Is it safe to cross the Indian Ocean and transit the Red Sea to the Mediterranean?

April 2017: Tom Sampson organised a 27 boat convoy in January 2010 through the Gulf of Aden. Since completing his circumnavigation he has kept abreast of the developments in the Indian Ocean and continues to receive emails from cruisers planning on making this trip, asking about the latest situation. Tom has very kindly shared his thoughts with noonsite.

Published 6 years ago, updated 4 years ago

Convoy through GOA, courtesy of SY Equanimity

Update from Tom Sampson – 9th April 2017 

Resurgence of piracy off the coast of Somalia

I’ve been looking into the recent piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia and offer the following:

In the last month, there have been 2 successful piracy attacks on ships sailing off the coast of Somalia but there have also been a number of unsuccessful attacks and a significant number on fishing boats which have not been widely reported.

The intelligence community has repeatedly advised that the piracy problem could return at any time and there are strong indicators as to why it has done so now:

1. The recent elections for a new parliament in Somalia were be-devilled by accusations of high levels of corruption and it is highly probable that the new piracy outbreaks are supported by corrupt politicians in the new government.

2. The widespread famine affecting Somalia is driving the very poorest to seek whatever work they can and some will, as in the past, accept the potentially fatal consequences of becoming a pirate.

3. The coalition forces have reduced their presence and at the same time, the Somali navy has fragmented leaving the Puntland coast largely without regular security patrols.

4. Piracy has for years been a highly profitable business run and controlled by a businessman. They recognize that there is now an opportunity to resume piracy operations and are prepared to invest in them.

What does this mean for the yachts planning to transit the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea?

Most will have done so already this year, but for those with plans to make the passage in 2018, it would be prudent, at the very least,  to keep a very close watch on developments.  If the coalition forces can successfully counter this resurgence then the investment in piracy will wither and this might be enough to stop a future pirate activity.

Tom Sampson

Original Report – Published May 21st, 2015

No one will ever be able to say that the Indian Ocean is totally safe.

It has always been the case that the risks should be judged and a decision made as to whether or not they are acceptable. In 2010 I decided that the risk was acceptable, but that was not the case in 2011 when the pirates had changed their modus operandi and were using mother ships. This extended their range to the coast of India and gave them almost unlimited time at sea. I was of the opinion that the risks in 2011 were too great and wrote extensively on the subject advocating against the use of large convoys.

There is absolutely no doubt that the piracy situation in the Indian Ocean has changed dramatically and undoubtedly for the better.

The reasons lay in the action taken by the Coalition forces primarily in 2012. Boats were destroyed on the shore, the international maritime laws were changed to effect easier apprehension of “suspected” pirates. Criminal charges and incarceration were stepped up and efforts made to bolster the legitimate government of Somalia. In addition, some of the pirate leaders retired.

The results were immediate and dramatic, so much so that no hostages were taken in 2014 or this year and few actual attacks on shipping were made.

I believe that the threat to yachts now is no greater than it was in 2010 when we made our passage and is possibly even less so. Furthermore, I don’t think this will change in 2016.

I doubt the coalition forces will make a complete withdrawal from the Indian Ocean – primarily around the IRTZ – and they would certainly be justified in reducing the force numbers now. Were they to do so it would be because they judged that shipping was no longer likely to be attacked by the pirates.

It’s also notable that the coalition forces are not mandated to assist yachts and certainly didn’t offer any help to 27 of them in the convoy I ran in 2010. The mandate is actually to protect the ships carrying humanitarian aid to Somalia.

With respect to the use of mercenaries, there was a convoy of 3 yachts which made the passage earlier this year with armed guards on board and they did not encounter any problems neither did a couple of other yachts that made the passage without onboard security.

If I were to make the passage next year I would give serious thought to the route.

From the Maldives (and Uligan is a good point of departure), I would go either to Oman (Port Salalah) or Djibouti. I certainly wouldn’t think about stopping in Aden and would have to consider the risk of sailing along the coast from Salalah. The route direct to Djibouti would take me closer to Socotra which historically was considered a risk, but I note that the 3 yacht convoy did go directly to Djibouti. On balance I think I would opt for the longer but possibly safer route direct to Djibouti via the Bab el Mandeb. From there I would avoid Eritrea where there have been problems. I would, however, use the anchorages North of there that I used in 2010 and would certainly stop again in Suakin (Sudan) and points North (the route we took can be found at Egypt has many problems but I don’t think they currently affect yachts in transit and the lower part of Egypt, well away from Cairo is still treating tourists well.

Long distance cruising yachtsmen are always having to assess risk, often subconsciously, so in that respect, the decision on making an Indian Ocean passage is just another risk assessment exercise, which ultimately has to be made by the skipper and crew and no one else.

Tom Sampson

Related content

Gulf of Aden & Red Sea Passage – January 2015

Maldives to the Red Sea: Travelling solo through the HRA (High-Risk Area)

SE Asia to the Med in Convoy through the Gulf of Aden

Somalia: First hijacking since the height of Somali piracy in 2012.

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