Pirate Alley and Eritrea

Published 12 years ago, updated 5 years ago

Noonsite would like to thank Paul Jefferies of SV Damarri for this most welcome report.

My wife and I are currently members of the Vasco da Gama Rally which has recently transited the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden and is now, thankfully, safe in the Red Sea. As a result of a number of postings on Noonsite and other websites, I want to give an account of our experiences which hopefully will go some way to correcting what I believe are erroneous impressions given by some other cruisers.

Our decision to join the rally was quite late and was a result of the well-publicized increase in pirate activity in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. The routing was not “secret” but from well before the time we joined, the Vasco da Gama Leader, Lo Brust, would not commit himself to a routing, initially because he hadn’t decided on one and later because he did not want details to fall into the wrong hands. Our actual routing was not decided until shortly before our departure from Mumbai and was based on the very latest reports of pirate activity from the UKMTO. Once it had been decided, obviously it would have compromised our own safety if our routing had been made public before we reached Aden. Suffice it to say that the route we took was “common sense” based on information supplied by the UK Maritime Trade Organisation.

Postings elsewhere have said that Thailand to Turkey rally was “rejected for an escort by the combined navies” and……… “Britain’s Royal Navy rejected a request by a cruising couple to give a convoy of around 30 yachts escort through the Gulf of Aden”………… It has been clear from the outset that the combined task force was put in place to protect commercial shipping and specifically to protect ships carrying food for the World Food Program. t was never intended to protect private yachts and indeed the small number of ships involved and the HUGE area of ocean in question make such escort duties virtually impossible. Under the present terms of reference, yachts cannot expect an escort………. though I suppose there is no harm in asking!

Rallies, indeed all yachts, are urged to register with the UKMTO and to send in their position each day. In the event, the VdG rally sent in their Position, Course and Speed twice a day and on a couple of occasions we were a bit late, they contacted Lo Brust to check that we were OK! The support we got from UKMTO and the task force was fantastic and more than we expected…………. When we were “out in the middle”, on two occasions we had flypasts from carrier-based F-18s and on two other occasions from helicopters. These visits proved not only that the Task Force knew where we were but also that they were watching us……….. They were a fantastic morale booster at what was a very tense time.

Through contacts in England, I was aware that all 3 yacht rallies – Blue Water Rally, Thailand to Turkey convoy and Vasco da Gama Rally- were being monitored closely by the relevant authorities and that Naval forces were directed to pay special attention to cruisers because of their particular vulnerability. All were advised to avoid routing directly through the Red High-Risk Areas and to take more circuitous routes similar to that already selected by V da G. Some cruisers broke away from their convoy routes and some chose to route alone through the Red High-Risk Areas – with disastrous consequences.

The Vasco da Gama Rally consisted of eleven boats and were blessed with mainly very light and/or following winds throughout……… Just the conditions most favorable to the pirates and we did have two full “alerts” in which we thought we were being attacked. On both occasions, the convoy “closed up” but thankfully both turned out not to be hostile though some of us are still not sure about the intentions of one of those visits. Between Mumbai and Aden, we had a total of eighteen days Motoring and motor sailing in convoy. We did manage to turn the engine off occasionally but as one of the slower boats, we found it difficult to maintain our position in the convoy under sail alone and we put a total of 380 hours on the engine in that time.

It is such a pity that the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden have become a “no-go area”……….. This website can be accessed just as easily by pirates as by legitimate yotties so I don’t want to say too much about our routing except that ALL the people we met in Oman and Yemen were friendly and helpful and seemed genuinely pleased to see us visiting their countries. Most of the countryside we saw was beautiful and remote and under different circumstances, we would love to return and cruise the area properly.

We are now in the Red Sea where contrary to some other postings even on Noonsite, our experience has been nothing but positive. Our first call was at Asab in the South of Eritrea………… Asab IS closed as a Port of Entry and indeed as a Port at all because Eritrea is very nervous about a possible attack from Ethiopia who, since the war, now have no access to the sea and are believed to have designs on Asab. However, the Port is still there and we went there as yachts looking for shelter from strong Northerly winds. It proved to be a first-class anchorage with excellent shelter. There is a skeleton staff still there and our leader went to see the Port Manager who was delighted to see us and made it clear that yachts will always be welcome there, though he could not allow us to leave the immediate Port area because Asab is no longer a Port of Entry and we could not clear in. This was a pity because Eritrea was once an Italian colony and from what we could see, there were many interesting buildings and we would have liked a better look at the place………. But the Port provided excellent shelter and is a useful stop on that part of the coast.

Our next stop was in Massawa and here too we were treated with nothing but friendliness and courtesy. It is TRUE that a motor yacht was arrested there not long ago, we saw it and I understand the owner is still being held………… But we were told by two separate sources that he tried to leave in the middle of the night, with no lights, without checking out and without paying his Harbour Dues………. there is some confusion over whether he paid for fuel he uplifted.

While in Massawa we made an excursion inland (and considerably uphill!) to the Capital, Asmara where once again we were met with smiles and courtesy. Asmara is a beautiful city, again with a much Italian influence in the architecture and it was surprisingly clean. It really seemed that the Eritreans are proud of their Capital and we were welcomed wherever we went. The people we met seemed genuinely pleased to have Westerners visiting their country and often asked us what we thought of Eritrea……….. our experience was only positive and we would love to return there someday.

So, the moral of that particular story would seem to be that if you treat the people with courtesy and a smile you will be treated in the same way but if you do not obey their rules and try to outsmart them, you will be treated just as you would in any “First World” country…………. We have now reached Suakin in Sudan and……… “so far, so good”.

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