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Red Sea, Eritrea - Yachts Pursued

By James Greenwald last modified Jan 21, 2009 08:30 PM

Published: 2009-01-21 20:30:22
Topics: Piracy Reports 2008
Countries: Eritrea

The following is an account of the Sailing Vessel Tactical Directions being approached by a fishing boat off the coast of Eritrea.
Below that are comments received from other yachts who have read the report.

Sunday 6th April, 2008. 1315hrs. Tactical Directions was sailing north from their anchorage of the previous night heading for Difnein Island where it was intended to stop for the night before proceeding further north. We were in company with Mariah who was to leeward and astern about 3-4 miles. As we approached the island the decision was made to continue an additional 150nm as we were sailing in a NE breeze under a shy spinnaker with a speed over the ground of 7.5 to 8kts.

As we were very close to the island (16.36.42N 39.18.06E) we were able to sight a largeish Eritrean fishing boat anchored off, together with a couple of smaller fibreglas fishing boats with outboard motors. When we were abeam of the island and the small settlement, one of the fishing boats started to approach us with two males on board. They clearly wanted us to stop. As we had the spinnaker up and were travelling quite fast we made our intentions clear that we were not stopping. They stayed with us for about 3 mins and then finally headed back to the island.

Approx. 10 mins later we again saw them headed back out to us. I commented to my one crew member that I thought the only reason they went back to the island was to get a gun. We radioed Mariah and advised them of the situation. They immediately started to motor towards us but they were not going to catch us for about 1 hour. The fishing boat again approached with the guy in the bow waving the gun and indicating to us that he wanted us to turn and go back to the island. We refused to stop, and that was when he fired the first shot into the air. Further arm waving from them and we responded with arm waving trying to indicate that another boat was coming and I made out that I was on the radio. The bowman again fired his gun (a rifle that looked like an automatic weapon) a single shot in the air. With that we looked angry, trying to clearly indicate our intention not to return to the island with them.

Somehow, whatever it was we did, or they had second thoughts, they broke off and turned around and went back to the island. We proceeded well past the island, dropped the spinnaker and waited for Mariah to pass the island. At the same time as they were passing, a freighter was also passing which may have been fortuitous at the time.

We have tried to contact Massawa Port Control numerous times on Ch16 and 2182 with no response. We have additionally tried to contact both Gone With The Win and Balvenie who we know would be following us within a couple of days. We were hoping that these boats could report this incident to the correct authorities in Massawa as we know they were visiting the town.

Whether these people wanted more than just food I'll never know now. BUT. If a fishing boat goes back to an island (which only had 3-4 fishing huts on it) and comes back with a gun, fires warning shots, and wants you to go back to their island, I would seriously doubt they only wanted food.

Tony Roberts, SV Tactical Directions (VHN5359)

12th April 2008: Noonsite has received from Lodewyk Brust the following comment to the above report:

We note the report dated 8th April from sailing yacht Tactical Directions that they were approached in Eritrean waters and asked to stop by an apparently civilian boat.

We have just completed a voyage down the Red Sea, with the Vasco da Gama Rally, and we think it is important for yachtsmen sailing in that area to be aware of the following:

When sailing in Eritrean waters yachts should expect to be approached by the military, especially in the vicinity of the Islands such as Difnein which have military posts. Although this is an area subject to a large military presence they do not have their own "navy" or "coastguard" boats but are likely to use plain fishing or utility boats. Also they may not be uniformed! However they have every right to ask to see papers. In our experience they have always been courteous and on one occasion they waved us on after checking that we were flying an Eritrean courtesy flag. (Of course any yacht sailing in a country's waters without flying a courtesy flag is asking for trouble.)

11th June 2008: Noonsite has received from SY Alondra of London, the following comment to the above report:

It occurs strange to us that Lo Brust is giving this comment as we, sailing in the Vasco da Gama rally 2008, had a similar experience. Though in the end nothing happened, a (fishing) boat approached us from open sea from behind and demanded us to stop (despite the waving of a courtesy flag). When we pointed out that we where under full sail and stopping was just not an option, an automatic rifle was raised and the man shouted "we can force you to stop!" Only after picking up the radio (and reporting it to Lo!) and other yachts close in the vicinity who were changing their course, did the boat slow down and turn away.

Again, nothing happened, but it sure was a very unpleasant experience. Nothing, exept one of the six crew wearing some sort of uniform, indicated that they were military. Besides, we had just come out of an anchorage that appeared to be a military base where they would and could have had full access to checking us.

Just be aware that Eritrea has recently become a very poor country with lovely people but desperate. Therefore the line between asking and demanding for something has become thinner and thinner and is difficult to judge.

Recently we received a report of robbery from a yacht in the anchorage in Massawa. The thief, although photographed, has not been caught yet. The police reported that several incidents (a number of 4 was mentioned) had occured in the past few months.

All this however should not stop you from visiting Eritrea! It is indeed a wonderful country with absolutely friendly people!

SY Alondra of London