Super Convoy March 2010 Evaluation
Published: 2010-04-23 21:32:07
Report by Joost Jager
Earlier this year I posted a report on noonsite announcing that a superconvoy would most likely be formed for the passage from Salalah to Aden in March 2010. This report is a follow up on that and contains an evaluation on how the convoy went.
See original report announcing superconvoy here.
Just to refresh things: Traditionally boats went through the Gulf of Aden in convoys of about five boats. A so called "superconvoy" is different in that the number of boats is much larger. The reason for this is the belief that safety can be found in numbers. The main assumption is that the larger the number of boats, the more deterrent effect it will have on pirates. It will make them uncertain about what to expect. If they still decide to attack one of the boats, the chance that it is actually you is smaller in a bigger group. Similar to a school of fish. Also, pirates can be sure that while they are busy with one boat, many other boats will raise the alarm. This makes it virtually impossible for them to take more than two or three boats, because by that time coalition forces helicopters will have arrived to chase them away.
We had twenty boats willing to join the convoy and they started arriving in Salalah from mid February 2010. The original idea was to wait there until Lo Brust, who organises the Vasco da Gama rallies, would arrive. He would lead us to Aden because he had done it before. Unfortunately he got bad weather in the southern Red Sea and couldn't make it to Salalah within the time that most of us were prepared to wait. To prevent the group from falling apart, we decided to take on the organisation ourselves. At the same time, another superconvoy led by Tom on Katanne, arrived safely in Aden. This strenghtened our confidence in that we could do this too.
Setting a Departure Date
The departure date was set to the 4rd of March which was an important step because it had been floating for too long. The boats still underway were informed via HF and email so that they could push the throttle down a little more if necessary. We decided to invent as little as possible for our convoy and instead mainly copied parts from the plans of both Tom and Lo. Thank you both for sharing your plans and experiences with us.
Assistance from the Coalition Forces
Another important activity was the communication with the coalition forces. They told us they really liked the superconvoy idea, because the large number of boats made it worthwhile for them to follow us actively instead of only reacting in case of an attack. They mentioned that they do not have the resources to offer this service to every small group of boats that goes through the area. Also, they requested detailed information on all boats and crew and reviewed our convoy plan and waypoints. We always responded to them timely and accurately and established a good relation. In the preparation phase we were almost daily in contact with them either by email or phone. We were impressed by how seriously we were taken.
Then on the evening of the 3rd of March 2010 all boats had arrived in Salalah (some just hours before!) and we went up to the Oasis Club for the final briefing. A few important points from the plan were repeated, questions were asked and the layout of the convoy was presented. Basically we formed four groups of five boats. Every group was assigned a group leader who was responsible for keeping his group in the correct position relative to the other groups. The boats within a group just had to stay with their leader. The rest of the evening, boats in the same group talked to get to know eachother a bit more and discuss the plan.
The next morning at 08.30 we left the anchorage group by group, to create our formation at a waypoint five miles away to stay clear of the shipping in and out of Salalah.
Our first problem already appeared when we hadn't even reached this waypoint. One of the boats found their engines stopping just minutes after lifting the anchor and they were drifting towards one of the warships moored in the harbour. Fortunately a tow line could be attached quickly so they could be towed away from the increasingly nervous personnel of the warship. But what to do next?
When I took on the role as convoy leader I thought this would mainly mean sailing from waypoint to waypoint and letting the rest follow. At this moment I started suspecting that it could be a whole lot more than that. There were basically two options: return to the anchorage to sort out the problem or keep on towing until the problem was solved. The former option might mean that we would never see them back in the convoy again. The latter might mean that they would have to be towed all the way with the associated risks such as tow line breakage in bad weather. Various scenarios were discussed and something needed to be decided. Our main convoy objective was to arrive all together, so we decided to keep towing. While towing it was discovered that the engine problem was caused by some amount of diesel that was present in the petrol. This meant that the problem could be solved by replacing the fuel. Unfortunately they were the only boat running on petrol and there wasn't enough (dinghy) petrol in the convoy. The crew offered to return to Salalah now that they were just five miles out, get clean petrol and catch up with us. For the first part of the passage the piracy risk considered low. This looked like a good option to avoid 600 miles of towing and so they turned around to the harbour.
The rest of the day was relatively uneventful and we motorsailed in our formation. When it turned dark, every boat switched on their deck level stern and bow navigation lights. What a great sight was that! It surely looked impressive and because all masthead lights were off there was no way to know from a distance that this was a convoy of sailing yachts. Just after midnight the boat that went back for fuel caught up on us and we were complete again.
A Visit from the Coalition Forces
On the morning of the next day we were approached by Coalition Forces Helicopter Three. They came to check on us and announce that they were available for assistance any time. This gave everyone a reassuring feeling.
Sailing in Convoy Formation
Later in the morning, the wind picked up and made sailing in formation more challenging. It created some discussion about positioning and made us define better how to keep position for the rest of the trip.
Note that VHF is the only way of communicating which can sometimes be quite difficult in group discussions such as these. In general a lot of communication was needed all through the convoy, although this varied dramatically from boat to boat. One boat even kept statistics on this. They found that the quietest boat at one point hadn't said anything for three days, while another boat hadn't been able to keep quiet for more than twenty minutes. To help filter this endless stream of talking, we didn't call each other by boat name. Instead we used code names composed of group name and position in the group, for example
Delta 5. At least it made it obvious whether your own group was concerned or not. Being together for five days is long enough to evoke all kinds of feelings in people. Sometimes we were happy, sometimes angry, sometimes scared or tired. Naturally this became apparent in the VHF talks too. Together with the code names this created some kind of new VHF culture. Someone even mentioned that she couldn't fall asleep because she just had to keep listening to the continuous reality soap that we were all living in.
Testing our Defence Formation
In the morning of the third day we were approached by several fast skiffs. Not knowing what their intentions were, we went into our defence formation. This meant that the foremost group reduced speed and all the others caught up with the foremost group at full speed to form a very close formation.
This didn't go as fast as we would like it to go. We needed about ten minutes. Also, one slow boat sailing at the back of the convoy wasn't able to keep up with the other boats racing forward and ended up as what was called "pirate bait". In the mean time the skiffs were zig zagging right through the convoy and put up a great act as pirates. Fortunately these were just curious fishermen. They must have had there own thoughts on our interesting behaviour. But we had a good practice session and a list of improvements for the next time.
That day we had two more encounters. One other group of skiffs and one with some skiffs and a "mother ship". Both times we went into our defence formation again and found that it was a false alarm. After that we had a lengthy discussion on the VHF about the defence formation. The conclusion was that we couldn't really keep doing this for every fishing boat that we saw and also that it would probably be too slow anyway in case of real pirates. So we decided only to go into defence formation after serious pirate indications like gun fire or boarding. In all other cases we would just close up a little bit if people would feel more comfortable with that.
Days Four and Five
On the fourth and fifth day we got better at what we did. Keeping formation became less of a problem, although there were a few incidents. A boat fell asleep and had to be woken up with a fog horn. Another one lost orientation and turned ninety degrees to port cutting right across the convoy. There were more discussions and arguments which needed to be settled and the VHF traffic was as heavy and entertaining as always.
There was also one boat with a broken engine which had to be towed. And released again. And towed again. A process in which another set of difficult decisions had to be taken. The objective is to arrive in Aden all together, but realistically looking there is only a certain amount of favour that can be expected of everyone. Having nineteen boats drifting all night in pirate alley waiting for day light to reattach a tow line is most likely too much to ask for. Therefore we reattached the tow line just before dark even though the engine had been running smoothly all day.
Day Six - Arriving Safely in Aden
Then on the sixth day the most highly anticipated event took place. We reshaped our formation to a long line of boats and one by one we entered Aden harbour. What a great moment that was! We had done it, we arrived all together and were so relieved to finally have this passage behind us.
The next day when everyone had had a good night of sleep we got together for a barbecue near the dinghy dock, took a group picture and exchanged a list of famous quotes out of all the VHF chatter and convoy poems that were written on the way.
We surely had an interesting time, but the question whether it was really necessary to make it as complicated as we did remains unanswered. We hadn't seen one pirate, but we will never know for sure whether they had been looking at us from the horizon in their pirate boats making up their minds whether to attack or not and deciding not to. But regardless of the deterrent effect that we might have or not have had, the "school of fish" argument remains valid. And even if it wasn't safer, most boats at least felt safer in the company of so many others, which is worth something as well. On the other hand, it takes a lot of work to organise a convoy of this size. Also, it introduces the new risk of colliding with each other. The consequences of such an accident could be disastrous, but we were lucky enough not to experience this.
Speaking just for myself, if I would have to go through pirate alley another time, I would do it in a superconvoy again. I'm convinced it is the best option to reduce the risk of being attacked by pirates and I wouldn't go for anything less. I know that the statistics for attacks on yachts look not too bad, but the situation can change and in the end, who trusts a pirate?