Attacked by Pirates

A chilling Gulf of Aden raid leaves two crews shaken and focuses a spotlight on the merits of keeping weapons on board. "Special Report" from our January 2006 issue

April 17, 2009

Carol Martini| |Gandalf‘s bow shows the evidence of ramming a pirate skiff in the Gulf of Aden.| The heat of the day slackened somewhat toward sunset, and the warm winds at the tail end of the northeast monsoon kicked up chop in the Gulf of Aden, a relatively narrow body of water sandwiched between Somalia and Yemen. It was Tuesday, March 8, 2005, at about 1600. The sun sinking low over the western horizon created a glare on the surface of the sea off the bows of Mahdi, a 45-foot steel Waterline cutter, and Gandalf, a 47-foot Dutch-built steel cutter, as both boats sailed at all possible speed toward the Yemeni port of Aden. From there, they’d head to Bab al Mandab, the strait at the southern entrance to the Red Sea.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, the procession of merchant ships remained almost constant, requiring Jay Barry and Carol Martini of Gandalf and Rod and Becky Nowlin and their niece, Jamee, aboard Mahdi to keep a careful watch. Sailing in a busy shipping lane wasn’t something these veteran world cruisers often did deliberately, but they deemed it prudent in this case. The presence of nearby ships would, they hoped, make potential pirates think twice before attacking. Their concerns weren’t groundless. The Gulf of Aden was aptly nicknamed “Pirate Alley” because of reported incidents involving cruising boats in previous years, particularly off the coast of Somalia.

Now, though, no ships steamed within view. But the approaching moonless night promised cover, especially if Gandalf and Mahdi ran with no lights. The sailors would maintain watch with radar and night-vision scopes.


Then two specks suddenly appeared to the west, obscured in the shimmering light. It soon became obvious that they were high-speed open boats with four men in each. The sailors watched, their anxiety increasing, as black exhaust plumed and was carried off in the wind. The boats sped toward them, separating 200 yards out. Moments later, the cruisers’ apprehension turned to fear when they heard the crack of automatic gunfire followed by the terrifying sound of bullets ricocheting off steel.

An Apprehensive Voyage

Two days earlier, Mahdi and Gandalf were at rest in the harbor of Salalah, Oman, along with a number of other boats gathered there to prepare for the more than 600-mile-long dash across Pirate Alley. Whenever possible, cruisers sailed in informal convoys, banking on safety in numbers, and so the crews of two smaller, slower boats, Evie, a 38-foot Irwin, and Patriot, a Cascade 38, linked up with Mahdi and Gandalf to form a tiny fleet.


The larger boats were closely matched in terms of speed, and the two crews were good friends. Indeed, they met in Darwin, Australia, then later at Telaga Marina, in Langkawi, Malaysia, and they sailed together from Cochin, India, to Salalah, arriving within several hours of each other. Rod Nowlin and Barry knew they’d have to slow down to allow the smaller boats to keep up, but they hoped for as swift a passage through the danger zone as possible.

The group expected to leave much earlier than Sunday, March 6, but was delayed due to equipment problems aboard Evie. Rod Nowlin and Barry helped Evie’s crew sort out the trouble, and now they were anxious to set sail. Toward evening, the fleet left Salalah with good winds on the beam. Even with double-reefed mains on Mahdi and Gandalf, the smaller cruisers found it tough to match their speed. About an hour out, the crew aboard Evie reported that their alternator wasn’t working, but they had another way of charging the batteries, so they chose to press on.

As night fell, dark clouds gathered on the horizon. Lightning danced from cloud to cloud and forked into the heaving sea. The storm swept down on the boats, engulfing them in heavy rain before the squalls passed, leaving them becalmed under a starlit sky.


Forced to motor for hours, Evie fell behind, and the crew reported the engine was overheating. All the boats were nearing the vicinity of Al Mukalla, a desolate port on the Yemeni coast known as a center for drug smuggling. It was the last place to start long conversations on the VHF radio that might draw the attention of the wrong sort of people. But Evie needed help, and after assistance from the cruisers aboard Mahdi and Gandalf, they got their engine going.

The radio chatter continued, mostly focused on urging Evie to make all haste to rejoin the fleet. Tensions on board the lead boats ran high. Dawn approached with the sailboats in some of the world’s most dangerous waters, and when daylight arrived, it only increased the sense of urgency to make all speed. It now appeared obvious that Evie, 25 miles behind the others and still more than 140 miles out of Salalah, would never close the gap unless the three boats lay dead in the water waiting for her, an option none of the crews found desirable. After much deliberation, Patriot chose to turn back and sail in company with Evie to Aden, thus dividing the fleet into two sets of potential targets.

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.

Carol Martini| |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.

Safely in Port

At close to midnight the next day, Mahdi and Gandalf made the port at Aden, a bustling shipping center and the infamous site where, in October 2000, terrorists damaged the USS Cole during a suicide attack that killed 17 sailors and wounded many others. Now it was blowing 25 knots, and as the crews of both boats kept bows to the wind while the anchor chains rattled out, a small, unmarked, outboard-driven dory with no lights appeared. Four men, none wearing uniforms, shouted at them, saying they were the Yemeni coast guard. Thus began the shoreside ordeal of paperwork and questions from officials.

The following morning, Rod Nowlin and Barry hired a taxi driver named Omar, a man known among cruisers there, to guide them through the process of clearing in. He acted as translator as well, and that facilitated the filing of multiple reports on the attack with an assortment of Yemeni officials. The authorities said they were sorry and concerned about what had happened, but both Nowlin and Barry believed that nothing would come of the incident and that there would be no action taken to apprehend the culprits.

Not long after their arrival in Aden, Evie and Patriot appeared in port, having made an uneventful passage. Patriot put to sea almost at once, and as the days passed, the crews of Mahdi and Gandalf worked hard, hoping to leave shortly. It took three days to repair what damage they could aboard Gandalf, which was hit by at least 30 bullets. Mahdi sustained less damage, though the hull was hit, as was the headsail and the self-steering system.

The work to repair the damage took on added urgency when Omar warned Rod Nowlin and Barry that relatives of the injured or killed pirates might seek revenge.

“It is time for you to go,” he said. They agreed. Mahdi and Gandalf cleared out of Aden at 1600 on March 15, intending a dawn arrival at Bab al Mandab. Twenty miles out, Barry heard the sound of an outboard engine driving at high speed. The boat was unlit and coming on fast. He picked it up in his night-vision scope and kept it in view. At no more than 50 feet off Gandalf’s stern, it suddenly moved off just as those on Mahdi got on the VHF radio; they eventually managed to raise a French warship. They stayed in radio contact with the French throughout the night, and as the sun gradually spread light across the dark waters, Mahdi and Gandalf sailed on, making the miles to the Red Sea.

Guns, Escorts, and the Choice of Routes

The pirate attack on Mahdi and Gandalf off Yemen last March sparked widespread discussion in the world cruising community about several key issues, particularly on the topic of whether sailors were wise to carry guns aboard when transiting such dangerous areas as the Gulf of Aden.

Talk of military escorts for cruisers also arose, and not surprisingly, ex-U.S. Navy sailor Rod Nowlin, Mahdi’s skipper, was a major proponent of naval support for organized convoys of the approximately 200 sailing vessels that make the passage to the Red Sea every year. As an aside, debate also surfaced regarding the inherent dangers of pirates along the route to the Red Sea versus the rigors of the Cape of Good Hope when leaving the Indian Ocean.

The question of whether guns belong aboard is a difficult and divisive one. If Nowlin hadn’t been armed, one can only imagine what might have occurred. “As for the whole issue of guns on board, the heated discussions will continue,” Jay Barry of Gandalf said. “As much trouble as they are, in some circumstances, they can help. That’s why we’re alive.” Barry added that in the future, were he to sail through waters known for piracy, he’d arm himself with a shotgun “or two.”

And apart from man-made threats, when sailors cruise in the Arctic, for instance, high-powered rifles are carried to defend against polar-bear attacks.

But not all are convinced that packing heat is necessary to cruise in safety. “As to my own, personal views on guns, even after this latest incident, I’d rather try avoiding known piracy areas than carry them,” Jimmy Cornell, author of “World Cruising Essentials,” told Cruising World. In that book, he related an instance that occurred in March 2002 while he was singlehanding from Panama to Ecuador. At that time, a large whaler-type boat with three menacing looking men aboard approached his boat at high speed. It turned out they were trying to warn him about their longlines.

“Had I been armed, I should have had my gun ready to fire before they got too close,” Cornell wrote. “What turned out to be an entirely innocent incident could have had tragic consequences.”

Moreover, Nowlin clearly knew how to handle the shotgun he used on the Yemeni pirates, and he reacted to the emergency with courage and daring. However, a weapon in the hands of a hesitant, untrained cruiser in the same circumstances might not have driven the pirates off and could have added fuel to the attack.

Guns aboard also raise the question of whether cruisers are obliged to declare them when entering foreign ports. Nowlin was quite candid on this topic: “Generally, people with guns aboard don’t say anything about them. Most of us don’t declare them going into foreign countries. You keep them buried. The customs agents in these countries are not into tearing yachts apart looking for contraband unless they suspect you of doing something illegal, like smuggling drugs.”

Nowlin noted that carrying a defensive weapon such as a shotgun is a lot easier to explain to an official than pistols or rifles, which are often viewed as potential offensive arms and tend to raise more concern.

However, failing to declare weapons and subsequently getting caught with them can land cruisers in jail. In November 2004, Australian millionaire Christopher Packer-an accomplished racing sailor-found himself confined in the Kerobokan prison on Bali for three months after Indonesian authorities discovered a cache of 2,700 rounds of ammunition, a Ruger semiautomatic rifle, two pump-action shotguns, a revolver, an automatic pistol, and an antique rifle aboard his 175-foot converted freighter, Lissa. Under Indonesia’s laws, he was initially charged with running guns, which carries the death penalty, but he was later convicted of failing to declare the weapons and released. He told the court he carried the guns for sport and to defend against pirate attacks.

Just as the decision to carry arms rests with the boat’s captain, so also does the decision to enter areas known for piracy. The skipper assumes the risks. But does that mean it’s the job of the world’s navies to escort private pleasure craft sailing in danger zones? Nowlin, the retired U.S. Navy man, clearly believes that it should be, at least in the Gulf of Aden. He and other cruisers have urged the cruising community to put pressure on their respective countries to provide protection.

Again, not all concur. “Escorting private boaters is not a primary mission of the U.S. Navy. However, the Navy has a longstanding tradition of responding to mariners in distress and will continue to do so,” said Commander Jeffrey Breslau, a spokesman for the Navy’s 5th Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain. He added that the mission of combined coalition naval forces operating in the area is “to deny international terrorists use of the maritime environment as a venue for attack or to transport personnel, weapons, or other material.” In addition, it involves protecting “critical infrastructure nodes, engaging with regional allies, and providing assistance to mariners in distress.”

Nowlin points out that unescorted cruising sailboats represent ideal soft targets for terrorists, either for outright slaughter or for hostage-taking. “The situation in the Gulf of Aden has all the potential for a catastrophe waiting to happen,” he argues. “The next thing you know, you’re going to have a bunch of yachties killed or taken hostage, and then you’ll see the standard government hand-wringing about how unfortunate it is and saying we don’t deal with terrorists [to free hostages].”

Repeated attempts to contact Yemeni officials at the embassy in Washington, D.C., to discuss piracy in the Gulf received no response. But according to Commander Breslau, “The combined maritime forces, including the U.S. Coast Guard, have provided assistance to Yemeni maritime forces to help enhance their capabilities and will continue to do so whenever requested by the government of Yemen.”

The crews of Mahdi and Gandalf, though, said they arrived in Yemen and reported the attack, but officials there told them that their sphere of control didn’t extend much beyond the port of Aden.

While the well-publicized pirate attack off Yemen was dramatic, representing one of the worst nightmares of cruisers who must pass through danger zones, cases like it, statistically speaking, are rare. According to the International Marine Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which compiles data related to acts of piracy against commercial shipping, only 10 reports of attacks on yachts were received in 2004. Most of the incidents occurred off Somalia, off the coast of South America, and in the Caribbean.

Still, the Center’s annual report for 2004 cited that year as “more violent than ever,” with 30 crewmembers of commercial vessels murdered; 21 were killed the previous year. While the number of attacks dropped from 445 in 2003 to 325 in 2004, the escalation of violence, typified by the attack on Mahdi and Gandalf, where pirates were apparently shooting to kill from the outset, is difficult to ignore.

With these issues in mind, discussions of arms, flotillas, and best routes are likely to rage on in cruising circles. As is often the case at sea, with no sure answers, it’s up to each skipper to determine the safest course to steer.

Former Cruising World associate editor David W. Shaw is the author of seven nonfiction books, including “Daring the Sea” and the just-released paperback version of “Sea Wolf of the Confederacy” ($15; Sheridan House,, which chronicles the Civil War raids of U.S. Navy Lt. Charles W. Read. He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, aboard Sonata, their 36-foot cutter.


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