Attacked by Pirates
Full Speed Ahead
Now on their own, Mahdi and Gandalf sped across the Gulf of Aden with all sail set, making a good seven knots. As dusk gradually gave way to night, stars created a tapestry of light across the black of limitless space. Gone were the almost constant evening rains.
Aboard Gandalf, Barry and Martini marveled at the natural wonder of the glowing turquoise bioluminescence dancing along their wake. Aden lay less than 400 miles off the bow.
At around 0900 the next day, 30 miles off the Yemeni coast, the boats were sailing quite close together when an outboard-driven longboat about 20 feet in length approached Gandalf at well over 25 knots. Martini, who was on watch, dashed below to wake Barry and then radioed Mahdi. Rod Nowlin had seen the boat, too. In it were three men wearing black. They didn't look like fishermen. They carried no nets, and the boat was equipped with nothing to provide shade. Aboard the sailboats, all were suspicious as the visitor passed astern and moved away.
A short time later, a second fast longboat approached, then headed off to the southeast. Rod Nowlin went below and took his 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun from its locker and loaded it with 00 shot. He kept it close at hand. A hunter from an early age, the retired U.S. Navy man knew how to use a gun and was a crack shot.
An hour later, one of the longboats returned. It raced toward Gandalf, rapidly closing the distance. Martini thought the man in the bow had a rifle, but as they slowed off the stern and waved, she realized she'd been mistaken. The men weren't armed. "They're just very wet fishermen," Barry told her. They lingered in the area for a short while, however, watching the sailboats and making the crews increasingly uneasy-a feeling that didn't diminish after the boat left.
Hours passed. Ships dotted the horizon for most of the day, but as the sun began to set, the two sailboats were alone on the choppy seas. It was then, at 1600, that two larger powerboats hove into view on the horizon, the sun behind them making them difficult to see. Inboard-driven and about 30 feet in length, they didn't look like fishing boats. Tarps rigged above the gunwales reached chest high on the four men in each vessel. As they approached fast on a direct intercept course, Mahdi and Gandalf closed ranks.
With military precision, the powerboats sped side by side toward the cruisers. Spray flew off their bows as they cut through the short, steep waves. About 200 yards out, each vessel swerved. Separating, one homed in on Mahdi, the other on Gandalf, and at 50 yards out, the men began firing, raking the lengths of both sailboats, then focusing on the cockpits.
Both couples were in the direct line of fire, though aboard Mahdi, Jamee was below sleeping. A bullet smashed into Mahdi's Monitor self-steering windvane, sending fragments of steel into the Nowlins but not wounding them seriously. Becky ducked down at the helm, driving the boat at full throttle as Rod grabbed his weapon. Aboard Gandalf, Martini ran below to the relative protection offered by the steel hull as bullets peppered the dodger, blew the spinnaker track off the mast, nearly snapped a bronze turnbuckle, took out a stanchion, and passed through the thickest part of the wooden mast. She began calling "Mayday! Mayday!" on the VHF radio. There was no response.
|Pirates' bullets pierced Gandolf's dodger, but, fortunately, not its crew.|
Rod Nowlin now readied his shotgun. Standing up in full view and in heavy fire, he coolly watched as the boat heading for Mahdi sped down the port side and swung round the stern. He could hear the pirates shouting over the sounds of the guns as they came in close, ready to leap aboard. Raising the shotgun, Nowlin took careful aim and fired, working the pump-action three times to send rounds slicing into the wooden attack boat. The four men took cover behind the tarps. Smoke began pouring from their inboard engine, but it wasn't disabled.
At the same time, Martini aboard Gandalf heard Barry scream above the din of gunfire. "Keep down and hold on! I'm going to ram the bastards!"
Up on deck, Barry spun the wheel hard over as the men in the attack boat continued strafing Gandalf on the starboard side. Turning quickly and doing more than eight knots at full throttle, Gandalf's bow hit the boat amidships. In seconds, the boat canted over, its starboard rail rising above Gandalf's anchor. The pirates started shooting again. Bits of wood and shell casings littered the foredeck. Barry threw the engine into reverse and brought the motor up to 3,500 rpm, backing away as fast as possible.
Meanwhile, Mahdi's attackers had broken off and quickly reached Gandalf's stern, just as Barry was ramming their cohorts. Two armed men began climbing aboard. Rod Nowlin took aim, then fired twice, spraying both men with pellets. They dropped back into the boat as it veered away. Nowlin fired again, this time at the driver.
Suddenly, all went silent except for the sound of the sailboats as they motored off at full throttle, putting as much distance between them and the pirates as possible. All aboard anxiously looked back to see if they were being pursued. They weren't.
At last, a merchant ship responded to Martini's Mayday calls; the radioman said the ship was steaming toward them and that he'd call the authorities on the satellite phone. As both crews watched, a massive bulk carrier hove into view, and soon it was in position between the fleeing sailboats and the pirates, who were still drifting in the chop. The ship stayed with them until well after dark, then disappeared into the blackness. Aden lay 180 miles to the west.