We’ve just spent a most delightful week in and around Salalah, Oman and are on the move again. Salalah has been a wonderful introduction to the Middle East-beautiful sights, friendly and helpful people, and excellent food. We explored ancient tombs, rugged mountains, 15th century ruins and saw more camels than one could imagine. We wish we could have spent more time, but we don’t want to miss the favorable conditions at this time of year for moving north up the Red Sea. We’ll get a report out about our visit when we’re able.
This passage will take us through the Gulf of Aden, labeled by some as “Pirate Alley.” From a security standpoint, this is probably the piece of water that cruising sailors fear the most. That said, with more Coalition Forces activity in the area, combined with a step up in patrols by the Yemeni Coast Guard, it appears to be much safer than in days past.
We’re on the trailing edge of this year’s cruising fleet and have heard no reports of any attacks or attempted attacks on cruising yachts preceding us. Even in years past, the odds of facing off with pirates has been less than 1%. We’re willing to face the odds and move on, albeit with a bit more caution than we usually exercise on passage.
Convoy or alone, that has been the question. Many of the yachts before us have formed convoys for the passage, while others have gone alone. Statistically, in past years boats in convoys have fared no better or worse than yachts going it alone. There is no doubt that from an emotional standpoint, it is much nicer to have others around, but it definitely makes the trip more slow and difficult, and in the past, pirates have had no qualms about robbing five or six boats in one go.
The negatives of a convoy, for us anyway, outweigh the positives. We would have been happy to convoy with some yachts of similar speed capabilities if there were some. Most of the convoys are using a speed of advance of 5 to 5.5 knots, and sailing in close formation, which at night without nav lights can be a challenge. We expect to maintain a speed of advance of 7.5 to 9 knots with liberal use of the engine. This will reduce our time in “Pirate Alley” from five days to three and change, for the 600 nautical mile trip. I liken it to walking across the freeway. The longer the time you spend in the middle, the greater your exposure to getting whacked. We feel the ability to move fast and change course quickly may be an advantage.
Our strategy is to remain 15 to 20 miles off the Yemeni coast, maintain a constant radar and visual watch, and steer to avoid, or speed up to remain clear of any small vessels that may have a close point of approach. We will avoid any radio chatter, position reporting and run with no navigation lights at night.
Merima and I will be back to a “two-handed” crew for the remainder of the trip to the Med and have spent some time preparing in the event that we are approached by a boat that exhibits hostile intentions. We have set a procedure for making Pan Pan or Mayday calls, and have telephone numbers handy for the U.S. 5th Fleet, Yemeni Coast Guard, the French Navy and the Anti Piracy HELPLINE.
At the end of the day, these people who are labeled as “Pirates” are usually no more than poor fishermen who perceive cruising yachts as floating pots of gold, and are hoping to supplement their income by a bit of assertive begging. Even in the past, where robberies have occurred, we’ve not heard of any yachties being physically injured. Should we determine that an armed boarding is imminent, our intention is to call a Mayday, set off the EPIRB, launch flares, attempt to remain calm and then surrender. There is nothing aboard that cannot be replaced excepting our lives.
We’ll be departing shortly and plan to get a report off daily to let you know how we go.
We’ve yet to see any dodgy characters out here, nor any of the 15 to 20 knots of wind forecast for the Gulf of Aden. So far it’s been 5-8 knots of breeze from well behind the beam, and we’ve been motor sailing since we departed Salalah. The good news is that we’ve had a half to one knot push from the current as we’ve been cruising off the coast of Yemen. Our first 24 hour run was 216 nautical miles.
Other than the usual shipping traffic running along parallel courses, we spotted two pods of humpback whales yesterday morning, and a large pod of dolphins played and sang around the boat this morning.
Last night the cell phone went off as we caught reception from Yemen. Its sort of strange to be out in the middle of nowhere, out of sight of land and be able to send text messages to mates here and there.
We’re hoping that the breeze fills in and we can conserve our fuel. If so, we may give Aden a miss and press on into the Red Sea and make landfall in Eritrea, roughly eighteen hours further down the track. We’ll make the call tomorrow some time.
After 41 hours of motor sailing in light airs, we finally hooked into some breeze late last night. We are now sailing fast in a northeasterly breeze in the low 20’s Unfortunately this is right along the rhumb line, so we are now gybing across the northern half of the Gulf of Aden, favoring the Yemeni coast with it’s positive current.
There has been plenty of shipping traffic to keep us on our toes. We almost always have at least one or two large ships in sight. We’ve also seen a couple of traditional fishing dhows and a couple of small open boats, none of which has diverted course to come say hello (i.e. ask for booze and cigarettes) so far.
The only close encounters we’ve had have been with a sailfish that surfaced, with its large dorsal fin fully exposed, just a few feet off the port side of “Moonshadow.” We also were entertained for awhile yesterday morning by a large pod (at least 50) of black spinner dolphins. They seem to be more acrobatic than other species, and a couple of babies were doing some high jumps.
Our 24 hour run from yesterday was 205 miles, and we’ve got just a few more hours before we’re out of what is known as “Pirate Alley.” We’ve got plenty of company out here, and with a short steep seaway, its no place for a small speedboat such as the type pirates might use.
Since we have good breeze and plenty of fuel, we’ve decided to bypass Aden and head straight through the Gates of Sorrow into the Red Sea and make our first landfall in Eritrea near the town of Assab. If the breeze holds, we should make it by tomorrow evening for a late happy hour.
“Pirate Alley” is now behind us (big sigh of relief!) and the Red Sea is just ahead.
The wind has still been blowing very steadily down the course line at 16-23 knots , which means that we’ve had to gybe five times to make our way to the next waypoint. We’ve made good 165 miles in the last 24 hours, although we’ve probably sailed at least 200 miles over the water. We’re happy to have wind instead of engine noise!
Weaving our way through the large volume of shipping traffic has been our greatest challenge, and we’ve yet to have any sort of small craft come close or change direction towards us.
On one occasion last night we were headed towards a fleet of five small fishing boats all showing small red flashing strobes, similar to the type that was commonly used in Asia. We gybed away before ever actually seeing any of them.
As of this writing, we have roughly 100 nautical miles to the Gates of Sorrow, the entrance to the Red Sea. We hope to be anchored in Eritrea some time early tomorrow morning.
On our fourth day out, we enjoyed a nice day of sailing as we passed the port of Aden. Reports from cruising friends who had called in there were that it was dirty, difficult and unless one wanted to travel inland to the capital of San’A’, it should be given a miss.
Other than a case of DDW syndrome, meaning that our mark was dead-down-wind of our position, we enjoyed a nice day of sailing. When the winds dropped below the 20 knot mark, we put up the spinnaker for a few hours. The 1-1.5 knot positive current we had enjoyed slowly evaporated. Unfortunately, we weren’t making the sort of forward progress we had hoped for as we were gybing across the course line, and we would have missed passing through the Gates of Sorrow in daylight.
We decided to take a break and took anchorage for the night at a small Yemeni fishing village called Ra’S Al’Arah about 30 nm from the gates and proceed again at first light in the morning.
Shortly after we anchored, we were approached by a long open fishing vessel with about ten Yemeni men aboard. They were very warm and friendly. I gave them a few packs of cigarettes, which they immediately began to enjoy. While they were mostly in traditional dress, two of the men indicated that they were military. They asked for our papers, so I gave them a letter of introduction (in Arabic) and copies of our passports and ship’s documentation. They were very polite and asked if they could keep the paperwork, which I agreed to. They also asked if we needed any services from their village. I explained that we just wanted to rest there for the night and would move on in the morning. We said our goodbye and they moved on.
After a very restful night, we got under way at 0600 this morning for the last leg of our trip to Assab Bay in Eritrea, about 75 miles to the northwest.
Starting out early yesterday morning, the sky was overcast and there was a low haze on the water. Winds were just a couple of knots as we motor sailed from our anchorage on the south coast of Yemen. As we approached the Gates of Sorrow, the breeze filled in to 8-10 knots from the northwest. As the sun rose higher, the haze faded and we had much better visibility as we rounded the corner from the Gulf of Aden into the Red Sea.
We opted to pass through the small strait between Perim Island and mainland Yemen, as it was the shortest route, and it also kept us well clear from the steady stream of heaving shipping traffic funneling through the large strait, only about 11 miles across at its narrowest point.
As we passed through the small strait, the earth to either side of us looked parched and almost barren of vegetation. The lighthouse on Perim Island was surrounded by a fortification which appeared to be from the colonial era, and there were some other buildings, towers and bunkers, indicating that this was an important strategic point. To starboard on the mainland, there were castles or forts on the tops of the nearby peaks. The lack of anything modern in appearance gave it all a surrealistic appearance of being back in biblical times. It probably looked as it did a thousand years ago.
As we turned the corner, breathing a sigh of relief that we had finally reached the Red Sea, the wind came on the nose. The seas were negligible so the ride was comfortable. We made our way across the shipping channel, weaving nicely between the flow of traffic, and into the Rubitino Channel, the approach to Assab. As we bore away into the channel, we rolled out the genoa, shut down the engine and sailed toward Assab.
Two men in a small boat came close, cheering and waving their hands, apparently giving their approval to us as we roared through the channel at 9 knots under full sail. They came close and tried to speak to us, but we could not hear them well or understand what they wanted. The driver asked us to stop the boat, as if it was as simple as touching the brake pedal, while he was wiping the repeated pelts of salt spray from his face. They did not look official, so we indicated that we needed to press on to Assab so that could arrive before dark. He seemed to be OK with this and they sped off.
Shortly after, we were passed by a brightly painted local dhow, or fishing boat. This one looked as if it was modeled after Noah’s Arc, with the bow and stern both very high and pointed. It would be difficult to tell if this thing were coming or going. The crew were smiley and waving.
An hour later we entered the port of Assab. Being a Thursday, the port was closed for the “weekend.” Port Control did not answer my numerous calls and the city appeared to be a ghost town. We were anchored and got the boat tidied up just in time for happy hour. Over sundowners, Merima and I kept looking at each other saying “I can’t believe we’re in the Red Sea!” I can’t believe we’re in Africa!”