ISAF / EUNAVFOR Meeting - cruising yachts transiting the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin
The official minutes for this meeting will be published on the ISAF website. Noonsite will publish a link as soon as they are available. Below is a brief summary of the meeting by Jeremy Wyatt, the Noonsite representative who attended.
ISAF / EUNAVFOR Meeting 19 October 2010
The purpose of the meeting was to receive a situation briefing from the EU Naval Force for Somalia (EUNAVFOR) and to discuss the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) Guidelines for cruising yachts transiting the Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin.
Attending the meeting were representatives from Commercial Shipping (Maersk), ISAF, Royal Cruising Club, the Cruising Association, the Ocean Cruising Club, Bluewater Rallies, Volvo Ocean Race, World Cruising Club and Noonsite.com together with NATO and EU.
EU Naval Force for Somalia (EUNAVFOR) Situation Update
Pirate Methods of Operation
Pirate Action Groups (PAGs) usually consist of a mother boat (typically a 20-30ft inboard powered boat known locally as a “Volvo”), towing two attack craft, usually GRP skiffs with powerful outboard motors and speeds of 20+ knots. The attack skiffs are often painted blue to hide their outlines.
Further offshore, the mother boat may be a larger vessel, often a captured dhow or fishing boat. This causes significant difficulties in identifying pirate vessels as they are easily confused with genuine fishing boats. PAGs will deliberately try to disguise themselves as fishing boats to increase confusion.
Identification is further complicated by the parallel traffic in people smuggling between Somalia and Yemen. Smuggler's boats are also local dhows, their crews are armed and operate in the same waters as pirates.
PAGs are sponsored by commercial syndicates and therefore need to make a catch to return their investors´ money.
The PAG crew view themselves as warriors, and consider it a matter of personal honour to return home with a prize vessel.
The crews are sustained whilst at sea by chewing Khat (Qat), a local narcotic plant. This may mean they have little regard for their own safety, and often put to sea and keep going to the limit of their endurance, rather than turn back with a safe margin to make port. This increases the danger to yachts, when a PAG is at the end of their endurance they are more likely to attack a yacht as a means of securing a ride home and satisfying their honour. Closer in to the Gulf of Aden or in areas where there is more commercial shipping, the PAGs may be less tempted to take a leisure yacht.
PAGs have been spotted as far as 67E and almost as far south as the border of Mozambique.
They will often put to sea and keep going to the limit of endurance – up to 30 days (200nm/day) with no regard for safe return to port.
PAGs keep radio silence once they leave port and will head for an area where they may have been successful in the past. They do not monitor AIS but do use GPS to return to their “lucky areas”.
Once a target vessel has been chosen, the attack skiffs will approach the target from two sides at once, from astern or stern quarter at high speed. They will often fire their weapons with the intention of causing the vessel to slow down in order to facilitate a boarding.
Area of Pirate Operations
Due to greater security in the Gulf of Aden, PAGs are now operating further afield and looking for easier targets as commercial ships improve their defenses and anti-pirate tactics. However, nowhere is safe although in the Somali Basin in Jun/Jul/Aug the SW monsoon weather prevents small craft putting to sea, although this weather pattern does not affect the Gulf of Aden as much.
PAG activity (against ships) is up 45% but successful attacks are down 20%. However, below the Equator the success rate is higher due to greater surprise factor and lack of preparations by target vessels.
It should be noted that PAGs will take any target, especially when at end of their endurance, as any success is considered a victory and therefore satisfies their warrior code.
EUNAVFOR's intelligence analysts strongly believe that most leisure sailors considering a transit of the region seriously underestimate the risks.
The meeting then received a briefing on EUNAVFOR from Simon Church Liaison Officer for EUNAVFOR.
The EUNAVFOR prime mandate is to protect UN World Food Programme ships into Somalia, with a secondary remit to disrupt pirate activity and protect vulnerable shipping.
The area of risk extends from Yemen to 67E and from Oman south to Mozambique. However, the EUNAVFOR mandate does not include Yemeni territorial waters and EUNAVFOR ships cannot hold permanent station in Bab el Mandeb.
The need for yachts making the transit to register with UKMTO was stressed repeatedly. This is so that naval commanders know which vessels are in the area. However naval forces are limited and prime protection is given to commercial ships. The volume of commercial shipping in the region means that even a large convoy of yachts is not assured of protection.
All anti-piracy tactics are intended to “buy-time” by delaying a pirate boarding for as long as possible whilst a distress message is sent to alert naval forces to react. Due to the slow speed and low free-board of leisure yachts, the “buy-time” strategy of deterring boarding is much less effective, whilst the naval reaction times are at least 30-40 minutes in the Gulf of Aden. Naval protection in the wider north Indian Ocean is extremely limited.
Yacht skippers planning a route through the Gulf of Aden should note that Coalition naval ships can go into Yemeni waters, but have to get formal permission first, which may take some time.
Registering with UKMTO
Once registered with UKMTO, vessels are sent updates and reports on PAG activity via email. These are sent as required, so vessels in the area should log-in regularly to check for the latest warning information. It was also noted that EUNAVFOR is informed rapidly of any EPIRIB alerts within the area of operation.
The opinion of EUNAVFOR officers is that the risk to yachts is unacceptable and that yachts should not transit the region.
Any yacht skipper deciding to make the passage is strongly recommended to follow the ISAF Guidelines (see note at bottom re. revised guidelines) and to register with the UKMTO.
The Benefits of Yacht Convoys
There was a roundtable discussion about the merits of yacht convoys, whether as part of a rally or informal groups.
There was a consensus that participating in a convoy is better than sailing alone. Particularly since a vessel with mechanical problems can be towed by other boats in the convoy. However, all boats have to keep to the group speed; motoring as required to maintain best speed. The experience of those who have sailed in convoy was that in daylight a clearance of around 200m between yachts should be the minimum spacing, though more is permissible at night. It is therefore essential to be adequately crewed so that proper watches can be maintained. It was noted that close quarters sailing is difficult to maintain for long periods and that it takes 5 days for a convoy to pass through the Gulf of Aden. For these reasons it was felt that convoying in smaller groups (5 -6 maximum) was a more realistic option than close sailing in larger groups.
Routing in the Gulf of Aden
Routing close inshore along the Yemeni coast is not recommended as:
• Although Coalition naval ships can go into Yemeni waters, they have to get formal permission first which may take some time.
• There have been incidents of Yemeni fisherman acting aggressively towards yachts (following incidents of fishing boats being fired upon by private security forces).
The recommended route is to stay just to the north of the IRTC outside Yemeni waters and out of sight of land.
PAGs are more closely monitored in this area and are closer to home bases, so possibly less likely to be at the extreme of endurance and trying to pick up a yacht as a result.
It was noted that yachts should maintain best speed at all times to transit the region as fast as possible.
Following the meeting, the ISAF Guidelines are to be reviewed to ensure they best reflect the latest advice from EUNAVFOR.