Tiptoe Through the Pirates
Sailors crossing the Gulf of Aden find safety in numbers and the leadership of a former R.A.F. officer turned world cruiser. "On Watch" from our July 2010 issue
Our position was called in twice a day via sat phone to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which served as the primary contact between vessels in transit and the military Coalition forces in the Horn of Africa that included an alphabet soup of such outfits as EU NAVFOR, CENTCOM, NATO, ALINDIEN, and various other members of the Combined Task Force made up by units from the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, France, Poland, and Russia, among others.
Each of our convoy members kept a sharp lookout, visually and on radar, for approaching vessels. If any were sighted, the entire group was immediately given a heads up with bearing and distance. If any vessel felt an attack was imminent, the sailors could call for us to assume our attack formation.
Each group would then huddle, with the wing vessels moving in closer to the group leader and the second line squeezing up forward between them. At the same time, the first group would slow to three knots to allow the more vulnerable groups astern to catch up.
The final three yachts trailed 100 meters of polypro floating line astern to entangle the props of any pursuers. Each vessel carried such a line for passive defense but was cautioned against deploying it while in formation to prevent fouling friendlies.
In my opinion the most important ingredient for a successful convoy is the character of its leader. We were lucky to have Tom Sampson's steady hand at our helm. Not only did he keep his cool; he even kept his sense of humor. When a freighter was being attacked by pirates and we were listening to it, horrified, on our relatively short-range VHF radios, Tom would occasionally break in calmly with, "Not to worry, this attack is taking place over 30 miles from us."
There were, of course, a number of times when tensions flared, which is understandable when transiting pirate-prone waters. But for every act of individual selfishness, there was a collective act of selflessness. And there were heroes, too. Patrick and Margaret O'Neil aboard the Warrior 40 Aqua Magic lost their autopilot early on and had to hand-steer in extremely close quarters most of the way, despite being in their late 60s or early 70s and Margaret having a severe back injury which wouldn't allow her to sit down or rest properly.
Everyone chipped in, just like family, if someone needed technical advice or supplies.
The result was 27 vessels arriving in Aden safely and free of any pirate engagement. We were all extremely grateful for our safe passage. It could've easily gone the other way, as it had for the traumatized crew of Rockall, who were captured and held for 52 days. (See "A Cruel Twist of Fate" in CW's March 2010 issue.). And as it had for the crew of Lynn Rival, Paul and Rachel Chandler, who were abducted in October 2009 and are still prisoners as I write this.
So, a few days after our safe arrival, many of us gathered on the foredeck of our boat, Wild Card, which was anchored in almost the exact location where the attack on the USS Cole took place. We were there to honor the 17 young Americans killed in October 2000. We poured our prayers, our flowers, and our love into the harbor waters, as well as a tot of rum for each lost sailor.
"Peace," we muttered sadly from the deck of an American yacht in the waters off the war-torn Arabian Peninsula.
Having survived the crossing, the Goodlanders are bound for the Mediterranean Sea.