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Gulf of Aden's Pirate Zone (how yachts are getting through)

By Val Ellis last modified Mar 06, 2009 10:15 AM

Published: 2009-03-06 10:15:36
Topics: Piracy

Wed, 4 Mar 2009

For yachts wishing to reach the Mediterranean from Asia, it's a vexed question - round the Cape of Good Hope, which normally then involves crossing the Atlantic twice to catch prevailing winds? - or through pirate infested Gulf of Aden? For those who decide on the Gulf of Aden, there is some good news back from the Gulf.

Early on the 24th February the last of 5 specially formed groups totalling 28 yachts arrived safely in Djibouti after their transit of the Gulf of Aden. The transit of the yachts had been the subject of not inconsiderable planning and preparation.

The group involved was the circumnavigating Blue Water Rally, and the process here is something that other yachts might follow to their benefit. Below is their story:

Throughout the planning process the rally worked closely with the maritime authorities (see here for details) responsible for the safe passage of commercial shipping to ensure that their routing and procedures offered the safest possible passage through these waters. Groups were carefully selected for relative speed potential and crews were given in-depth briefings on their convoy, emergency procedures and communications for the 5 days and nights of their transit through the IRTC (Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor). See later in article for more information on this.

Before the Transit:
While the crews had been briefed on three previous occasions (in Singapore, Phuket and Sri Lanka) and were involved throughout in the planning, their final briefings were at Salalah, which is where most yachts usually depart for their Gulf of Aden transit. This finaly briefing covered the fine detail of their transit timings. This is also where independent yachts usually form convoys for the transit.

The Threat:
Whilst several large mother vessels (e.g. stern trawlers) are believed to operate in the region, the main threat in the Gulf of Aden is from dhows towing skiffs with outboards. It is, therefore, difficult to differentiate between dhows operating in their traditional role as fishing vessels and those carrying pirates. It was important, therefore, to treat all dhows with suspicion.

Recognising a pirate vessel:
There is a distinct difference between the Somali dhow with a relatively straight profile and the Arabic dhow with a distinctive raised bow. There is also a threat from the much larger cargo dhows, which normally operate quite innocently in the region. However, they were warned to be particularly suspicious of those with tarpaulins covering their cargo deck - likely to be hiding skiffs and/or pirates.

Timing of an Attack:
The time of greatest threat is at daybreak and at dusk. By the end of the day pirates are often high on qat and attack patterns are difficult to assess. The pirates are well armed and probably have a loose organisational structure working to instructions from clan groups on the Somali mainland.

Yacht risk vs commercial vessel risk:
The threat to yachts is likely to be lower than to commercial vessels. The primary aim of the pirates at the present time is to hijack and ransom. The risk to life and limb is very low - it appears that pirates are under instructions not to use violence against the person. Against this background the risk to yachtsmen remains, but it is likely that they will be opportunist targets for robbery.

Despite the high value we place on our yachts, they don't really rate against high-value targets such as the Sirius Star, for which an alleged $300 million ransom was paid!

The International Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC):

This is the corridor:
EAST BOUND LANE BEGINS AT 045 EAST BETWEEN 11 48 NORTH AND 11 53 NORTH. THE LANE IS ORIENTED ALONG A STRAIGHT LINE COURSE OF 072 DEGREES AND TERMINATES AT 053 DEGREES EAST BETWEEN 14 18 NORTH AND 14 23 NORTH.

WEST BOUND LANE BEGINS AT 053 DEGREES EAST BETWEEN 14 25 NORTH AND 14 30 NORTH. THE LANE IS ORIENTED ALONG A STRAIGHT LINE COURSE OF 252 AND TERMINATES AT 045 DEGREES EAST BETWEEN 11 55 NORTH AND 12 00 NORTH.

Since 1 February 2009 commercial vessels have been encouraged to use the IRTC. It operates similar to shipping channels in many parts of the world, and somewhat resembles the operation a freeway or autobahn. It consists of two 5-mile wide corridors (eastbound and westbound) separated by a 2-mile wide buffer zone. Commercial vessels are encouraged to pass through the corridors at certain times according to their best cruising speed.

The IRTC is patrolled by the EU Task Force operating under Operation Atalanta, plus the CTF 151 and other naval vessels from countries such as Russia, China and Malaysia, which assist in the overall security task when not specifically helping commercial vessels from their own flag countries. Apart from naval vessels, MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) and helicopters are operating in the Gulf.

Specific Advice to Yachtsmen:
The level of pirate activity remains high and naval forces in the area are extremely stretched in providing adequate coverage for commercial vessels, let alone responding to yachtsmen in distress, so the authorities would be happiest if no yachts were there at all.

Certainly, independent yachtsmen would be at greatest risk, but yachts sailing in groups do not represent a soft target, particularly if they show a disciplined and organised reaction to any suspicious approach. To this end groups must have a clear set of procedures covering their formations during day and night, use of lighting, use or otherwise of VHF and a clearly defined set of procedures for emergencies, ranging from suspicion to actual attack. The most difficult discipline is one of maintaining group integrity and speed amongst an inevitably disparate group. Teamwork is the key to safety, and the independent personalities usually evident in yacht skippers would have no place in this situation.

Should yachtsmen contemplate making the passage, they are recommended to contact the MARLO (Maritime Liaison Office) in Bahrain for further advice on Tel: +00-973-3940-1395 or by e-mail marlo.bahrain@me.navy.mil

The Blue Water Rally is to be commended for the professional way in which they handled the transit, and joining this rally when it transits is obviously one solution to the issue. The participants in the 2009 transit are very appreciative of their Rally's hard work. Here are some of the comments sent to Sail-World:

"I have no doubt in my mind that our safe arrival and our awareness of the difficulties and dangers were helped by your very thorough briefings and the attention to our safety paid by Blue Water Rallies. The quick reaction shown by the Coalition Forces on our route was a great comfort to all of us."

"The formation and disciplines contained in our passage plan certainly focussed the minds of all present in our group."

"Because of the organisation and the strategy developed by you and Blue Water Rallies in general, the leg between Salalah and Djibouti went well for all the fleet."

The transit did have one potential security problem however, when they came close to being attacked by the coalition forces! Welsh participant Dr Hugh Evans reported from one of the Blue Water yacht convoys:

"This morning at dawn we were reported by a nearby tanker to be a group of pirate skiffs. The Task Force quickly launched a helicopter, and flew over us, had a look and was only then able to report normal ops, a euphemism for no they are not pirates. I have, therefore, partially achieved one of my ambitions in life. (Great Uncle Henry Morgan would be proud)."

Footnote: Hugh Evans claims ancestry to the well-known pirate, Henry Morgan (another Welshman).

by Peter Seymour

Our thanks to Sail-World.com for this article.

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