Northern Red Sea Passage: Security and Other Concerns March 2017

July 2017: One small, lightly crewed yacht’s experience of a passage from India to the Red Sea.

Published 6 years ago, updated 4 years ago

‘Pirate’ Lucas with a toy gun

Report Concerning Security Incidents on the way from Kochi to Suakin (Sudan) March/April 2017

We sailed from Kochi (India) to Ashkelon (Israel) between the last half March till the end of May 2017. When we left Kochi we had just heard and read that there had been a hijacking of a commercial vessel in the waters between Socotra (India) and Somalia mainland. It was the first of such incidents for a long time (5 years) and the news reports suggested that the ship had been “very slow” and “too close to the coast ” with other words: “they had asked for it…” We put this information on the back of our head. We were warned, but how to calculate our risk with this new situation, we didn’t know.

In our opinion, the whole crossing of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea is a kind of Russian Roulette. They get you or they don’t…..The area is so enormous that pirates can’t cover it all, so there is a big chance they will not see you. But how big? It is a calculated risk, and it depends on how you “calculate” if you will cross or not. We had not been overly worried about the crossing and we also did not prepare for it in a big way. No expensive binoculars or canisters of mace, but we had the plastic MP5 machinegun and a good laser sight and that proved to be sufficient.

We also choose to sail alone as we are a very slow vessel (34 ft with a 23-year-old motor). Afterwards, we were very happy we had taken that decision because we saw how many times we changed course, or stopped for a swim, or a repair. It would have been very difficult in such light winds as we had, to maintain a good speed to comply with a convoy. We were free. Apart from that, we do not believe that sailing in a convoy makes, in a practical way, a difference, only psychologically. But that can be enough to feel encouraged to take this trip.

We stopped only at 5 places; Socotra Island, Djibouti, Suakin, Hurghada (Egypt) and Suez. We stopped for 3 days at Ismailia in the Suez canal to wait out bad weather in the Med. We had such good sailing weather that we carried on and didn’t have to shelter, or wait out bad weather behind the reefs. We just were “spooning” nicely along, all the way. (spoon: sail along in ideal pleasant conditions with light winds).

We had 3 incidents on this trip which can fall under the head: security. Before we left Malaysia we had bought on Alibaba the MP 5 toy gun and we had fixed a strong laser beam to, it bought in Singapore. Our youngest crewmember immediately adopted the task to “man” this gun and he also assembled a special outfit to wear, worthy to meet some fiery pirates. He looked like his playing days as a boy on the streets of Los Angeles and Toronto was not yet over!

The first incident occurred a day before we arrived on Socotra, about 100 miles offshore from it. At first light, we saw two big fishing boats going on a reciprocal course from us, but at one moment they turned 90 degrees and came straight for us. Our crewmember put on his pirate outfit and took the gun and stood by the mainsail as the two fishing boats were approaching fast but then they slowed down and changed course away from us. We filed this incident away under the heading “curious fishermen”, as it was not threatening and if it was because they have seen the gun, we will never know.

The second incident occurred after we had left Socotra on Thursday the 6th of April. On Sunday night the 9th we entered the High-Risk Area Corridor (HRAC) in the Gulf of Aden and we arrived exactly between the two shipping lanes. We saw the tankers and container ships passing on both starboard and port. Monday morning(10 April) around noon a big warplane flew over, probably from Djibouti Navy, because they greeted us in French. It then circled around and came back for a chat on the VHF. We had registered at UKMTO, so they had already some info. They asked for a communication line so we gave the email address for the Delorme” InReach” we had on the boat. That was OK. They said that “nothing suspicious” was going on and wished us “Bon Voyage”. We did not use the SSB radio in the Gulf of Aden, nor the Satellite phone (Inmarsat I satphone), all communication was by VHF. The next two days they hailed us on VHF and asked if everything was OK. We never saw the plane, they were high up, but they were still doing their job.

A few hours later after the plane left an incredible noise broke out on the VHF. It turned out that a commercial vessel just 20 miles astern of us had been “successfully” hijacked and there was also a hijacking in progress 45 miles ahead of us! You can understand our confusion, after five years of nothing there were TWO hijackings happening just as we sailed those waters…and we were in the middle of it. We asked ourselves: is this real? Yes, unfortunately, it was. We later heard that the hijacking astern of us had cost at least one life. There were helicopters sent to that ship and two warships were on their way or were already there. The crew locked themselves in the strongroom at the bridge and the ship lay dead in the water. The pirates were onboard but could not get at the crew. They wanted to take hostages because that provides them with the highest amount of money. They are not so interested in the ship itself. But in this case, the helicopter chased the pirates from the ship with guns before they could get at the crew and one pirate lost his life.

The hijacking ahead of us was quickly over as the crew started shooting at the pirates before they could board the ship and they fled.

We immediately changed course out of this westbound shipping lane, this nest of pirates, and we sailed 20 miles more north in the direction of the Yemeni coast and there we stayed for the rest of the trip which was uneventful apart from some very good fishing. There were no more conversations on VHF ( but we may have been out of reach) so we said: No News Is Good News.

The third incident happened in the Red Sea just before dark, around 5 pm. We were sailing along the coast of Eritrea but outside the reefs but still in relative “shallow” waters. We could see many big ships at anchor before the entrance to Massawa (which port was closed due to security reasons). Then it happened! We saw 4 motor vessels about 10 meters long approaching us and with help of a strong telelens, we could see that all they had a big, white flag at the stern. This normally means “Truce” in military terms. We counted about 16 people on each boat and they were coming fast in our direction. Again, our crewmember put on his pirate outfit, manned the gun and stood to watch. In this case, he used the laser beam because one of the ships came quite close but after the beam hit them they immediately disappeared. One motorboat came back but another laser beam chased it away. We were not afraid that they had weapons, but we were afraid of an angry “mob”, that wanted food or water, which we did not have for so many people. We assume now, they were refugees who hoped to be picked up by one of the big ships outside the harbor. It was terribly sad to have to treat those people with such a hostile welcome, but we were in no way capable to help them and the risk was too great.

After this last incident, we sailed into deeper water where there were no commercial vessels at anchor. We sailed all this way up the Red Sea and just 30 miles before we would arrive at Suakin, Sudan, we encountered our first strong headwinds (about 20 kts). We motor sailed in a fairly big sea into Suakin harbour which has a very protected big entrance with breakwaters so it was no problem.

We counted ourselves lucky on this trip as we didn’t have any really bad scary moments. It was all manageable and commonsense guided us to a good outcome.

My husband and I have been sailing for over 25 years together. This voyage from India to Israel was the first time ever we had another crew member on board and we cannot tell you how happy we were to have this third person with us on those 3 security occasions and, of course, on all the other moments. It was such an enjoyable change that there was somebody else with us. We recommend to everybody who is going to make this risky, and at times, stressful passage to contemplate having some more crew. Two people will just do, but three people is much better. If my 34ft yacht had been big enough I would have invited a fourth person. Food and water is no problem and ready available underway. In this case, the saying: ” the more the merrier” is maybe true.

We are now in Cyprus and they have kindly made space for us in lovely but overcrowded Larnaca Marina. Our next voyages will be through the Greek Islands and not in Pirate Infested waters ever again.

Report by Karin
SY Amber Nectar

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