Passage through Pirate Alley
March 7-12, 2007
by Lois Joy
March 7, 2007
Leaving Oman behind our Wake
It is 1500 on my first watch of our 600-mile passage to Aden, Yemen and all is well on board. We have passed a bay off the coast of Oman loaded with stationary fish traps. Chris caught two mahi-mahis within one-half hour, but gave them both back to the sea to finish growing up. In less than fifteen minutes after throwing the line back in, he was rewarded with a nice-sized yellow-tailed kingfish. So we already have fresh fish for our passage. Not bad!
Insert photos 01 ,02 ,03, 04 Two about Leaving Salalah, the fish Chris threw back and the one he kept.
We are motoring along at a sedate
5 knots-per-hour in only 5 knots of wind, over calm seas with a clear powder
blue sky. We are part of what we are calling "The Camel Convoy"
with four other yachts, within sight of each other. Far on the horizon, I
can see the sails of three more yachts, a second convoy that left a couple
hours after us this morning. We have been given the frequency to listen to
their private nets. Lots of secrecy out here. I won't be giving lat and long
until after our passage—one of our convoy rules. We talk in terms of
waypoints "alpha" and "bravo" and "charlie"
now. Prabably all overkill. But it is nice to have the security blanket of
cruising friends nearby. The Yemeni Coast Guard says that there have been
no incidents involving yacht piracy off their coastline in the past four years;
they have stepped up coastal security since the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, where 17 sailors were killed. They advise yachts to stay within 20 miles of the coast. Coalition ships also patrol the area.
We enjoyed a lunch of tabouli salad on lettuce leaves, pita bread, hummus dip, and chicken sausages in the cockpit. Back to our 360-degree view, we realized that we are happy to be back at sea. We are "Salalah'd out," tired of dealing with the dirty, dusty port; climbing the rusty red ladder to the quay, listening to the 24-hour clanging of containers being loaded onto humongous Maersk ships; watching a white sun slip below dozens of giant orange cranes. Yes, we were anxious to arrive there (see the webstory Passage to Oman) and to put the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea behind us. And although we did enjoy the city, the countryside, and the cruiser comraderie, we are now eager to tour a new country with what we think will be a more exotic, less westernized culture.
Yemen. You may think of this country as a hotbed of terrorism, tribalism, and Al Qaeda activity. These are the prevailing perceptions. Yemen is reportedly the least known region in Arabia. But it wasn't always this way. King Solomon knew of this legendary land long before the Queen of Sheba visited his court with her gorgeous gifts. Yemen, along with Oman, is known for its rich resources of frankincense, spices, and myrrh. Great empires emerged there centuries before Christ. Here the Biblical Noah launched his famous ark.
After we arrive in Aden and secure Pacific Bliss, we plan to tour San'a, Yemen's 2500-year-old capital in the mountains. Old Sana'a is a UNESCO heritage site, one of the best preserved in the whole of the Arab world. We look forward to meeting the people there; we understand that they are fabulously hospitable with a fine sense of humor. So onward we go. Here's to Yemen, the "Pearl of the Peninsula!"
March 7, Evening
16º 17 N, 53º18 E
Night Watch under an Omani Sky
I come out to the cockpit during my 9-12 night watch, I am awestruck by the
river of phosphorescence churned up by the propeller of the droning port engine.
It reminds me of white-water rapids during a northern Wisconsin spring. I
check the water flowing out of the engine output hose. Under the starlight,
it streams as if into a pebble-strewn babbling brook. The bows of Pacific
Bliss are plowing through a cloud of phosphorescence, as if she has a handle-bar
moustache frothing with soapsuds. Overhead, above the mast, the stars envelop
me, brilliant and thick.
I am mesmerized. I forget that my “real job” out here is to look out for freighters, and here in “pirate alley,” especially for small boats sneaking in to attack their yachtie prey. I go to the starboard helm and peer across the bay toward the Omani shore. Nothing. But then, this first night out from Port Salalah, I realize that we are still in Oman. The “danger box” is still a few hundred miles away. I see the red and green running lights of the other four yachts in our little “Camel Convoy and I am comforted.
Eyes adjusted now to the darkness, I walk back to the port side and peer through the mist at the eastern horizon. I detect a light. It is faint and yellow. Could it be a vessel that is not a part of our convoy?
Aha! That light is rising now, a dull orange in the mist, barely discernable. As I watch, the light turns to a golden orange. The moon has entered my universe —surreptitiously at first, then boldly, snuffing out the stars in the eastern sky, turning into bright white fire as she climbs. A bright moonbeam stretches toward me, eventually reaching my seat at the helm.
“Be still and know that I am God,” a voice proclaims. The impact is so great that I can barely stand it. Back in the galley, I make myself a cup of hot chocolate and select a cookie from the snack box. I take it back on watch. The moon has gained a face now and she is smiling.
I have been listening to an audiotape, “If you want to write,” by Brenda Ueland. She says, “The best way to know the truth is to try to express it…what is the purpose of existence on this earth but to discover truth and beauty and to share it with others?”
This night, I feel incapable of describing such awesome beauty, let alone telling you how I feel about it, but I shall try. Because I want to have YOU out here with me, and this is the only way I can bring you here. Just know that all sunrises and sunsets and moonrises are not the same; neither is each brilliant night sky. But you can participate in this joy along with me by promising to spend some time in the next few days searching out a sunrise, or sunset, or moonrise in YOUR sky. And BE STILL. You’d be surprised at what you might see and hear and feel. Write and let me know! As for how I feel, I feel SPECIAL. Special to be able to be here, at this particular time, in this particular corner of the world. I feel as if it is meant to be.
13º37 N, 48º21 E
200 miles to go to Aden, Yemen
Boredom on High Alert
I sit in the cockpit of Pacific Bliss on my morning watch, the sky lightens
to a so-so sunrise, the sun hidden behind a bank of cumulous clouds, rare
on this passage of flat seas and clear skies. 400 miles into this passage,
we have only 200 miles left to go, 100 until we reach the “danger zone.”
This is an area in which, if there were pirates in this area, one could expect
them to be. Cruisers already safe in Aden have been told by the Yemeni Coast
Guard that they have cleaned up piracy, with no incidents along their coastline
in the past four years. On the other hand, they ask yachties to stay only
10-20 miles off their coast so that they can “protect” us. Presumably
from those non-existent pirates. Welcome to the lands of Arab logic and double-talk!
The Coalition warship probably has some reasons for hanging around here. They call regularly on VHF 16 to almost every passing commercial vessel by name. “Lucky Sailor,” crackled the VHF on my night watch. “This is Coalition warship Number 48. Please report to us any suspicious activity or vessels in your area.” Before sundown, a drone circled over our convoy. Twice. It looked like an oversized bird of prey high above our mast—we wouldn’t have noticed it if Chris hadn’t looked up into the sky right at that moment. It was absolutely silent. Eerie. Eyes in the sky.
All this reminds us that this is no ordinary passage. We are sailing through what has come to be known as “Pirate Alley.”
So much for the facts. After listening to the tape, I’m trying to convey to you how I feel. And that’s difficult.
OK. Here goes. The moonrise was a repeat. I was too busy on Night Watch to give it the attention it deserved. I’m sitting out at the helm seat the entire watch, keeping track of the positions of the other four yachts in our “Camel Convoy” as well as the green port lights of three yachts in the “Secret Convoy” who have caught up with us. They now call themselves the “Three Wise Men” and have dropped their cloak of secrecy to communicate with us. In addition, a number of oil tankers and container ships met us during the night, green-to-green, mostly heading from Aden towards Oman and on to the Gulf. Our convoy leader talked to one tanker who was barreling down toward our stern. He asked him whether he saw our group of sailboats. “I do now,” he answered. “Which way do you want me to go?”
“Just not though us, please.” The tanker deviated course significantly. Later, he called back on the VHF. He is headed for the Suez and on to the U.S. and was flabbergasted to hear that this fleet of little sailboats is headed all the way to Turkey!
The days are quite routine: cook, eat, clean up, read, and catch up on sleep lost the night before. There’s no sailing wind and the engine drones on as we enter our fourth day of this passage.
Chris hit the nail on the head yesterday during yet another sunset in the cockpit. “I’m bored,” he blurted. Then, as if to correct a mistake, he added, “Well this convoy stuff is getting to me.”
It is getting to all of us. I realize that I too, am bored. Bored and yet tense. I’m irritated at all the VHF 16 chatter—grown men on commercial ships singing to each other in some Asian language—interspersed with foul jokes. We are forced to listen, because 16 is an official channel, required by law. When an authoritative voice announces, “This is Coalition Warship…” even off watch, I awaken out of a dead sleep, and am instantly alert. I am tired of the additional Convoy rules, such as not using yacht names—but numbers—to call each other, then not giving out VHF channels or SSB frequencies, just the words, “Change/change” and “Switch/switch.” I begin to feel as if I’m living inside some detective novel or CIA thriller.
But come to think of it, this mood I’m in is caused by the sense that the entire world out here is on red alert. It is in the air. Yet nothing is happening in our little world. And we don’t WANT something to happen. The guys on the commercial ships, the captains of our sailing convoys, and most certainly the troops on the coalition ship patrolling the area are all hyperactive; I sense all of this bottled-up energy floating around, with no place to go. There’s no way to release it. Laps around Pacific Bliss? Not such a good idea when we’re moving along. Push-ups or calisthenics? Too hot, and water for showers is limited. If there were a good wind, we’d be adjusting sails, automatically swaying to the motion—good isometric exercise. But under the hot sun on a flat sea? Nothing. There is no way to relieve the tension.
The fishing boats that swarmed around us like bees the first day out were a release. They made that day interesting. It was daylight, so there was no fear. There were decisions to make: how many packs of cigarettes; how much water; should we give them food; should we accept that smelly, too-young dolphin fish they are offering; should we limit the hand-outs to one yacht per fishing boat? Along the way, though, our Convoy adjusted the Alpha and Beta waypoints farther out to sea, avoiding the fish pots in the huge bay of Ghubbat Al Qamar. Now, we are sailing far beyond the Yemeni fishing grounds.
We are comforted by the knowledge that soon, within a few days, it will all be over, and we’ll be spinning our own sailor’s yarns about Pirate Alley.
March 12, 2007
12º47.57N, 44º59 E
Arrival in Aden, Yemen
The moon began its rise in the wee hours of the morning, a half-baked cheddar cheese potato at our stern. Now, with some light we can begin to make out the masts of the Camel Convoy surrounding us. A line of lights scale the mountain to our starboard—a road, perhaps? Even in the dark, the approach to Aden is magnificent. “One of the best natural harbors in the world,” says the Lonely Planet, Arabian Peninsula.
Gunter and I are both on watch, overwhelmed with lights on shore, the convoy lights, the fairway lights, and the lights of anchored commercial ships. I awaken Chris. We are grateful for three sets of eyes. Without our radar working, we need them. I call Port Control on VHF Channel 13. “Please spell out your boat name phonetically,” he asks. That’s no problem; I have a “cheat sheet” in the logbook. Next he adds, “Spell out your surname and that of your crew. “Hotel, Oscar, Foxtrot, Mike, Alfa, November, November,” I spell out Hofmann slowly. “We must memorize this phonetic alphabet, before the next port,” grumbles Gunter, always the perfectionist. We had memorized it, way back in the eager days of Voyage One, but since then, we’d never been asked for more than the boat name. The good news: at least we don’t have to say it in Arabic!
We enter the fairway, lined with red and green lights, then past the first breakwater, past the clearly marked wreck, past the second breakwater. So far so good. A cruiser already in port has waited up for us. “I’ve got my spot on,” he calls out on our Camel Convoy frequency. “But just follow the music.” At 0200, the disco is blaring out music, it is loud, VERY loud. I cannot imagine how deafening it must be inside of the club. We don’t want to anchor across from that! We wind our way past, peering to make out shapes in the darkness. This is stressful. The half-moon isn’t strong enough. We see Windpocke anchoring and pull up to anchor alongside, but far enough to allow for swing room. The anchor drags on a rocky bottom. “Please God, let this anchor grab; I cannot bear re-anchoring in the dark.”
“I’ve got plenty of room at my stern to pull back,” says Gunter. It grabs. Thank God! Then the guys are giving high fives. Chris is opening a beer. Gunter is fixing a kalua-and-cream nightcap. Fill out the logbook, record the anchor spot to four decimals in case we drag again, save the TRACK, shut off the instruments. Record the TRIP miles, 660 over the water. I’m like a robot going through the motions. I’ve had only 1.5 hours sleep this final night of our passage.
“And what would YOU like, my navigator?” Gunter asks.
“A glass of cold white wine would be nice.”
We are safely in Aden. We have survived Pirate Alley. Another notch for our circumnavigation belt. Soon, I’m sure, the sailors will be putting Pirate Alley behind, and talking up the dangers of the freighter traffic and the reefs in the fearsome Red Sea. But tonight, we bask in the glow of safety and success.
Photos 9-12 at end of story.