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2003 - Piracy Reports

By Sue Richards last modified Jan 21, 2009 01:04 PM

Published: 2009-01-21 13:04:57

10 January, 2003
VENEZUELA – Spanish Yacht Held at Gunpoint

Contributors: Tom Muller

On 10 January 2003 a Spanish sailing boat was stopped by a little speed boat 3 miles off the Venezuela coast at "Cabo Tres Puntas". The pirates were all masked, all armed with pistols and machetes and one even had a machine gun which was believed to be an "UZI".

The two Spanish sailors were held at gunpoint when the pirates searched the boat. Only cash money and credit cards were stolen. Luckily, nobody was injured. People who know Venezuela better than us believe that these were organized pirates, who knew the procedure of yachts waiting behind "Cabo tres Puntas" before carrying on east through the night when the wind is light close to the coast.

9 March, 2003
GULF OF ADEN - Yacht Narena Attacked by Pirates

Contributors: Bruce and Cheryl Matthews, SY Narena

We were attacked by pirates while sailing through the Gulf of Aden. There was another attack on two yachts a week before only 20 miles from where we were attacked. We were sailing in convoy with four other yachts PENYLLAN, GYPSY DAYS, SEA DOVE and IMANI. We had a couple of meetings to plan our contingency in case of the event of a piracy attack. We would sail in a close formation not more than half a mile apart, at a minimum speed of four knots under sail and five knots if we were motoring. It is believed that the pirates have access to VHF radio and so we would keep radio silence on Channel 16, and not give our position on any radio frequencies. We had a regular HF 2 MHz radio schedule every three hours.

At 0800 on the morning of March 9th, Bruce was scanning the horizon and saw three small craft - they were coming in our direction. We called the others on the radio and told them. As the boats drew closer, Bruce could clearly see the plastic tarps covering their hulls, and the heads of a lot of people. He immediately realized that these were people-smugglers and possibly the same boats that attacked the two yachts last week. The attacking boats were about 20 metres long, wooden, and had plastic sheeting wrapped around their hulls. They were also loaded with terrified people, believed to be illegal Somali refugees en route to Yemen. We were later told that the refuges are often thrown into the sea on the coast or shores of Yemen, regardless of whether or not they can swim and left to their own devices. These people smugglers are ruthless.

We closed our ranks (a bit like a wagon train), turned on our engines and went as fast as we could in a tight group. Our yacht was at the rear of the formation on the port side, which just happened to be in the vulnerable spot from an attack from this angle, just our luck. At least IMANI was on the inside of us and we were happy about that as they had children onboard. Then, when they were about 200 meters from us, they started to shoot and, as I heard the first shot, I saw Bruce in the cockpit duck on the floor. Immediately we were on our radios, the Mayday calls were going out thick and fast, but with no reply at first. Then I heard Mark on IMANI speaking French (his mother tongue) to the French/German Coalition in Djibouti, but that was too far away. They were sending an Orion plane that would arrive in about an hour. We couldn't wait that long. Karen on SEA DOVE was talking to the commercial ship MAERSK ANTWERP that was also about an hour away, but would relay our message to the Piracy Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That was great but offered no immediate help. Then I heard Mark speaking to the American Naval aircraft carrier that we had passed the day before with a warship practicing landing their jumpjet Harriers. They could be at our position in three hours. "That is not good enough, we need help now," said Mark. They said they would send assistance immediately, but we still believed it could not arrive soon enough.

In the meantime I was calling Mayday on the HF international distress frequency 2182, with no response. Then Karen had a response from the Panamanian merchant ship, the ROYAL PASCADERAS, they were altering course to come to our assistance and they were only about five minutes from visual contact! "Oh thank God," I prayed, all we had to do was keep the pirates at bay for a little while longer. The US Navy, in the meantime, was still talking on the VHF in a loud commanding voice. It increased my confidence, we would outrun these bastards, and we would live to see our children and grandchildren again.

After the gunshots, Bruce was lying in the companionway, steering the yacht by reaching his hand up and pressing the autopilot panel. He made me stay below in the cabin, the lower half of which is below the waterline, so I wouldn't be shot. I chanced a look through the cabin window (I've never been good at doing what I'm told), and I could see the one boat that was still after us. It was loaded, absolutely crammed with human cargo, like sardines. I also saw a man with a rifle on the bow. The other two boats were going behind us. I wasn't sure if they had given up the chase or were they going around behind to flank us. The main boat that was chasing us was slowly gaining. We realized this was it, they were going to board us, NARENA was their target, we were the closest. We were surprisingly very calm. Bruce put his arms around me and said "We'll get through this Cherie, just give them anything they want and they won't hurt us, they only want to rob us, so just let them have what they want."

Bruce went up to check our course (so we wouldn't run into the yacht in front of us) and he quickly jumped below again and grabbed the radio. He told everyone to look out the back, they had dropped back, the pirates had slowed down, and perhaps they had given up the chase, or were they up to something else. No! It was our heroes, the ROYAL PASCADERAS had come over the horizon, and they were heading our way! Oh my God, thank heavens. We were saved, we were safe, we'd done it, and we were the first yachts to escape a pirate attack that I know of. We'd made it, yes, we'd made it! Thank you ROYAL PASCADERAS!

The three boats were quickly making their way towards Yemen, one was blowing a hell of a lot of smoke. Then, about 20-30 minutes after the pirates had left us, the Coalition Orion flew overhead and circled us a few times. We were on the deck waving and shouting like children. About an hour later he returned from the opposite direction; he radioed to say he saw numerous small local craft, none were coming in our direction or appeared to be a threat to us.

Meanwhile, the ROYAL PASCADERAS sailed slowly beside us. With the knowledge that we were safe, they bid us farewell and went back on their original course. We will never forget them, and hope that one day we will have the opportunity to thank them. Personally I just want to give the captain a big hug and kiss. About half an hour after the ROYAL PASCADERAS left us, a large US helicopter flew overhead and spoke to us on the radio. Not long after this, the Coalition Taskforce 200 called and asked if we still needed assistance, they were on their way and would be with us in a few hours, but we told them the Orion aircraft said we were no longer under threat. Wow, every man and his dog were out to help us. No doubt the problems and possible threat of invasion of Iraq had increased the navy presence in the area. Never before had a yacht under attack had so much assistance - we were indeed fortunate. Commercial vessels are notorious for not coming to the assistance of a yacht being attacked by pirates, but not the ROYAL PASCADERAS!

That evening the Coalition Warship 992 contacted us by radio. They had come to assist us if necessary and they stayed close by the whole night and again the next day. By then we were out of the danger zone, and we went our separate ways. Bruce and I sailed on through the "Gates of Sorrow" with 25-30 knots of wind behind us and had a sleigh ride. We finally arrived in Port Assab, Eritrea; we were in the Red Sea off the north coast of Africa. The next thing we heard, the American and allied forces were invading Iraq!.

27 March, 2003
COLOMBIA – Yacht Boarded, Entry Forced and Crew Attacked, Puerto Velero.

Contributors: Lynne and Chris Morgan, SY Malaika

Seventy two hours on passage to Panama from Aruba, a medical emergency ensured a stop over at Pt. Morro Hermosa, Puerto Velero, Baranquilla, COLOMBIA.

March 27, my brothers birthday, just after midnight, I was wakened by the sound of a boat’s wake hitting our steel hull, they had cut the motor earlier. “They’re here!” I woke Chris, “Who’s here?” He asked, “The freaking welcoming party”, I shouted. He jumped up to close the hatch, and saw the first of 6 men armed with guns and knives board our vessel.

That night I knew, instinctively, like I now know factually, that all was not well. I insisted that we lock the companionway, which can only be locked from outside, with a padlock, and so Chris climbed into the cabin through the hatch, which is left ajar, but secured. Both hatches have bullet proof glass portholes, and so we could see them trying to smash the glass with the backs of their guns. They did not bring tools with them, they expected the companionway to be open. We are the fourth vessel to be attacked in the same anchorage, in as many months.

They only had a little flashlight, and kept telling us to put the lights on. After ransacking the cockpit, they found a small brass porthole and a dive weight and tried unsuccessfully to break the lock open. By this time I was calling non-stop on VHF Ch. 16 and SSB ch 2182, “MAYDAY, MAYDAY”.

Using the dive weight as a hammer on the back of the knife, they started chopping around the lock. The wood is teak and hard, and it took them over 1 hour to gain entry. I called for help on the radios for the entire duration, I was answered by the Colombian Coast Guard, who asked me to confirm my position as Pt. Hermosa, Puerto Velero. Never to be heard from again, or ever seen.

The guys outside were getting frustrated, and so two a side they tried to lift the hatch up to open it, with enough prying they managed to lift it slightly, with that Chris was able to deploy a can of professional mace into 3 faces, he continued to hang on the inside of the hatch holding it down and they were never able to work out that the hatch slides back to open, not up. And that is what saved us. Once the lock was free they were able to pull out the first and second splash boards, the third always sticks. With the hatch closed overhead the entry was small and required crawling. It was safer for them to call us out one at a time, rather than them come inside, as they did not know what else we had to arm ourselves with.

When it became evident that they were going to gain entry, the panic that had seized us earlier, evaporated. A calm overcame us and everything slowed down, it felt like my ears were blocked and my thoughts echoed in my head. I thought, we could die tonight, but that’s o.k. I have had an excellent innings and this is as good a time as any…. With that Chris took my hand and said, “When the door opens we get out!!!! And you get into the water, asap. Don’t stop to chat, straight in the water, and I will follow”.

They called us out, and Chris went first. Three grabbed him, and they struggled around the table. Chris was able to manoeuvre himself to the back of the boat against the rail, the cockpit well is large and open, so only one guy had space to tie him up. He attempted to tie Chris's hands together in front of him, Chris kept moving and he was not able to tie a knot. They called for me, and I crawled out, still crouched down in front of the hatch, one guy took my arm.

One last look at Chris and I swung my elbow back as hard as I could and felt the crunch when I connected the gent holding my arm. He will not multiply anymore. In one motion I was able to pull myself forward into a dive, off the side of the boat. Hands brushed me in an attempt to catch me, but I was already in the water. Chris using the distraction opened his hands and shoved the guy back into the well, hitting his head. Chris back-flipped into the water and dove down as deep as possible, I heard the splash behind me so turned around to see who was going to pop up. Chris did, right next to me. “Swim woman what are you waiting for!”.

It was adark moon that night, and we could not see their boat, thinking that it was tied up to our boat, and it would be only minutes before they come for us. We swam for our lives. Once we were shallow enough to walk, I discovered that my little toe was broken, and Chris dragged me on. The beach run to the cell phone was exhausting and in the dark we ran past Gustavo's house, ending up with some other fishermen, who sent a runner to Gustavo to phone the police. They arrived 2 hours later, in that time we heard, what we now know to be a large RED WOODEN FISHING BOAT return to fetch the 6 bandits and all our belongings. The fishing boat collided with MALAIKA hitting 1.5m above the waterline, bending the bull bar and stanchions on the starboard side, leaving red paint and wood chips behind.

At 03h00 we returned to MALAIKA with 2 policemen, the other 8 stayed on the beach. We were given 10 minutes to assess the damage, and then against our will, we had to leave MALAIKA, to go and make a DENUNCIO, statement at the Baranquilla police station. 03h30 we left for the station. No one spoke English and so our statement was made in limited Spanish, and many hand gestures.

At 06h00 we once again returned to the boat, this time to discover the actual magnitude of our loss. Our passports, boat papers, all our navigation equipment, dinghy & 2 outboards, 8 kites, and 2 sewing machines (for sail and kite repairs) being the biggest loss. Without passports we can't leave, and without kites we can't make money to replace our uninsured items.

At 10h00, we saw a large police presence on the beach, Chris swam ashore to speak to the police, re: red paint, wood chips, balaclava, knife and pair of sandals found on MALAIKA. Edgar, the owner of the windsurfing school arrived, and knowing that we were unable to leave without a GPS offered to take us to Baranquilla. We left Edgars cell number with the lieutenant on the motorbike, as a contact, gave him the above mentioned items and headed to the city, in search of a GPS.

Edgar was tremendous, in 8hrs, we managed to do the impossible, change travelers cheques without passports, buy a GPS, and establish that the one and only red wooden fishing boat has a permanent mooring at Las Florres. An old man on the jetty told us that it left for a fishing trip last night and has not yet returned. One last stop, before we can leave….The coast guard office. To inquire as to why no reaction from them, after their initial response on the SSB. And to purchase a chart of Cartagena, as all our charts, over 500, were taken as well. Zero help, Zero sympathy, in fact one woman in the office called us GRINGOS, turned her back and slammed the door. So we left without an answer and without a chart.

18h00 March 27, we returned from Baranquilla with newly acquired GPS ready to set sail for Cartagena, only to discover the Major and 2 other policemen sitting in the cockpit, having boarded without permission. The major claimed that they had already arrested 4 men, he brought out a digital camera and asked us to identify them. 2 could have possibly been suspects, but it was very difficult to say from a photo. He proceeded to take photos of us and our vessel. When we requested to leave we were told we would hamper the investigation. I expressed my fears about being on anchor for one more night, and was assured by the MAJOR that he would place an armed guard on the boat with us for the night.

Three other policemen and the dog arrived. The major made 2 more phone calls, with that 4 more policemen with tools boarded MALAIKA. Our vessel was subjected to a 5 hour strip and search, under false pretences. We assisted the police in every way possible, Chris helped the 2 guys inside, he elected to drill for them, and to strip what could come loose. I entertained the rest outside, serving bottomless cups of coffee, and telling sailing stories, one of the police could speak a bit of English, and was constantly asked to translate, especially the punch lines. I had them rolling around in laughter, except the major. One by one his officers reported to him, “No my major, there are no drugs on this boat”. By now the Major’s intentions were very clear to us and I pointed out to him that if we were traffickers, we would have perhaps painted our boat navy gray, and not purple, and that we would have owned a gun, with which we would have shot the bandits ourselves, or better still, as one of his own officers pointed out that I have a beautiful collection of Aloe Vera, Rosemary and Basil, “She’s growing her own herbs my major, this is not a trafficking boat”.

The fear of him planting something on our boat was very real. He had put a lot of effort into finding drugs on our boat and we didn’t know how he would handle the disappointment. That fear had an odour, and I broke out in a cold sweat. At 23h30, the major stood up and said,”VAMOS” LETS GO!! So this is how he is going to handle the disappointment, he is going to abandon us. I begged him to keep his word, and leave a guard with us. He laughed and said that we are safe, as we have nothing left to steal. He told us not to leave as an officer would return for Chris in the morning, to identify suspects. So he left us in the dark. With no dinghy, no radios, and no way of locking the hatch. A new fear, one that completely dispels any fatigue I was feeling for lack of sleep in the last 50 hours, takes over. My eyelids would not close, even afraid to blink, in case they never opened again.

08h00 March 28, a policemen returned for Chris but he was not able to identify anyone. 14h00 we left for Cartagena. We found a safe haven in Club Nautico, with Chandelaria giving us free mooring, food and a sympathetic ear. Thank you seems so inadequate.

The fight goes on, now it is the bureaucratic, red tape, war. 10 Days in Cartegena and we were not able to elicit a response from anyone, police, coast guard, port captain, even wrote to the President.

The facts are: we were the 4th boat to be pirated in as many months in the same anchorage, by the same gang, with the same modis operandi. We had the good fortune of meeting Willie (Morning Dew) another pirated vessel, to confirm their story.

Three American boats travelling in convoy were attacked. They managed to get to Presidential level, and the ADMIRAL OF THE NAVY was given carte blanche to sort this out. Well obviously they did not……but worse they said they did…. There has been no media coverage, the cruising guides, and even the Net on ch 8104 reports all is well in Colombia, otherwise we would definitely not have stopped………..

We made the front page of the Sunday newspaper at El Universal. The President visits Cartegena this week, and I am still trying for an audience with him.

We have already been told that the retrieval of any of our goods would be wildly optimistic, the only success to hope for would be the arrest of the gang. And so this story is for any and all our friends in our wake. BEWARE OF COLOMBIA, IT IS LAWLESS…….

Lastly, we would both like to say to the Residents of “one happy island” as the ARUBANS like to call it. GSST, AARGH, shoo chooby, dushi !!!!! When Armando and the occupants of de hutz heard about our experience, they did a beach collection and fed-exed us money the very next morning. Enough money to see the light… Such unconditional giving…….this is the very reason we are cruising, to meet people like the Arubans.