Northern Malaysia: Attempted Boarding on passage – November 2014

Published 10 years ago, updated 5 years ago

On November 14, 2014, at 4 have I woke Mildred up so that she could stand her watch. We were 35 nm miles west of Pulau Balambangan, the first of the islands of Malaysian waters as we were traveling from the Philippines. Our position was 07 21′.74N 116 17′.72E.

I had the boat sailing wing on the wing at 6 knots in a good following breeze.

Before I could lay down to sleep she pointed out a boat coming towards us. It was very brightly lit up and was coming at us rapidly. We also noticed a large boat out in the shipping channel quite a distance away. I went below to get my military issue flare gun. While loading I hear Mildred say “They passed us and they are turning around!!”

I go above and see them approaching my starboard side. I sent Mildred below to start calling a mayday on the VHF radio. Because it’s night and their lights are bright, I hold off firing until I can see if this was either a police or navy vessel. I see no decals on the boat and it is carrying a large load of crates covered with a blue tarpaulin. I fired. They fell back behind the boat and turned off their lights. I reloaded and started the engine to go faster. In a couple of minutes, they came up the port side. I fired again They fell back. I reloaded and hurriedly went below and pressed the alarm button on the shortwave, grabbed the epirb and started it as I went back above.

They were still following behind me crossing back and forth across my wake.I had purchased 250 ft of polypropylene rope which was a dark brown to decrease its visibility, while in the Philippines. The idea was to unroll it in 1 long line to catch the prop of the following boat as it crossed our wake.  I started to unroll my rope and within a minute, being a clumsy idiot, it got tangled and soon after was a hopeless mess that I could not feed out.

They approached the port side again and I fired for the third time.

They fell back and followed directly behind me. I looked down at the useless mess of rope at my feet and threw it overboard anyway. A loop of the rope was caught by a stanchion and stretched out the rope mat to about 10 feet. I checked behind me and they were still in my wake. I flipped the loop off the stanchion and it floated back to them. Soon after the mat should have reached them I noticed a light turned on that was receding. After a few minutes as the light dimmed in the distance, I turned off the lights on the boat and changed course. The assumption is the rope managed to get wrapped in their prop.

Due to the location, which is way out in the middle of nowhere, and the sighting of cargo in the boat, it is assumed by the four police departments in Malaysia that interviewed us that we stumbled through a smuggling operation. The large boat that did not respond to our distress helps to confirm this.

Our attempted capture was just a target of opportunity that failed.

What We Learned:

1. They will try to board even if you are moving. In the Philippines, it was thought that they would only go for an anchored vessel.

2. We left off the west coast and because we thought we would be so far away from any Abu say if we’re complacent. Did not rig a rope to spool out as I had planned.

3. Something that shoots was critical. Molotov cocktails pre-made may have come in handy.

4. Sail without lights at night.

5. Buddy boat. Stay together even if one is slower or has mechanical problems. We separated from ours after trying to fix the alternator.

6. The rope was the best 700 pesos I have ever spent. Polypropylene so it will float.

We arrived in Kota Kinabalu on the evening of November 14 (same day) where we anchored in front of Sutera Harbor Resort. The next day we went to the marina there and talked to the manager. She called the police for me and I was interviewed at the resort. Then followed 4 days of dawn to dusk interviews with law agencies culminating in an all-day trip to the incident location area on a large police boat.

R. Keith Brauer (USA) and Mildred Villarba (Philippines)

S/V Atalanta

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  1. February 23, 2019 at 5:48 AM
    Data Entry5 says:

    Yes, she is a local who has been with me for 3 years now. Because this occurred at 4 am in the morning there was no way that the approaching boat could have seen who either of us was. I thought Almacantar was intense also. If they wait as long as was indicated by their comments it would be too late before acting defensively.

    One thing I’ll add is that in all three attempts of approaching my boat they were trying to come alongside which was not clarified as well as it should have been. They were not just trying to parallel my path. I have been to KK, Labuan, Brunei, and now Kuching so far and sorry not able to tell you about the other places. Was indicated to me once past Palawan/Malaysian border area not as likely to be a problem.

  2. February 23, 2019 at 5:48 AM
    Data Entry5 says:

    I went through that area in March 2014 and I think it was just about 30mi north of Balabangan. it was 3-5am when my crew asked me to come and see if I can tell which direction this boat was going in. There was just a bright white light and it was hard to tell how far away it was or how big it was but I was obviously pointing at us.

    Maybe they weren’t even moving for a while. My crew is male and quite tall and I’m just curious. You said your crew was new in the PI, was she local? It would make me think maybe they saw a small local woman on a sailing yacht and can assume there is a wealthy white man aboard.

    Who knows really what their intention was, you made it. How is the situation by Sipidan? I’d like to sail to Raja Ampat but it was a bit troubled around there when I was in the area. Almacantar’s pretty intense.

  3. February 23, 2019 at 5:47 AM
    Data Entry5 says:

    As stated boat was lighted up brightly on its own and interior easily visible. Not red flares. Not type boat expected 35 miles out long distance. Repeatedly returned after firing (up). Didn’t show themselves on approach. Believe what you want. I’ll believe the four police organizations and my own eyes on the seen.

  4. February 23, 2019 at 5:47 AM
    Data Entry5 says:

    Correction to my comment posted earlier: I meant a few tens of miles further from Jolo, not Pulau. And one other thing, I still do not see why a lack of VHF response from the other ship “confirmed” it was a smuggling operation.

    Given the fact that very few vessels ever respond to VHF in this part of the world, much less to DSC distress signals or messages passed in English, I would have used the level “slightly reinforced”.

  5. February 23, 2019 at 5:47 AM
    Data Entry5 says:

    Well, thank you for your clarification. Once again I am glad you are both safe. Firstly, I am very glad to hear that you did not fire directly at them. I have considered that it might be reasonable to fire a flare directly skywards if feeling similarly threatened, though never yet have felt the need. This was not, however, clear from your initial description. Indeed, you’re specifying the flare “gun” as “military issue” followed by your referring to three “shots” gave rather a different impression.

    The later suggestion about molotov cocktail use reinforced that 1000 percent. So, you say that the boats in question were “in the middle of nowhere”. Yet you were only 35 miles West of Balambanganan and fairly in the middle of the thoroughfare from the Southern Philippines to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and South Vietnam. In my experience, it is pretty common to see small cargo vessels, usually of wood, in the waters surrounding Borneo.

    What makes you suggest that “there [was] no reason for a boat of this type to have been in the area of the incident with a old of cargo”? I am very curious to know whether you tried to illuminate the boat with the likes of a powerful spotlight, flashlight or similar? Your descriptions have no suggestion of that. Most of what I get from the descriptions is what you did not see, rather than what you did.

    I have no doubt it must have felt threatening and I have no doubt that in similar circumstances I would have been concerned about a POSSIBLE attempt to board or similar. However, approach to 15 feet does not actually constitute an attempt to board. It may very well be that they were NOT fishermen, but it may equally have been that they were seeking fuel or similar. They may have needed some other kind of assistance. It is not clear.

    Has it occurred to you that a red flare (as I presume it was) is an internationally recognized distress signal, and that, if this was indeed a misunderstanding, then the second and third approaches may have been in order to see if anything was wrong with yourselves or your vessel? Look, I am just suggesting alternative possibilities because a lot of people live and work at sea and sometimes they behave in apparently strange ways, but yet are not necessarily pirates attempting a boarding and kidnapping.

    They may have been- but aside from the aggressive piloting, there is no actual evidence of that I am afraid. You mention the area- but for these people, the area is likely their home… so what may seem threatening to you may not seem so to them. With regard to Abu Sayyaf- your position was only a handful of miles further from Pulau than was the location of ambush of the German couple, and they have repeatedly raided the Malaysian Borneo coastline to gather hostages.

    If it had been them, it is my considered opinion that an attempt at armed resistance with dramatically inferior weaponry would have been worse than futile. You may think differently and that is your matter. However these forums influence the thinking of people preparing to sail, and it particularly concerns me that you suggested the use of Molotov cocktails.

    I mean, firstly, it is simply true that there is no hard evidence that the people in that boat were attempting to kidnap you or similar. Maybe they were, but what if they were not? Your proposal is to attempt to incinerate them. This seems to me simply true whether you are a kind and generous veterinarian, of which I have no doubt, or not. Furthermore, by your own admission in the first post, you state that you are “clumsy”, and in this case this caused you to get the line in a complete tangle as no doubt you felt pressurized.

    I am not being pejorative, this is simply your story, and for the record, I can be clumsy too. But this is exactly the problem. Do you really think that lighting and handling and throwing several fragile fuel bombs from a moving vessel in a seaway at night while attempting to incinerate POSSIBLE aggressors is a good idea? Do you not consider that in the process you may simply incinerate yourselves?

  6. February 23, 2019 at 5:46 AM
    Data Entry5 says:

    First of all, am I a bloodthirsty barbarian? No. I am a retired veterinarian who has been doing volunteer work halfway around the world, especially in Panama, Tonga on Vavau, and lastly the Philippines for 15 months in Cebu at an animal rescue center called IRO where I met Mildred. I have not been in a physical fight since I was 16, 41 years ago. NOT what you would expect in a violent person

    Am I an inexperienced sailor not able to determine if someone is a fisherman? I singlehanded from the Chesapeake leaving 9 years ago from the USA until the Philippines. Have bought fish and bait from many fishermen. Met many sailors with more experience but I am NOT a novice. All shots fired were in the air NOT at the boat.

    The boat which approached me was a very fast (did you not see the word rapidly) moving open skiff about 35 feet long. I do not know their actual speed because I could see they were closing on us rapidly and felt it more prudent to go below and get the flare gun then to measure it. I never saw anyone but Mildred did see one walking to back of the boat from the front when I was below. This implies at least 2 aboard.

    When Mildred went below and I watched them approach I allowed them to approach my stern to 15 feet. I could easily see the cargo of crates mostly covered with a blue tarp. What I could not see was any fishing equipment. Don’t know what material the boat was under the white paint. The people on board were hiding behind the cargo NOT showing me a fish or openly observing my boat out of curiosity like I would have expected. After firing the first shot ANYONE would have known their company was NOT wanted.

    They turned off their light and approached TWO more times, and you don’t think THAT was threatening in this area? The area which this occurred is beyond typical Abu Sayaff territory. There is no reason for a boat of this type to have been in the area of the incident with a load of cargo. There is nothing out there until you get to Vietnam being just open water. It was thought by the 4 marine policing agencies to have been there to pick up goods from a large ship, as mentioned we saw one in the area.

    The larger ship did not answer our mayday. For the above reasons the 4 police agencies think this was a smuggling attempt and we were just targets of opportunity. The paying of the large ransom by the German government is an incentive for more of this to occur. The above should have made any SENSIBLE person in fear for their freedom and safety.

    Because the USA Navy has jointly assisted the Philippines in the pursuit of Abu Sayaff members have said they wanted to catch an American in retaliation and cut off his head. I was afraid for my life. If they had gotten to the point of trying to step on my boat I would have felt justified in using a molotov cocktail or other deadly force. No, I did not have one aboard. I do not know if there would have been a 4th attempt but glad the rope worked.

    According to an impromptu briefing by the Philippine coastguard given in Puerto Princessa for cruisers at the Abanico Yacht club, most smuggling which occurs is between the Philippines and Malaysia in the islands south of Palawan. Rum and cigarettes to Malaysia and diesel back to the Philippines primarily. The areas that are especially noted were shown on a map.

    The German couple was kidnapped in this area not where I was at. They were close to shore, 10 miles off the river of Rio Tuba in the SW part of Palawan. Neither us or them was near Jolo. I did know of the german couple. When first arriving at Puerto Princessa I saw a boat break its mooring and drift free. I and 2 other cruisers rescued it. This was the germen couples boat.

    I was then told all about them. The boat was my neighbour on another mooring next to where I was anchored for the rest of the time I was there. I say Abu Sayaff was the group involved only because 3 of the 4 agencies said it was probably them. The other said it was probably not them because they were not brandishing weapons, but a local smuggling operation that would have sold us to Abu Sayaff if they could have got us.
    I listed many mistakes I made when I submitted my article.

    You mentioned it did not make sense that they would have come toward me with such an intense bright light. I agree and mentioned that myself to the police. If they had not had that light on, because of their speed, they would have been on our boat before I could have possibly gotten my flare gun. My only explanation is that just like an educated man, criminals are capable of making mistakes also. I’m very glad they did.
    All 4 of the marine police agencies think this was smugglers that attempted a kidnapping. I think so too. If after all the above you do not agree the only thing I can say is you are quite capable of making a mistake also.
    Keith Brauer, DVM

    Mildred Villarba
    S/V Atalanta

  7. February 23, 2019 at 5:46 AM
    Data Entry5 says:

    A couple more things: You mention the possible use of “Molotov cocktails”. But who against? Against this boat? Without further evidence of their really being pirates, such an act would seem drastic to the point of being really criminal. I mean, and this is the other thing, another reason it is COMMON for fishing boats to come close to and appear to pursue sailing and other vessels is to attempt to warn of the presence of and guide them around the likes of traps or drift nets.

    The presence of working lights on the vessel in question makes it very likely in my experience that these were indeed fishermen. Consider if the shoe was on the other foot, and you were a poor fisherman from New England, and a large Indonesian or Malaysian superyacht was blindly steaming to your poorly marked nets. If you did not possess a radio, as many of these vessels do not, you may wish to go alongside to try to hail them.

    And what then if they opened fire on you or, much worse, rained down firebombs at your vessel? As to the non-reply from the larger vessel on VHF, this in no way surprises at all. Having sailed extensively in Indonesian and Malaysian waters I have almost never had any local vessel reply to a hail on VHF. Most don’t even possess it, and if they do, they will usually not speak English, or be trained in international distress protocols.

  8. February 23, 2019 at 5:46 AM
    Data Entry5 says:

    Well, I am very glad you are safe. However, I am finding the story problematic in a number of respects. Firstly, for clarity, it would help to have a far clearer description of the vessel which appeared to be in pursuit. Was it a wood vessel? What was its actual speed? By the sound of your story, it seems like the suspected “pirates” were hardly faster than yourselves.

    How many were aboard? Was there any other reason than their proximity to indicate that they were indeed “pirates”? Does it not strike you as odd that “pirates” would be in a “very brightly lit” vessel? It certainly does me. Furthermore, your action in firing on them simply because they were not obviously police strikes me as rash.

    This also requires further clarification: did you fire DIRECTLY AT them? If so without sufficient other provocation this could be interpreted as an extremely hostile and potentially murderous act. What if you had set the boat ablaze and killed all aboard and it, in fact, was a bunch of overcurious fishermen? I have often been closely pursued by poor fishermen who either are simply curious, wish to trade, or even wish to divest their vessel of “bad spirits”.

    Never have I felt the need to fire on them. Further, you mention Abu Sayyaf. I take it you were aware of the taking of two German sailors from a location of similar distance from Jolo, and by the sounds of it you had come through the Philippines and so must have been in similar proximity. Did you really think this was the Sayyaf? If so do you really think firing on the likes of Abu Sayyaf with a “military issue” (meaning what?) flare gun was going to result in them just turning back?

    It seems to me that taking pot shots against people you suspect may be carrying light to medium military black arms and the like is a very bad policy and liable to get you immediately killed in a storm of vastly superior returned fire. I do consider that the prop tangler is a good idea and carry significant lengths of line in reels for the same purpose. It is passive and unlikely to elicit an aggressive response.

    I suppose I am just a wee bit tired of hearing of “pirate attacks” when there is zero actual evidence that those involved were pirates. Aggressive piloting is not an act of piracy, legally or otherwise. Can you clarify further or give reasons which in your mind made a potentially deadly use of hostile force the only reasonable option, particularly in the face of an assumed carrying of arms on their part? Further, why would “smugglers” of which I have seen many in the world, fairly obviously, bother to chase some random sailboat? This also needs clarification.