Anti Pirate Strategies for the Gulf of Aden Passage
Ventana transited the Gulf of Aden in 2008, the year the pirate attacks reached epic proportions. While there was one attack that year on a French yacht they were not on the normal cruising route. Your chances of a trouble free passage are very good- nevertheless the risk is very real and you should do everything you can to stack the odds in your favor.
First make sure you have seen all the websites for the coalition warships patrolling the area and have the most recent information, phone numbers, email, SSB frequencies etc. You can register with them and they will take your positions daily if you like. www.noonsite.com is probably the best source for current piracy information and links to other sites so check there for the latest information.
In 2009 a transit corridor for merchant ships was set up approximately 70 miles offshore. Warships escorted the ship convoys which were grouped together based upon boat speed which ranged from 12-20 knots. A few cruisers (especially those not in a yacht convoy or those going directly to Yemen without stopping in Oman) went alongside the corridor even though their speed was much slower. Some of the time they were alongside a convoy and other times the convoys passed them by and they were alone until the next convoy caught them and then passed them.
At one point we heard a “live” pirate attack via VHF. The freighter called frantically for assistance as they were being chased by several speed boats. A coalition warship answered and dispatched a helicopter towards their position- 20 minutes flight time away. It was very dramatic as the ship was being sprayed with automatic weapons fire and calling minute by minute what was happening and the helicopter pilot responded every few minutes saying how much longer until he arrived. The ship continued evading at his maximum speed of about 16 knots and just as the pirates had caught him and were about to board his ship the helicopter arrived. The pirates fled at sight of the helicopter but had the helicopter arrived 5 minutes later the outcome would likely have been different
Needless to say this was sobering for us to hear but it also gave us an idea of what an intervention by the heroic warships would entail. I concluded that the only thing that saved the merchant ship was the small difference between his speed of 16 knots and the pirate boats’ speed of maybe 20-25 knots depending on sea conditions. This meant the ship was able to outrun the pirates for 20 minutes until the helicopter arrived. Also his bridge height allowed he and his radar to see the pirate ships a good distance away before the chase started. The windows in his bridge were all shattered by automatic weapons fire, but his steel ship allowed him to continue to evade while he was being fired upon.
Thinking about how this would work for yachts I concluded it would not work at all. Our speed is maybe 6 knots and we only see them a few miles away. This means any chase would be over in a minute or two. And fiberglass would not stop bullets so we would heave to at the first shots. Consequently I concluded that unless the coalition war ships are willing to set up 5 knot yacht convoys and stay right alongside then the corridor is possibly not the best option for yachts. Also the existing corridor is 70 miles offshore meaning 140 miles out and back to the corridor in unpatrolled waters so you are in the pirate zone for an additional day increasing your risk.
If I were transiting in 2010 I would get a group of yachts together and petition the warships for once a week 5 knot escorted convoys preferably nearer the Yemen coast. If that is not possible my opinion is that the best option is a cruisers convoy of 3 or 4 yachts staying about 10-15 miles off the Yemen coast. This is what most yachts did in 2009.
If you do get a group of 3-4 yachts and take the 10 miles offshore stealth plan here are some thoughts and suggestions.
Salallah, Oman is where you will want to convoy up for passage of pirate alley. Our suggestion is not to try to co-ordinate this too far in advance as you and your Asia friends may not arrive in Sallah at the same time. But when you are in Sallah try to get together with 3 or 4 boats whom you like and all of whom are easy going and flexible enough to work with multiple opinions on everything.
Despite the fact that most of us feel better in convoys , the simple fact is that if one yacht is attacked other yachts nearby cannot really do anything to help. Therefore the hope is that a group of yachts close together will not appeal to the pirates- especially since this is (so far) not within their normal method of operation. For the convoy then to help as a deterrent you need to sail very close together- ¼ to ½ mile or less. You need to be able to get very close alongside each other within 5 minutes if you see a boat approaching so sailing a mile apart won’t cut it.
Next do everything possible to promote stealth. We maintained near radio silence. If we had to talk we made sure we used a low power channel. If all the boats have US capable radios you can use a US only channel such as 18A which is less likely to be monitored by the pirates. We had only tiny lights that carried less than half a mile or no lights at all.
Take down your radar reflector if you can. Most importantly have codes for everything you say on the radio and consider every word you say before you say it. Do not mention boat names, since observers may have seen your boat in one port and know you are heading to the next one - instead use personal names. Do not say alter course to 260 - instead say come right 10 degrees. Check in daily via phone or emails to the coalition warship coordinator. If you do check in to the cruisers SSB net have a complete code for that.
The system we recommend is as follows:
Designate one or more arbitrary waypoints such as point X at 13N 46E. Tell each other the waypoint lat/lon in person before you depart or send it via an email but NEVER say it over the radio. Then refer to your position as 46 miles TO X on a bearing of 250, current course 290. Or after you pass point X say 37 miles FROM X on bearing 080. We also had letters A,B C etc for the ports along the way between Salalah and Aden so if you were stopping at Al Mukulla you could say you were heading to point A and should be there today. Do not say you are stopping at point A – that is a pirate clue. If you tell the net you are heading to point A they know it is Al Mukulla and you will be stopping. (Note: do not use the above points which have now been published- make up your own).
You will see fishing boats nearby. They look just like pirate boats. Our suggestion is watch your radar, alert each other via brief radio call and close your formation. We all felt more vulnerable at night but the fact is of nearly a hundred pirate attacks only one so far has been at night, so stay close all day. This may mean motoring so you can match speed.
We stopped at Nishtun where they motioned us alongside the wharf. They checked all our papers but did not clear us in and did charge us about $15 for the overnight tie up.
We also stopped at Al Mukulla where we arrived after dark which was not a problem. We enjoyed this town immensely. We recommend visiting Al Mukulla though stopping here does put you at slightly more risk since shore side watchers could report your departure. The attack we heard on the radio took place about 50 miles due south of Al Mukulla.
When you get safely to Yemen -celebrate.
Commodores Rob and
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