Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Differences Between Motor-Boaters and Sailors

While we have been cruising in the Seychelles I have been struck by the difference between people who drive motorboats and the visiting long distance sailors, who live onboard their boats.

The first obvious difference is the size of their bellies.

Most motorboaters have large waistlines, and there is a good reason for this: Motorboats are very boring modes of transport. Even to a median intelligence, the fun of driving a motorboat is limited to about half an hour. During this time the driver will turn onto his own wake to bounce through it in a vain attempt to make driving his motorboat interesting.

It is rather like driving a sports car down a bad road littered with puddles.

The novelty wears off quickly.

As a result motorboaters invent things to do, which sometimes involves dragging somebody around behind them on skis, but more usually entails buying expensive fishing equipment to catch and torture fish. If the anti-hunting league ever discovered what deep-sea anglers do for sport, they would find lots of reasons to interfere.

What happens after the “sport” has taken place is that the motorboaters assemble at a club or a bar where they discuss and compare the size of the fish they have killed. They also compare the size of the engines they have to power their boats. It is not unusual to see more than a thousand horsepower of engines strapped to the transom of a twenty foot boat. The only other places that I have seen this excess of power on boats has been Gibraltar Smuggling Boats and Arab Oil Sheiks’ Boats.

All this comparative chatter is accompanied by drinking beer, which is why most longstanding ardent motorboaters have big bellies. I believe that there is a direct relationship between the number of excess inches of belly fat to the number of cylinders of engines used to power each individual’s boat.

Motorboaters are generous people and are ready to buy rounds of drinks to keep their social standing in their group. Mean ones don’t last long.

Long-distance sailors on the other hand are usually lean, and many of them don’t drink alcohol at all. Part of the reason for this is that they don’t have room on their boats for bottles and cans, but also that their lives depend on being responsible for their boats twenty four hours a day. They also are often cruising on a shoestring and they regard group drinking to be too expensive for their small budgets. Sailors have to plan their lives with care because they have to ensure their resources will last until they can find work or restock their boats from shore-bound investments.

They have a bond to other sailors that is similar to the motorboaters’ social groups, but their conversations are very different.

In-between these two groups are the Catamaran Sailors. They do not fit into either faction as their boats are a sort of underpowered motorboat with a sail. Their method of propulsion is to motor in a direction and, if the wind is suitable, to unfurl a sail. Very few of them will actually sail their boats because a catamaran is a pig to sail. It has a poor windward performance unless fitted with leeboards of some kind, and they are almost impossible to tack. The first thing a catamaran sailor does when sailing and something goes wrong is to start the engines. They are also obsessed with speed, which is where the catamaran scores over the monohull sailing boat but only when sailing off the wind.
 
A catamaran is at its best when stationary, when it becomes a good platform from which to snorkel or dive, or when enjoying a sun-downer on deck.

Catamaran sailors seldom discover the real essence of sailing which is the enjoyment of the sailing rather than the goal of “getting there”.

Long distance sailing is a question of loving being at sea for as long as possible, and the arrival at a destination is not the goal, but the termination of a yearning experience.

Ocean racing sailors of course are in a fringe class of their own, which requires them to live in extremely uncomfortable conditions with lack of sleep, poor food and an ability to sleep in other people’s beds, and to not change clothes for weeks at a time.

The so-called ‘Non Stop Round the World Sailors’ are, of course, misnamed. They usually sail down the Atlantic, around that large iceberg that is situated at the South Pole and then back up the Atlantic. A true ‘Round the World Sailor’ would, I believe, have to go through both the Suez and Panama Canals and visit at least twenty countries. They sometimes call in to Seychelles and they are so interesting and so modest about their achievements.

There is another difference between these two main groups, and this can be observed at refuelling docks.

Motorboaters tend to arrive at speed and then engage reverse thrust, and the consequent froth, noise and reaction is music to their souls.

Sailors either get their fuel with a jerry can, or if compelled to use a refuelling dock, they arrive with fenders in place, lines at the ready and do not rely on large applications of power to get into position.

When leaving a dock sailors take pride in using the wind, drifting away sometimes with the use of a long line to veer the boat, then raising a sail and edging away into the current.

Motorboaters like to feel the power, so power thrust and digging in the transom is their feeling of control. The fact that wake rocks everybody else around is usually ignored.

As for jet ski riders…. I would seriously consider immigrating to any country that has a permanent ban on these contraptions!

Monday, 19 May 2014

Seychelles pictures and comments

Here are a few photographs of the Seychelles taken during our cruise around the islands:

Seychelles Yacht Club, Victoria Harbour
 
Shopping with the locals in the market
 
Even the egrets come to check out the produce
 
Aspirations for the future
 
School wall with message in Creole
 
Freedom ready to depart for another cruise
 
Fishermen in the Harbour
 
Transport to and from the boat
 
American warship at anchor off Victoria
 
Marlene signalling to the warship that our intentions are friendly
 
Ave Maria Island
 
Eroded Rocks
 
Isolated beach with no shore access
 
One of our favourite snorkelling places
 
Young diver who helped us with his crowbar when our anchor was snagged
 
The laziness of sailing with an autopilot
 
Another arduous day in paradise
 
French warship on fire in Victoria Harbour.
Perhaps the Chef burnt the Crepe Suzette?
 

Friday, 2 May 2014

Seychelles

One of the first things that you notice in the Seychelles is that everyone seems to walk slowly.

It only takes three days for you to realise why!

Firstly, nothing is very far from anything else, so speed is not necessary, but also walking any faster than a stroll works up a sweat in this humid atmosphere. The main island Mahé is thirty kilometres from nose to tail, and only six kilometres wide.

There are exceptions to this speed rule: I saw one female jogger who seemed to be a Laura Croft look-alike complete with pony-tail, armband heart monitor, dumbbells in hands and thighs that could crack a coconut. But people like this are rare.

The islanders are a cosmopolitan collection of people who seem to live with great tolerance of each other. They smile easily, don’t raise their voices and we have yet to hear an adult ticking off a child, or even to hear a child cry: sounds that are all too common in European countries. Even the very few dogs we saw wander the streets wagging their tails.
 
seychelles contingent at the carnival
 
carnival, south african team
 
 

It is thirty five years since I was last in the Seychelles and during that time many things have changed, and some things thankfully have remained the same. There has been a communist government followed by a government that has tried to realise the potential of these islands with foreign investment.

As a result there are some hideous new buildings; islands created out of what were once shallow coral fringed bays, hotels like the Savoy and Hilton which are not known for their sympathetic attitude to indigenous needs and worst of all, eight large windmills designed to capture energy from the wind.  This area is an equatorial climate zone which is known as the doldrums, which has light balmy winds and the odd squall from a passing thunderstorm.

Windmills such as these have been an eyesore around the world, and on average produce less than 25% of the energy that the manufacturers claim of these ugly machines, in windy areas.

Here they are an example of politicians bowing to the Global Warming debate without any knowledge of the false claims made by the “bandwagon riders’ who perpetuate the myth.
 
Wind Generator doing nothing
 

I digress again, however it is interesting that these large International Hotels seem to have no guests at all, whereas the small locally run establishments appear to be well supported.  There is even an abandoned hotel on the western coast which is completely deserted and now looks like a beached Cruise Liner waiting for Nature to reclaim it back, by covering it with vegetation.

I was mentally congratulating the Seychelles Government for banning Cruise Ships when one appeared.

I was disappointed.

These grotesque looking vessels slip into harbours all round the world, disgorge their passengers who wander the streets of the host island donating nothing and buying little. They leave port within 24 hours, thereby avoiding port fees.

You have heard the Internet joke about it being better to retire to a Cruise Ship rather than a retirement home, because the service is better, the rooms are cleaner and when you die they just slip you overboard at sea? Well judging from the walking dead that came off this ship in Victoria Harbour, I would imagine that the Captain knows the burial service off by heart. It was like looking at the scene from Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, with the ghouls shuffling through town.

I imagine that these ships are safe from pirates in these waters, because who would pay to have any of these hostage passengers back?
 
Mahe, Port Victoria
 

On the plus side, buildings that despoil the beauty of the mountains have been kept to a minimum, so that many of the famous vistas of the Seychelles remain unspoiled. On some islands there are no buildings at all, and only bicycles are available as transport.

The bays that have made Seychelles famous as nearly deserted beaches fringed with shady trees remain as they always were, and for that I salute the powers that be, because once lost, these icons will never again be recaptured.
 
Tropical forest down to sea level
 

We have been able to drift past the headlands while the island passes by like an enormous painting of tropical forest punctuated by inlets and bays of unbelievable beauty. In many places the interference from man is zero so that the rocks and palm trees must be as they were hundreds of years ago.

We have anchored in bays in which we have been alone and it is easy to imagine that we are anywhere in the world where forest meets beach meets surf meets sea.
 
 

And to plunge overboard is to be transported into a world of colour beyond imagination. Clouds of tropical fish allow us into their world and after a cursory check, leave us to enjoy their antics as they guard their nests, pursue their rivals and engage in displays that involve colour changes and posturing. We have seen turtles being cleaned by wrasse, we have watched rays swim in close formation and we have watched angelfish chase larger fish in a most unangelic fashion.

Each time we swim among these fish in their coral gardens we find a new one that we haven’t seen before and which isn’t in the “book” so we have the momentary thought that maybe we have discovered a new species. But how to remember the colours when you surface? They are too fantastical to explain or document in normal earthly terms. And so the new discovery remains for someone else to document and record.
 
another sunrise
 

As we sip a sundowner on deck the sea around us erupts in activity as a school of baby tuna rip the surface with their thousands of bodies evading a predator.  A barracuda leaps through the air like a javelin back into the sea in pursuit of supper, a ray slaps the surface with his body and a turtle snorts air, gives us a scaly glance and then slips back into the depths.
 
another sunset
 

In the morning the sun refracts the colours of schools of fish into impossible emerald green, which reminds me of the colour sometimes used by French car manufacturers to detract from the shape of their vehicles. As the sun rises the colour of the fish changes to cobalt blue.

The glorious shades of the sunsets are captured by the rain showers which drizzle the pinks and gold in rain into the variegated tropical greens of the trees and the sea.

Every day the spectacle is different and it is easy to become addicted to the exhibition as it is to the sundower.
 
Aptly named Silhouette Island
 
Hard Sailing Condidtions
 
Marlene feeding fish
 
 
 
 
 

Friday, 18 April 2014

Arriving in Seychelles

We left the megalomaniac Chinaman and his crew of murderous Somalis behind us, grateful for the North-West wind which was the reason that we had timed this voyage for this time of the year: to get this long leg of the three part voyage with the best wind possible.

As we sailed further south it was as though the goldfish bowl in which we had been living was being cleaned. In the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden the sky is partially obscured by dust so that you can only see the stars above, rather like a goldfish looking through the top opening of his bowl.

As we progressed it was evident that the sky was slowly getting clearer and the celestial vista was improving each night as though some vast kind soul was cleaning our little bowl and giving us a view of the heavens. When I sailed up the Atlantic many years ago, my sole means of navigation was a sextant and an almanac of the stars. Many of them became friends who I could recognise at a glance and who guided us over thousands of miles of sea.

Now I felt ashamed that I had forgotten most of their names like going to a school reunion and fumbling for memories and names of fellow students that have become vague due to non-use.

The easy ones were there of course and we were in the right part of the ocean at the right time of year to have the plough and the North Star behind us, Orion overhead and in front the Southern Cross acting like a huge celestial clock. It was chance that the Southern Cross was vertical at local time midnight so that each hour of the night was represented by movement across the sky of this well known collection of stars. I found that I was able to time my cups of coffee during the night vigils very accurately, each hour, by merely glancing at the position of this great formation.

Of course the Milky Way lit up a huge swathe across the sky and because we had no clouds it was easy to move around the boat at night just by starlight. There was a New Moon at this time, and I was grateful for that as it gave us twelve night hours of each twenty four where we were almost invisible to any prying eyes.

The motion of the boat with the trade wind was serene so that at night it was as though we were flying on a magic carpet above the waves. The sky was reflected in the sea like an inverse universe and the little flashes of light from small squids and jellyfish seemed to be like shooting stars scooting across this upside-down firmament.

Marlene said, in a moment of poetic inspiration, that “It seems as though you can step off the boat and walk through the stars!”

Rather like some people would like to anticipate death: to be able to step into another reality in a painless and peaceful transition.

Behind us the twin hulls left a trail of florescence in the sea that looked almost like the condensation trails behind a jet aircraft at altitude.

It was a beautiful time to be cruising, marred only by the anxiety of keeping a watch for strange and suspicious boats. It seems to be a rare privilege to have a part of the planet all to oneself, with no vestige of the human race in sight and to be able to contemplate the insignificance and temporary condition of man in the order of Nature and the Universe.

The First of April passed without any pranks, although I had been tempted to attach a plastic bottle to Tony’s fishing line that we had been trailing hopefully but without catching anything all the way from Oman. We crossed the Equator on the Third and we gave Neptune a shot of Brandy which was well received because the wind now backed to the North and we were able to raise the Spinnaker. It was so steady that we sailed over two hundred miles with it flying and pulling us along.
 
I toast crossing the Equator while Marlene shares hers with Neptune
 

Tony caught a couple of fish but they were too big to land and they broke away. Now we were approaching the Seychelles group of islands and the character of the sea changed as we had been cruising with a depth of over four thousand metres and now it was reducing to fifty. The underwater view of this great submerged mountain range would be spectacular and we would seem to be approaching it like an aircraft just skimming over the shallow valleys near the peaks.

We were feeling more relaxed with every mile that we made away from the disputed waters of the north Indian Ocean. We had not expected this following wind at this stage of the voyage as normally we should have had variable doldrums type weather, but it seems that this year the northern movement of the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone has been delayed and we only ran out of wind twenty miles from Mahe.

Fine control tuning of the spinaker


We anchored at four in the morning in deep water to await the dawn and the clearance with customs and immigration, who at Seychelles come out to the boat at anchor to do all the formalities.

What a pleasure it was to be greeted by friendly efficient people who got all the paperwork done with smooth competence.

Then we were free to enter the port and see mountains with trees. We hadn’t seen any trees for nearly two months of sand dunes, rock and filth on land and of course trees at sea need to be treated with utmost caution!!

We got reciprocal membership with the Seychelles Yacht Club because Tony had arranged this with the Royal Cape Yacht Club and with Gordon’s Bay Yacht Club during a previous visit to the Seychelles, so in short order we were tied up to an island by the stern with the anchor laid to hold us in position.

Our neighbours are a collection of herons and egrets who have taken a few trees and decorated them with nests all separated by squabble distance.  They dispute their territories with the same vigour as neighbours do all over the world, the difference being that here they are elegant and beautiful. While we sit with a cup of tea we watch a heron coming in to land with a four foot branch that is going to be an extension to his nest. He has to balance the branch in his long bill, position it so that he does not hit it with his wings in flight and then land on a twig with his long legs all the while keeping an eye on the wind flurries and the other birds in flight.

My flying skills of decades of sitting in aircraft and simulators seem paltry by comparison.

Our other neighbour is a Frenchman on his small steel yacht who behaves like a hermit crab. He popped his head out when we arrived, ignored my “Bonjour” and has been hidden ever since.

This is in total contrast to the Seychelles Islanders who we find relaxed and communicative, helpful and happy to share their island with us.

We hope to explore the anchorages and diving places while slowly working on the boat to prepare her for the next part of the voyage.
 
 

I hope to be able to share some of the sights of the Seychelles with more pictures and less chatter when I find a suitable internet café where I can upload them.
 
 

Monday, 7 April 2014

From Salalah to the Chinese War Lord


We left the Port of Salalah grateful to be away from the extorters that we had found there, and steered off into the night.

It was Marlene’s ‘Watch’ and Tony gave her a refresher on the complications of lights at night at sea. She already knew a lot from our voyage together many years ago when we sailed up the Atlantic, but even when you know all about relative bearings and different signals, it can still get confusing.

And so it did!

Later that evening Marlene was confronted with a complex set of lights with long green lights, orange lights and all sorts of echoes from the radar. There seemed to be a big ship ahead with a number of small craft around it which were all moving about, and then some of the lights flew vertically up into the air!

She called Tony who came up to try and make sense of what was going on.

It transpired that a large American Naval Ship was doing a practice night manoeuvre involving small high speedboats and helicopters. It seemed that Freedom was the focus of all the attention, and the helicopters were deployed all around while on the radio a commanding voice told all ships and vessels to stay away from this four mile exclusion zone.

Tony and Marlene were treated to a spectacular display of how a potential pirate would be identified, intercepted and then hopefully subdued.

After an hour the helicopters returned to the long green lights and ‘landed’, if that is the correct word for alighting onto a ship, and I suppose they all went off for a self congratulatory debrief while we sailed on into the night.

I slept through the whole spectacular display… exhaustion does that to you!

The next few days welded together as we sailed a close reach and we were just able to ‘lee-bow’ the effects of the strong southerly current. Then we had a day of calm before the wind settled in from the North-West as we entered the Trade Wind belt. Now was the time for some sailing to make up for all the frustrations of the Red Sea. At last we sailing in wind conditions that catamarans like, and Freedom did ‘like’.

We were about four hundred miles from the Somali Coast and further than that from the Island of Socotra when I saw ahead a vessel that looked like a Coast Guard Cutter. I turned away from it and it looked as though it had not seen us in the poor visibility, but almost when it had passed out of sight it spotted us and turned back towards us.

I immediately contacted the Pirate Co-Ordination Centre in Bahrain via the Satellite Phone

that we were being intercepted by a suspicious vessel. Soon after the UK branch of Piracy Surveillance contacted us and I was able to give them a fairly decent description of the vessel, but I had to curtail the call as the vessel was trying to contact us on VHF.

There was a lot of angry chatter in a language that I could not decipher, so I explained that if they wanted to talk to us then it would have to be in English.

The vessel had a large sign displayed down the side of it declaring that it was armed and that all vessels should keep their distance.

I could not decide at first if it was a coalition naval vessel from a poor nation, as it was decorated with rust, or if it was indeed a pirate vessel.

An angry Chinese voice shouted words that sounded like, “What are you doing here? This is Prohibited Area!”

“No it isn’t!” I replied. “This is Open Ocean!”

He screamed a tirade of which I only understood a part, along the lines of, “I have paid the Somali Nation for this Ocean and this fishing and I can shoot anyone who enter here. You must not be here. Where are you from?”

I answered, “You do not have the authority to ask that question.”

He shouted, “How many on board?”

I said, “You do not have the authority to ask that question!”

He screamed, “Where you going?”

I answered, “Seychelles!”

He didn’t seem to know where that was.

“I put warning shot across your bow!” He threatened.

I replied, “You do not have the right to fire warning shots. You do not have the right to shoot at us. We are free to pass this part of the Ocean. This is Open Ocean!”

All this while there were three Somalis with heavy machine guns positioning themselves into firing positions from the deck, as our relative positions changed. We were still motor-sailing resolutely south. He had a large Somali Bodyguard next to him, also armed with a heavy machine gun.

Now I could hear the satellite phone ringing, which must have been the pirate watch people from the UK wondering what was happening to us.

I don’t know what this little yellow megalomaniac was thinking but after a couple of more heated radio exchanges he shouted something and then “Out”. So we took the hint, shut up and headed away, while he continued his patrol of his curtain of long line fishing buoys which seemed to be strung out more or less East to West.

A curtain of death for the deep sea fish.

I can’t tell if my aggressive attitude was the right thing at the time, but I had the feeling that any sign of weakness would not be in our best interests. Why he didn’t shoot us up I don’t know, he certainly could have. Maybe he thought we were also armed. I am sure that he had other boats in his ‘fleet’ to pull up the long line buoys and to process the fish.

Chinese controlled Somali Gunship with possible large gun hidden below foredeck.
 

Later that evening I saw a radar echo returning along the track that he disappeared on, so we motored at high speed to avoid another encounter. He did have a radar antenna rotating, but didn’t seem to be using it. Marlene suggested that there was a monkey down by the keel whose job it was to turn the aerial array!

It seemed that he really thought he owned the Ocean, but how could he? He isn’t the Royal Navy of the Eighteen Hundreds!

I feel sure that if we had been a fishing boat he would have opened fire without hesitation. He seemed so aggressive that I should think that he will even challenge a warship if one should cross his path.

I hope that happens.

And I hope it is a Russian warship.

They know how to properly convince people like him just exactly who does hold the trump cards at sea.

Salalah, Port of Pirates and Extortionists


“Salalah Port Control, this is Yacht Freedom requesting entry into Port Salalah?”

“Yacht Freedom, this is Salalah Port Control, do you have an agent in Salalah?”

This was our first warning, but we thought that we had moved up a notch from the ‘Third World’ ports where we had been. How wrong we were.

“Salalah, we are only entering port to uplift fuel and then departing.”

Wrong!

“Yacht Freedom, you have to have an agent to enter Port Salalah!”

Second warning, but we did not know it at the time.

After getting a list of agents from the port control we chose one at random and phoned him. He wanted to know all sorts of details like the last ten ports we had visited, our ship’s registration number (only required for ships over 100tons), if anyone had died on board and the Captain’s great aunt’s maiden name. Not quite, but you get the drift!

I explained that we were in transit and only needed to uplift fuel because of contamination, but they were having none of it.

We were given entry permission and we motored past enormous container ships that were in the process of docking, with all their anti-piracy barbed wire entanglements around the deck, and dummy guards which were supposed to give pirates the impression that they were being surveilled, but were in fact looking a bit weather worn, rather like abandoned scarecrows.

Ship with dummy guards and barbed wire protection
 

You have to admire the bravery of these pirates that they are prepared to climb up homemade rickety ladders to scale the towering sides of these ships, while balanced in a slippery skiff pounding along the side of the ship at twenty knots.

Would US Navy Seals do that?

I wonder.

We were directed to wharf 28 which was a dirty place to tie up next to a fishing boat manned by an Indian crew. They helped us into position.

The ‘agent’ from Gulf Agencies was there to meet us with a bill for $3200.

Whaaat?

“Oh yes,” he said.

Fees for this, fine for that and on top of which was a fee of $1200 for entering the port of Salalah.

I protested strongly and demanded to see the port authority and after much haggling got the bill reduced to €1660, which was about a forty percent reduction, but still ridiculous, but it did include a 500 litre fuel uplift. Eventually I decided that we should consider the fuel to be €3 per litre and forget the chagrin.

When I demanded a receipt I got a hand written note. I shall be taking this up with the headquarters of Gulf Agency in due course, because I love a scrap. It seems obvious to me that the port authority and the agency have a scam going for individual private yachts that don’t go on the books, but which are fleeced for cash which goes to line everyone’s pockets.

But it gets more sinister than that.

While we were tied up another large boat arrived, made in Iran and which was the exact duplicate of a ‘mother ship’ pirate vessel which was seized in the Seychelles and pictured in the ‘Grail Guide for Antipiracy’ book, page 19. What finally happened to that ship is not clear, but this one was either a sister ship, or the same one renovated.

The skipper was an Iranian who spent a lot of his time staring at us, rather like a farmer staring at his turkey flock and his fattest cock-bird just before Thanksgiving.

It was a very uncomfortable feeling.

Ian spoke to the crew and told them he was leaving us and going home, which was not the best move as now they knew that we would be only three on board.

That night, late, an unmarked box was delivered to the Iranian boat which was just the right size to hold a couple of heavy machine guns. I know those boxes, having ferried a few in my time, by air, around Africa.

Later, at about 0300 an Agency car arrived and was given a couple of decent sized tuna from the boat, which he put in the boot and drove away.

I knew something had to done.

Ian was due to be picked up in the morning and taken to the airport at Salalah and we were supposed to be given our final clearance documents. We were sorry to be losing Ian as he had been such a stalwart crew member, putting up with all the adversities along the route and rising to every occasion with a sense of humour.

“Only take one hour.” They said.

I saw the Iranian Captain standing on the shore next to the boat, looking like a grumpy grizzly bear that had missed the salmon run.

“Good morning,” I said.

“American?” he said, gesturing towards the American flag at the stern of Freedom.

“No, British!” I answered.

I realised as I said it, that wasn’t much better, ever since Puppy Dog Blair had followed the Americans into the Middle East War.

“We are going to Djibouti.” I volunteered.

He grunted and turned away. I hoped he believed that, because Ian had told them that we had already come from Egypt.

Iranian built boat, sister ship of captured pirate vessel in Seychelles
 

The Iranian boat left half an hour later, while we were delayed for several hours. They needed proof of insurance, because otherwise they were going to fine us another $200. We gave them a sheaf of paperwork which confused them just long enough to sign the clearance, and then we were off.

While in the port we found a small shop that serviced the needs of the sailors of the cargo vessels that stop at the port. This place was like the bar in first episode of Star Wars, with such a wide variety of ‘types’ from all over the world. There were two Somali ex-pirates who now had a job as ‘security guards’ on a commercial ship, and they made the pirates of the Black Pearl look positively handsome by comparison. I wonder if they also had a mobile phone to contact their ex-colleagues? There were Indian fishermen who were being castigated by a Somali Fishing Boat Captain for being in these waters and stealing fish. There were shady looking individuals who came under the general heading of ‘Eastern’ and also the officers from a Chinese Naval Ship that was patrolling the offshore waters. It is fascinating to think that the people rubbing shoulders in this small shop could be shooting at each other next day.

Once we were outside the port the authorities realised that we had given them a complex quote for insurance, and not a real insurance contract.

The reality is that no one can get insurance for running the Pirate Gauntlet.

So they were making yet another scam claim for money, on a certainty, but we were already outside the port and on our way. Of course we promised them all sorts of things, just until we got out of gunboat range. It didn’t seem likely that they would get the Coast Guard to get us back, because then they would have to include the Coast Guard in any future scams that they might run on foreign yachts. The Coast Guard seemed to us to be conducted at a high level, as was the local Police, and not stooping to petty scams on visiting yachts.

We felt sure that by now the Iranian boat had had time to fit his heavy machine guns, and get a good start towards the Omani/Yemeni border at sea. His most likely place for ambush would be, we thought, about fifty miles inside Yemeni waters from ten to thirty miles offshore.

If he has outguessed us, he would position himself about ten miles offshore along the Omani coast which is where most yachts go in order to pick up the following wind and current along the shore, in a wide sweep around towards the Indian Ocean and its destinations.

We decided instead to route out to sea, which would take us towards the recommended safety route and towards possible coalition warships, and also into a contrary current that we would have to battle against, but would be better than confronting a pirate.

The current from the south past Socotra Island at certain times of the year reaches seven knots and is reported to be the strongest in the world. Also at certain times of the year the frequency of gales here is higher than Cape Horn, with its formidable reputation.

Not the sort of place that Pirates like to hang about waiting for the off chance of a passing boat.

If and when we get to Seychelles I will be starting an animated series of emails with the headquarters of the Gulf Agencies and with the Harbourmaster of Salalah, who happens to be a South African who was away on leave during our brief visit. I will also be contacting the Office of Criminal Investigations in Muscat to find out the legality of the port authority levying fines for the list of things they presented to us.

I have also promised a report to the Pirate monitoring bureau in the UK regarding Salalah, with reference as to why the port authority is so interested in insurance cover for passing boats, if it is not to inform the pirates of the valuation of boats for ransom purposes.

There is also the question of if that ‘box’ did contain heavy machine guns, who supplied them and where did they come from? I am sceptical of the aims of Private Armies, or mercenaries, because their objectives are often to ensure their contracts are renewed, rather than meet the objectives of their employers. In this case there is a thriving business in supplying ex military people to act as security guards on ships, armed and ready to fire on any boat suspected of being a pirate boat. They have not had a good hijacking for a year, so I believe that it would be in their interest to have bloody incident involving, not a ship, but a private boat which would hit the headlines and ensure their future employment.

Would they find it worth while to arm an Iranian with a chip on his shoulder, for personal gain?

I know this is a very sceptical view of the situation, but after two months in these waters I have become slightly paranoid.

I hope not with good reason.

I shall be warning the other yachtsmen that I know of the dangers enroute and the dangers of the Port of Salalah.

I have come to the conclusion that when people of most religions lose their faith they still seem to retain a certain sense of morality and a sense of right and wrong, but in this part of the world that does not seem to be the case.

Once you have let slip the chains of a severely restrictive religion, anything is permissible and possible.

And likely!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Transiting Pirate Alley

“You are now in High Risk Pirate Activity Area ! This Is Japanese Navy Foxtrot Two Six Zero. If you see any suspicious activity, report to this Warship immediately!”

This was the gist of the messages that we received each hour during the transit, from different Naval Ships, from different countries.  At least this pirate situation has caused a form of International Cooperation between countries that may have never seen a reason to collaborate before. They herd the diverse ships into loose formations and then trundle through the night down the so called ‘Recommended Safety Route’.

It seems the Warships are lit up like Christmas Trees, while the others opt whether to show running lights or not.

All rather serene until yacht Freedom came along!

Tony was on “Watch” and was getting a “lift” from the wind, and did not want to tack and sail backwards away from the ‘Recommended Safety Route’, so he continued towards the convoy lanes…. With our lights off.

Well, of course a gaggle of ships saw him coming on radar, so they changed course, but could not see us in the dark. There was much concerned chatter on the radio, but Tony was enjoying himself with the helming. Perhaps they thought that this clandestine radar echo was a ‘mother ship’ and that the invisible pirate skiffs were about to launch an attack.

Search Lights came on and scanned the sea, paying particular attention to the area near the stern of each ship. Of course they did not see us, blinded as they were with their own lights.

Tony passed them and then tacked back into the anonymity of the dark seas of the Sea of Aden. Radio chatter continued.

But this was our contribution to the safety effort. One of the problems is that crews become complacent on the ships, and they stop keeping a good lookout. This particular evening they had something to chatter about…. How they thwarted an attack, and how brave they were.

So we supplied a small service to the general need for alertness in Pirate Alley.

The next day a helicopter came thwacking over us, no doubt taking close up photographs of the crew for later identification. We tried to get Marlene to ‘flash’ at them, but she declined. Just as well, as she would have perhaps found herself featured on the Gulf News front page, if they allow that sort of thing here.

Anything to relieve the boredom, because this has to be one of the ‘deadest’ seas in the world. It is devoid of birds and fish activity. Except for one fleeting moment when a large pod of dolphins passed us, with bill-fish, all chasing a school of smaller fish with urgent dedication. And that was it.

Nothing.

And to think that we nearly bought an arsenal of weapons to ward off attacks.

But seriously, the efforts towards achieving a safer sea for the commercial ships have proven effective. I am sure their crews are happier with the situation, particularly as they are all being paid a double salary for the transit! Pity there is no one out there to pay pensioners like us double as well!

The plus side of this tranquil period is that we have time to slip into the ‘Ocean Passage Mood’, which is a state of mind that one usually achieves after a couple of weeks at sea, away from the hassles and stresses of the shore. Up to now we have been so busy with the problems of thefts, missing equipment, adverse weather, delays by officials, engine difficulties etc that we have not had time to ‘Charge our Chi’.

Slowly that is changing.

If it doesn’t bore you, I will try to describe that mood swing later.

Right now we are two or three days from our next destination, and we are getting to be a little complacent as well.

Maybe we need a wake up call, like a Tony swinging in on a halyard from the night, with a bandana on his head, knife in teeth and a cutlass in hand and gold earrings.

Perhaps not…… We are supposed to be retired!

 

BUT  THEN IT ALL CHANGED!

Marlene was the first to see it: a small white object in the sea far ahead. We searched with the binoculars and eventually out of the gloomy haze we saw a fishing dhow with three skiffs on tow behind. This is the classical pirate ship, as depicted in all the information about this part of the Gulf of Aden.

I turned 90° and we watched for a reaction. After a few minutes the dhow turned towards us and started motoring. We had been seen.

We turned to motor away down our reciprocal track with the dhow slowly gaining on us. I called the Japanese warship and succeeded in getting in contact via another ship acting as a relay station. We gave them the information about our predicament and what we were doing.

An American voice came on the radio from an American warship saying they understood and good luck, but we were on our own. We did not expect any assistance from the Americans, because, after all, if they were not prepared to send forces to rescue their ambassador in Libya when he was in the process of being murdered by rebels, then it was hardly likely that they were going to expend any effort to save a couple of lowly American taxpayers like Tony and me.

However the Japanese Navy was a different matter.

They had been asking ships to report suspicious activity, and here it was.

While we exchanged information with the Japanese warship, the dhow turned away. We thought it was because they were monitoring the same general frequency that we were using to talk to the warship. They must have realised that there was no element of surprise for them.

We motored off into the night and soon after a helicopter from the Japanese warship came overhead, talking to us and getting more information about the appearance of the dhow and its collection of skiffs. It then did a search of the area.

We took a circuitous route closer to the shipping lane and returned to our original track.

We told Tony that probably the following morning we would find the Japanese Frigate alongside demanding if we would like to pay with VISA, MASTERCARD or AMEWICAN EXPWESS. Plus perhaps a contribution for the Japanese Navy Benevolent Fund.

But of course not.

Any other country maybe, but not Japan.

I am very impressed by their dedication to their duty here. They are on patrol and they are letting everyone know about it, and when something happens they take action.

I believe that we were in danger because this fishing dhow had all its buoys that long line fishermen use on the deck, not deployed in the sea. They were waiting for prey, not fishing: that was just a ‘cover’.

The Japanese Navy were there in what very easily could have been our ‘hour of need’ and for that we are truly grateful.