Family Sailing through the Indian Ocean High Risk Area (2016)
We, that is Heide (44), Fritze (44) and Mina (10), decided to take a break and sail around the world in two years. The tour on our 40 ft. catamaran “ALYTES” started in July 2014 and will end this year, in 2016.
Published 7 years ago, updated 4 years ago
Nearing the end of our journey in Phuket, our family of three had to decide which way we would take to get back into European waters. Available alternatives were the route around the Cape of Good Hope, through the “High-Risk Area” (HRA) of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea (with or without armed guards) or to put our Lagoon 400 on a cargo ship.
We are an adventurous crew that likes to take some calculated risks to be rewarded with unusual experiences. ALYTES sailed some routes off the beaten track (Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and remoter parts of Indonesia) in more or less troubled waters. Nevertheless, thoughts about Somalian pirates closing in on our trusted catamaran gave us some goosebumps. But some great trade wind sailing was to be expected in the northern Indian Ocean, our time was getting short and we were curious about the African Rift Valley. The HRA-route had to be assessed more closely.
Researching the Route
Before entering an area unknown to us in the past, we would carefully research the political and social situation there. In case there were some suspicious coasts to be sailed, we were prepared mentally and physically. Our Lagoon 400 carries some security equipment to deter or repel petty criminals. However, nothing to risk a brawl with some professional pirates in Somalian waters.
Therefore, we applied our trusted risk assessment “tool case” of carefully researching all available sources concerning the route. We love the usually deep and useful expertise of the ever-so-helpful local yachtista-community. This time it was different (as it was often when trying to assess risks instead of the best bays and bars): The least helpful source were sailors on site in and around Phuket. Everybody seemed to be very much informed, ready with some stories about “very recent, very violent attacks by pirates”. Most of these people either stayed in Thailand or transported their yachts for 40.000 + USD on freightliners. Not to be intimidated quickly, we focused on websites of the governments, newspapers, navies and commercial shipping organizations present in the area. We also browsed through many blogs of sailors that had actually done the trip between 2008 (that was pirate high time) and 2015. We contacted some of them via mail to discuss the matter with skippers that had been there. Last not least we spoke to companies offering armed guards.
Our Chosen Route
When done researching, we concluded to take the route through the HRA and the Red Sea without guards. Why that? The most important bit of information was the fact, that there have been no officially reported attacks on ships underway since about 20 months at that time. The last attack on a yacht was even older. We monitored this closely as we approached the area further. Still no attacks when we reached Sri Lanka and after our four-week visit to the island. A potentially serious risk would be the elections in Djibouti. We planned our visit to leave before the hot phase of campaigning. Concerning piracy risks, we were convinced that the robust mandates of by western and Chinese governments back in 2011 have stopped professional piracy. The now widespread employment of armed security teams on commercial ships has very much deterred Somali pirates from attacking their boats, too (in comparison to the criminals on the West-African coast, who are more ready to engage in lengthy firefights with onboard guards). Our assessment did include a smaller risk of violent and potentially armed fishermen from African coasts.
Convoy or Not?
Originally, we were ready to sail solo. We thought that in the very rare case of an attack by professional pirates of the “old school” (featuring mother ships, up to ten men in two skiffs armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades), a convoy would offer additional security. Neither we nor any of our sailing friends are trained or equipped to repel such a force.
However, as time developed, we happened to meet some old friends, a family of four on a Dutch-flagged monohull. During a relaxed sundowner, we discussed the idea of sailing together. The boats were performing more or less equally and – as families – we had similar approaches to speed, safety and comfort. Both crews also had the same view on the risks in the area: a residual risk of small boats featuring small fishermen crews (1 – 3 persons), potentially armed with single assault rifles and looking for some extra cash when running into seemingly vulnerable yachts. No real risk of professional, organized piracy as experienced up to 2014. We talked about some common ground on how a convoy could work out and actually be fun: minimal speed, maximal speed, when to start the engines, maximum distance under the engine and what to expect, if one of us is actually approached or even attacked by suspicious vessels. We also discussed a viable communication routine. We realized that our goals and tactics would be very similar. We decided to go together.
Some upsides were expected from that strategy: The convoy would provide more fun, as we could socialize on the tour. The kids are friends and were hoping for calm days to meet on one of the boats. We did believe that a convoy would deter the “Kalashnikov Fisherman”. As mentioned above, these guys were basically fishermen “armed to the level commonly experienced in the area” (quote taken from the UKMTO Best Practice Manual 4).
Our crew did take some extra precautions for the trip: We drew up a risk reaction scheme (what to do if a suspicious vessel approaches certain distances to our catamaran) and trained it playfully. We did it in a way not to scare our ten-year-old daughter. Instead, she was given little tasks and was therefore included as valuable part of the watch at times (as this can be done for a child her age). We also decided what to do when being attacked: As in other situations, we would be ready to deter and resist vigorously instead of risking capture being taken as hostage.
ALYTES got some new equipment, too. Additionally, to our high volume / long distance pepper-spray and machetes, we equipped floating lines to foul pursuer’s propellers, some incendiary devices as well as a fake assault rifle to mimic an armed security team from a distance. Fenders and ropes were used to block an easy entry via the transom. We had trained on how to aim parachute flares horizontally without hurting the own crew long before we entered the HRA. We felt well prepared for the risks expected.
As for the route and sailing routine, we just added two rules: stay as far away as possible from any coast (except the Maldives and Socotra, which were safe at the time) and continuously keep a sharp lookout. The latter meant that we did have at least one person in the convoy on lookout. That is a change for us Pacific Trade Wind sailors as we are used to emptying oceans most of the time. Nevertheless, it did feel a lot safer to know that there were eyes on the horizon at all times. Besides that, everything was just as any ocean passage.
Departure from Galle, Sri Lanka
Before embarking on the trip, a third boat approached us to check whether they could join. We agreed, did the same routine of convoy-coordination in the now larger group and got ready to sail from Galle, Sri Lanka to Djibouti.
Due to wind conditions, our convoy sailed a bit south of the usual route, making the trip a tour of roughly 3.000 NMs. It took about 18 days. Wind conditions east of the Maldives were a bit too calm: A lot of engines and a lot of socializing. During this phase, the convoy strategy paid off nicely. In the first days, we were meeting on the boats for sundowners and had frequent close “drive-bys” to exchange kids, fish, cookies or chocolate mousse between the boats.
Later the wind picked up and the typical offshore routine commenced. The convoy was doing routine calls each morning at 09:00 LT and at 20:00 LT to coordinate course, speed and “propulsion tactics” for the next hours. The boats were sending the proposed position reports to the United Kingdom Marine Traffic Organization (“UKMTO”) each day. So the good guys knew where we were. We were also exchanging position data with another befriended family boat that decided to sail solo, as they left some days later and their catamaran had much better performance than our boats.
Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor (“IRTC”)
We only met some larger fishing boats about fifty miles off Sri Lanka. After that, we did not see a single boat before we reached the entrance to the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor (“IRTC”) about a hundred NM north of the island of Socotra. The 500 NM long corridor was established as a measure to channel all shipping in a tight corridor through the Gulf of Aden. This reduces the area to be monitored and defended by the international navies protecting the trade.
We did consider stopping at Socotra, but the wind was just too good to not be taken advantage of. Therefore, we sailed right into the IRTC. There is a staging area for commercial convoys and guarded passages on both ends. A warship is usually present. In our case, it was an Indian destroyer. Navy ships of many nationalities would be seen each day. We were contacted by surveillance aircraft each day in the IRTC as well. Sometimes helicopters would perform close flybys with soldiers having their smartphones ready to film our beautiful Parasailor or our friend’s impressive trade wind sail setup.
We felt more secure than at any time during our circumnavigation. Tongue in cheek we developed the feeling that the biggest risk in the IRTC was a collision with one of the many warships.
In the Gulf of Aden, the wind would blow more or less straight from the east at that time of the year. We were happy about our downwind sail. It was hoisted on the entrance of the Gulf and would not have been touched for 500 NMs if not for reducing speed to avoid outrunning our convoy.
During the transit of the corridor, we experienced two suspicious approaches. In the first late evening, a 20 ft. boat with navigation lights switched on approached the last yacht of our convoy and attempted to circle it in a distance of about 300 meters. The other convoy vessels reacted by taking down their headsails and rushing toward the scene using their engines. The stranger disappeared. The second boat crossed the bow of ALYTES (being at the front of the convoy at that time) in one NM distance in daylight.
The vessel was approximately 40 ft. long carrying a skiff and many blue kegs of some sort. We were quite alerted by the setup, raised the alarm and posed as mock security team on the rails. After passing then slowed down and turned around, but it did not close in.
The convoy kept close together and passed the site without problems. We could not assess, whether the approaching crews were fishing (thus making strange manoeuvres), plainly curious or actually ill willing. We were happy to have employed an offensive “not to be messed with” approach to avoid finding out. On the first occasion, we did contact UKMTO to give them a heads up, as we were truly a bit worried. They reacted very professionally and we were convinced that we would have been efficiently supported if the situation would have developed into something serious.
Into the Red Sea
We had decided to pay a visit to Djibouti and safely enjoy some Somali culture (many of Djibouti’s inhabitants are Somali). A week later, just before the presidential elections, we commenced to Suez via Port Suakin and some diving stops along the way.
To summarize our experiences:
It felt very safe to take this beautiful trade wind route. Some risks are still present, but our family of three decided that they were small enough to be taken by a prepared crew. Our daughter and the kids on other boats doing the tour at the same time were never intimidated or afraid. Instead, they enjoyed the trip. Piracy seems to be a minor threat, right now. We do recommend a very thorough research close to the date of departure to get a feeling for the situation. Convoys are a nice strategy if crews and boats harmonize well. However, the route could be (and actually was) sailed solo just as well.
Heide, Fritze and Mina
Related to following destinations: Aden, Djibouti, Djibouti, Egypt, Red Sea (Egypt), Socotra, Sri Lanka, Suez Canal, Yemen
Related to the following Cruising Resources: Cruising with Children, Gulf of Aden / Indian Ocean / Red Sea, Piracy & Security, Red Sea, Routing
Thank you for this very good information, so we feel more confident to undertake the same trip in 2017. Whoever considers doing this trip from Malaysia or Thailand via Sri Lanka into the Red Sea – please contact us – -Helga and Peter – SY TWIGA – http://www.twiganauten.com – [email protected]
This is a really good piece of information and I am sure that many sailors, like ourselves, feel now more confident to undertake the same trip. Thank you for being Pioneers. s/y Amber Nectar