

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