Indian Ocean and Red Sea Transit 2011

Published 12 years ago, updated 6 years ago

My account of Scot Free’s passage from Uligamo to Suakin in Sudan for what it’s worth. “Scot Free lll” is an Australian registered 42′ cutter now moored safely on the West coast of Scotland.

February 2011 – Maldives

Uligamo continues to delight us in the simple honest life of these islanders. The community of 400 souls unobtrusively watch us and whenever we step ashore are there to assist and this continues to our check out date which was ostensibly to be the 11th of February. We did not intend leaving till the 15th and such is their casual nature that this 4-day lag does not impact on us. In the final analysis, we did not sail until the 17th but I’m jumping ahead.

“SY La Palapa” from our Sail Indonesia days had contacted me and asked if we should buddy boat in a small convoy of our own to Djibouti, which was not our planned destination but we could at least go as far as Al Makalla in Yemen and peel off there since we would be well into the security corridor by then. Roger on “La Palapa” asked if we could wait till a third boat joined us, a Brazilian boat named “Vagabond” skippered by Christiano, a charismatic Brazilian from Sao Paulo and his crew, Elise from US. This made sense and we waited until they arrived.

On the 15th we are approached by another skipper wanting us to accompany him to Aden. I am uncomfortable about some of his statements such as…

“I have a military “tracker” on board”

“I have a full complement of weapons”

“I have heard from a Hereford (UK SAS) contact that “The rules of engagement are about to change.”

Other oblique comments about his military association follow. We wish him farewell since we have made a commitment to “La Palapa”.


As planned we set sail on the 17th and as we left the atoll passed a fast looking yacht, “Ing”, a Swiss boat heading for Aden. This boat had a husband and wife team, 4? children from 10 up to about 17 years old and another older man. We shouted across “Bon Voyage” and since we were under motor in the very light winds soon left them behind. We were heading west first with the intention of crossing to the north 100 miles before gaining the dangerous coast of Somalia and my rationale was; cross the shipping lanes where the traffic entered the Arabian Gulf and before it fanned out for the crossing. “Ing” headed north to cross the lanes early then would head west parallel with our course.

Such simple decisions make the difference between safety and disaster. We also decided to call ourselves Task force Cobra and renamed our boats Eagle 2, 7 and 9 and identified channel 10 low power for communications. This may? throw off anyone eavesdropping with a view to gatecrashing. I initially thought that this was a bit melodramatic but have since revised my opinion.

I’ll let excerpts from our log entries tell the grim story from here.

17th Feb

9.00 Weighed anchor.

9.55 Settled on course 282Deg true.

10.05 Hailed ING and wished them Bon Voyage.

12.30 Course change 270Deg to improve wind angle.

16.00 Course change back to 282 deg.

21.00 Large unlit, no AIS vessel crossed bow. Run radar continuously for night hours!

18th Feb

125 nautical miles on log.

First fuel calculations indicate that “La Palapa” and “Vagabond” may be able to sustain 5.5 knots OR 1700 miles motoring but NOT both.

11.30 New waypoint finalised 11.50N; 58.50E

11.45 Changed course to 295 Deg

1600 Grey profile (military vessel) on the horizon to N.E.

18.00 HF: the US flagged yacht “Quest” has been hijacked heading to Somalia.

22.00 2 radar targets but no closer than 12 miles.

19th Feb

132 nautical miles on log

12.00 Fix 08 31.729N 068 34.307E

12.00 Overflown and VHF contacted by coalition aircraft P3 xxx. Good?

19.00 Closed to tight formation for night sailing. Getting better at holding formation.

20th Feb

141 nautical miles, Good, now we also have reasonable wind and can make better times.

17.00 “Vagabond” changed to lighter larger headsail and now sailing very well. Speeds improve up to 7.5 knots. “Scot Free” running well. “La Palapa” sends an email via sat. phone Liz (my daughter) to assure her we are all safe.

19.00 Change course to 300 deg to improve wind angle and speed.

21.30 Crossed North/South shipping lanes. Only one vessel (lit but no AIS) sighted.

21st Feb

140 nautical miles on log.

“Scot Free” fuel calculations now indicate 1 – 1.5 litres per hour under power. Excellent.

16.00 Vagabond indicating serious problems with lack of drive from engine, gearbox?

22nd Feb

148 miles on log.

New course to cross shipping lanes this evening. 323 deg.

23.30 Unidentified request for our ID on ch 16. Coalition plane.

13.30 “Vagabond” confirms they have lost their propeller, hence poor speed! This is potentially disastrous. “Scot Free” makes bridle ready for tow. “La Palapa” has 100 meters 12mm nylon line.

15.30 Winds picking up and making very good speeds now, 7 -7.8 knots, even “Vagabond”. Seas picking up but quite comfortable. First water on decks.

23.00 “La Palapa” has heard on Sat phone that all persons on Quest have been killed. This leaves us all feeling very uneasy since this is:

a) the first kidnapping of a yacht in 12 months and

b) first deaths for a long time.

The game has changed.

15.00 Change over to EUROPE AND MID EAST charts for chart plotter (Shark Blocker according to Christo!)

17.00 Change to a more westerly course to make speed and distance dictated by “Vagabond’s” performance. “Scot Free” and “Palapa” to shadow on either side.

23rd Feb

140 miles on log

14.20 More news on Quest. Initial reports do not make the military look good. All crew killed plus 2 pirates on Quest and 2 on accompanying vessel. 15 pirates taken captive. This is a frightening development. But steady ground covering sail. Making good speed.

24th Feb

129 miles on log

14.00 Consensus is made a turn towards Salalah today daylight, not tomorrow daylight since we would then be uncomfortably close to Socotra. Also, the new heading seriously improves our wind angle and therefore speed.

14.15 C.O.C. 321 Deg

15.05 “Scot Free” monitors ch 16 calls to vessel at position xxxN xxxE, Hear 15 unreturned calls from coalition aircraft overflying vessel “Ing”. This is NOT good. Position calculates as 73 miles NE of our position. If “Ing” is heading for Somalia then they potentially cross 1.5 miles ahead of us on our new course.

16.00 Roger from “La Palapa” advises that he has contacted UKMTO in charge of Gulf forces and also has a “friend” in the military (turns out Roger is ex-Marine). They have allocated 3 resources to us, at present 300 miles away. They strongly recommend making all speed Salalah and they will intercept. We estimate that they should be here 3.00 am following day and I elect to sleep early ready for rendezvous.

25th Feb

0.35 Woken by helicopter overflying.

0.55 A destroyer and frigate circle us.

1.30 Destroyer (Coalition Warship #84) remains to shadow us to Salalah, Frigate heads east (to ING?)

9.00 140 miles on log. 16.20 Relayed distress Mayday xxxxN xxxxE (ING ?) now 60 miles due east. (We never got to the bottom of that communication).

16.30 Wind finally dies to under 5 knots. The decision to initiate tow.

16.05 Query Warship 84 if they had monitored our tow discussions… “Warship 84 copies all!”

Comms with Warship 84 are surreal, like talking to Daleks!

Slow to 2.5 knots, Roger relays towline with the dinghy. It looks like I might T-Bone warship 84. I ask what the ramifications might be.. hypothetically speaking. Roger’s response says it all “Sub-Optimal!”

18.30 “Vagabond” undertow. Warship 84 still shadowing 1.5 miles off the starboard quarter.

20.00 Reach planned speed 6.0 knots undertow. at 2200 RPM. Seas flattening quickly. Only 130 nm to Salalah. We could be there before dark tomorrow at this speed.

26th Feb

9.00 150 miles on log (Towing!)

14.30 GPS down for 5 minutes (All GPS instruments)

8.30 “La Palapa advise they will leave us and join up with Imagine outside Port Salalah.

8.45 “Vagabond” transfers 150 litres of diesel to “Palapa”. Slow to 2.5 knots for dinghy transfer then return to 6.5 knots at 2300 RPM

11.00 “La Palapa” leaves convoy to sail to Djibouti with “Imagine”.

12.00 “La Palapa” joins “Imagine” on the horizon.

13.30 Make contact Port Salalah on Channel 12.

14.00 Contact again on Channel 10 for entry instructions. Relayed “Vagabond” vessel details.

16.15 Warship 84 departs wishing us well. “Because that’s our job Scot Free!”

18.30 Entered Port Salalah

19.10 Dropped towline to “Vagabond” and anchor with 27 other yachts.

I don’t need to embroider on the above to flesh out the trip. It was stressful, but strangely enough, the most stressful part of this was sailing in close formation.

Sailing with an accompanying destroyer through this region is extremely comforting and highly recommended! I have promised the crew of US Warship 84 that the beers are on me if we ever catch up and I will deliver on my promise if called upon. Reading about their mission since then I don’t envy the coalition forces their task. It is fraught with the stresses of boredom, possible liability, confusion, dealing with tense skippers and the dangers of igniting an Arab powder keg.

In Salalah “Scot Free” teamed up with 4 other yachts and then a further 9 under the leadership of a German skipper (Alvin) who had transited the G.O.A. before and had experience of running parallel to the Yemeni coast before. Sailing in convoy with another 13 yachts is VERY testing with varying performances of autopilots or none. Executing a “wheel turn” in such a convoy is guaranteed to keep you alert! We sailed thus until abeam of Aden when the convoy broke into 3 sub-groups. All skippers felt, by and large, that the worst of the dangers were past and since the seas were building to an extent where pirate boarding would have been impossible or at least challenging, reasonably safe.

We ran with 3 other boats from there to Crete.

Would I do it again?

Possibly not, but if I had to then convoys are the answer. In the right company, I possibly would sail again. The hazards of piracy compared with the normal hazards of an ocean passage is statistically not significant, it’s just that consequences are alarming and a drawn-out agony.

We may have been shadowed at one stage on the Yemini/Oman border and checked out by skiffs abeam of Al Mukallah. It is equally likely that we were just jumpy and that there was a rational explanation for what we saw. At no time did I get dry mouthed or weak-kneed, but by the time we gained Suakin we were all exhausted and we were lucky that the weather locked us in for a couple of weeks to clear our minds of the stresses of the passage.

Iain White

SY Scott Free

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