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Voyaging danger in the Gulf of Aden

Jan 1, 2003

I have just read in a recent issue the Chartroom Chatter item concerning a missing Polish singlehander in the Gulf of Aden ("Friends of missing sailor appeal for aid," March/April 2000, Issue No. 104). It caught my eye because I lived and worked in the area back in the early 60s.

I was also interested because I have just received an e-mail from a friend who is a skipper on a German-owned yacht currently in the Seychelles. They left Aden on route to the Seychelles and I quote their message: "The Admiralty said to give Socotra a 60-mile berth so we had set our waypoints at 100 miles off. We were out of Aden about 30 hours and Kerr answered a Mayday call on VHF. It was from an Australian 36-foot catamaran which had been attacked by five armed men with automatic weapons only five hours previously and only 20 miles from us. The boat was holed above the waterline and the wife had taken a bullet in the leg. They were robbed of money and equipment worth $16,000. There was nothing we could do except to report the incident to the authorities."

I sincerely hope that nothing has befallen the missing sailor but inquiries should be made to the French authorities in Djibouti or to the Yemeni authorities in Aden. Meanwhile any voyaging yachts heading to or away from the Red Sea should make extensive inquiries before sailing. British writer Rod Heikell has recently written a cruising guide to the area that is published and distributed by Imray in Britain. Rod Heikell's e-mail address is seawrite@compuserve.com

My first experience of the Gulf of Aden area was in 1957 when the British government was compelled by treaty to support the Sultan of Oman who was facing an insurrection. The SAS (an elite force of British paratroopers, similar to the U.S. Green Berets) were sent out to support the Sultan and the revolt was put down.

As part of the support services we were flying into remote desert air strips in what was then known as the Trucial Oman States. It was Wild West territory with all able-bodied men carrying arms and young boys laden down with bandoliers of ammunition.

There had been a constant state of war between the various states in this area, which forms the western coast of the northern Indian Ocean and runs from the Strait of Hormuz in the north down to Aden and the entrance to the Red Sea in the south. Ports in this area traded with the Mediterranean as far back as the 3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. I have met Arab sailors in Mombasa in Kenya who have sailed down from Kuwait, a voyage of more than 3,000 miles.

Although the Arab dhows are good sailing vessels, nowadays they have nearly all been fitted with large diesel engines, which means that they are no longer so dependent on the north or south monsoon winds that they traditionally used as trade winds. Coastal trading in animals, household goods, tobacco, and foodstuffs was carried out under sail when I was last there, and the British Royal Navy used to carry out inspections to combat the slave trade that reportedly was still carried on between Somalia and Dubai in the Persian Gulf.

In recent times there has been war in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Aden, all countries bordering the bottom of the Red Sea, and this has led to an inevitable increase in the availability of automatic weapons. Combine this with the age-old tradition of bearing and using arms and the extremely desperate economic conditions in which the people find themselves and you can see why this whole area should be entered with great care.

Much as I personally dislike rally-style cruising, there is a strong argument for traveling through this area in close company. I would aim to cross well north of the island of Socotra and then run down the coast of Oman and South Yemen. With so many voyaging boats out in Australia and New Zealand for the Americas Cup and the Olympics, they may need to consider just which route they will take as they return to their home waters.