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Convoy through dangerous waters

Jun 22, 2011

The yacht Glide, a 39-foot cold-molded cutter, left the Maldives, headed for the Red Sea, on Feb. 7. Our decision to cross the Arabian Sea, despite the pirate situation, was based on the conviction that we had come all the way to the Maldives and turning back would be counterproductive and unseemly. We were banking hard, though, on not meeting any pirates. We figured that if we made it through, it would be seen as bravery; and if we did not, idiocy. After much deliberation, the Seabird convoy was the deciding point. We decided to get it together and move out, throwing caution, sanity, and hopefully not much else to the wind.

Our proposed route was the rhumb line from the Maldives to Salalah, Oman, and from there a dash across the Gulf of Aden to the Bab al Mandab Straits. The idea was that we would move through the area as quickly as possible, matching the speed of the slowest boat, and maintaining a tight formation at all times. We would keep our peepers polished for anything suspicious on the horizon, and keep in contact with coalition forces who would advise us if any known pirates were in the vicinity. We would avoid radar targets; if we were approached, we would come together, and the rear boats would trail lines to foul the pirate props. The codes on the radio would help conceal our position; we would carry no lights at night to avoid attention. We would tow damaged yachts if necessary and leave no one behind. We would also soon discover that in the world of yacht convoys, theory comes a hard second to reality.

On the day of departure, we assembled outside the reef in a loose flock of Seabirds. The weather was very fair, a halcyon sea, which we hoped would set a standard for the rest of the Indian Ocean. Altogether, we started out as a surprisingly cohesive formation, complete with nifty code names: Tiger 1-4, Eagle 1-4 and Falcons 1 and 2. We switched channels daily, followed a pattern of Channel Foxtrot, Echo, X-ray, etc., and proceeded to destinations such as ‘Mike’ and ‘Sierra’ (Mukalla and Salalah), via waypoints like ‘Point Hotel.’ This was to ensure the pirates would be utterly bamboozled, provided they could not spell, or think, or put their radios on all-channel scan. The codes were more intended, I think, to sound formidable on the radio, and to help us maintain some semblance of training. Given our mostly little-kid voices and usual subjects of conversation (“So what’s for dinner over there? Yum…” or “How does a pirate get to work? In his cARRRR!”), I do not think this strategy was very effective.

Mechanical failure threatens the fleet
Immediately after we had come into formation, Eagle 2’s engine (‘boiling and billowing’) forced them to turn back. Our primary worry with convoy travel had been realized in the first 20 minutes: mechanical failure stopping the fleet. If this happened in a dangerous area, we would be sitting Seabirds. However, we continued to motor at a leisurely ‘getting in formation’ pace of 3.5 knots and on a lightly meandering ‘getting in formation’ course of northwest-ish, despite a second yacht failure soon after the first. Falcon 2 dropped back quite a ways and noted engine trouble, though they managed to keep up with the group. We quickly rearranged the Seabird convoy to accommodate the loss of Eagle 2: The formation became a flat diamond, the Tiger group, followed by a pentagram, consisting of the three remaining Eagles (1, 3, and 4) and bringing up the rear, the two Falcons.

Our position in the convoy, at the back as Falcon 1, was somewhat disconcerting for us as we realized that in the event of the dreaded attack we would be tail-end Charlie. But someone had to be, of course, and an hour out from the Maldives we did a drill of attack formation. Like the codes, it was given a doughty name, ‘Excalibur.’ It was a simple defensive maneuver, based on the meatball principle of schooling fish. The rear boats would speed up, and the leading boats would stop or turn back, bringing us together in a dense huddle of hope that an AK-47 wouldn’t blow through our Excalibur like a swordfish through tuna. Additionally, this carefully wrought stratagem allowed us to convene in a mere nine minutes. This would be barely faster than the time it would take any self-respecting pirate skiff to move from the horizon to our position.

The slowest boat was usually Eagle 1 or Tiger 1. Tiger 1 was a gaff-rigged ketch single-handed by Martin Hammer, our resident Austrian, a biology/PE teacher, who was an excellent sailor and in good wind left us all behind. Downwind, he put everything up but his laundry; he even tried to sheet in his flag. In light wind, we waited for Martin, and in good wind, we waited for Eagle 1, a go-fast Mantra 28. Asia, who had single-handed this boat around the world, now had a crewmember and was probably the best at staying out of people’s way. But between Tiger 1 and Eagle 1, we were not often going more than five knots, a source of constant aggravation on Falcon 1. Our progress was slow and frustrating; Feb. 12, averaging 4.5 knots, was probably the nadir of our sailing experience in the Indian Ocean. This speed caused the first major problem for the Seabird convoy, a truly dreaded development. It seemed that no self-respecting fish would sink to strike a lure traveling at 4.5 knots. We resigned ourselves to a long, grim passage.

Swarmed by dolphins
However, on Feb. 12, we were mobbed by hundreds of dolphins, easily the largest pod any of us had seen, chasing schools of desperate tuna. These dolphins were also considerate enough to leave our precious fish unharmed as we reeled them in. We got three tuna big enough to keep us in fish for weeks: finally, we felt secure in this journey through pirate alley. Fish were a return to normality, making things seem OK. The other convoy members were likewise ecstatic. We immediately launched our lines again, port and starboard, but to no avail. The dolphins got the rest, I guess. Greedy buggers.

Convoy travel was like no other sailing any of us had done. We were all exhausted by the proceedings in short order. Our nine-boat fleet would form up in the evening in the prescribed formation, and swerve out of each other’s irate way all night long, driven mad by peering through the diminishing moonlight. Night convoyage was often grim, occasionally terrifying: sailing in the dark with the knowledge that all around you are other yachts who may or may not be on course, paying attention, able to see you, or approaching. We had many near-collisions. At dawn, the formation would slowly reform into a rough approximation of the diamond/pentagram formation. Nine boatloads of angst and stress, drifting north at the pace of the slowest boat, did not mean happy convoyers.

Throughout the passage, there was one boat, Tiger 2, a Swiss couple, who despite being good people seemed to have trouble with the concept of formation. Their nightly maneuvers were a source of horror for their counterparts in the Tiger group, and of entertainment for us at the back, out of their way. Occasionally they would show up next to us as well. Basically, they just swerved merrily back and forth, causing dissension and anxiety, with the occasional nervous breakdown, among the ranks. Our leaders Roger Langlois and Danielle Quenneville on Tiger 3 (pronounced Taiga Tree, lending patience and wisdom to their words), often reprimanded this interesting behavior. Tiger 2 would respond with a generic ‘autopilot problem.’ Anders the Courteous from Eagle 4, who displayed a remarkable, deliberate calm due either to a genuine equanimity, or an ongoing struggle with the English language, once asked our leader to please inform the runaway Tiger that they would crash soon, that he was more afraid of him than the pirates, and could they please go 40 degrees to port right now.

Engine and rigging problems for several boats in the fleet sporadically developed. We had a tow plan set up: Falcon 2, temporarily recovered from their initial breakdown, towed Tiger 4 from the 17th to the 18th of February. This made for an interesting convulsion in the formation. In order to transfer the towing line, a buoy and three attempts were employed, rather than the simple throw, even though the sea was flat calm. After letting Tiger 4 loose, Falcon 2 drifted back through the fleet. Tiger 4 came on the radio and asked who would tow them next if they wanted to watch another movie. Early on, Tiger 3 broke a toggle, which attaches the turnbuckle to the chainplate. Tiger 3 is a sailing catamaran, probably the fastest Seabird; at this point, we had a prevailing northeasterly and they had to run downwind to replace the toggle while the rest of us loitered, hove-to or sailed in all directions. A helicopter gunship, probably a Black Hawk, which was observing this maneuver, was almost certainly not impressed with our apparent level of sanity, or sense of direction.

Quelling a mutiny?
The impressive accomplishment of bringing nine yachts of different speeds, designs, abilities, languages and temperaments to safety was often expressed by our leaders to quell mutiny among the troops. During the greatest such panegyric, we were approaching Socotra, ostensibly the world’s worst pirate haven, and still hundreds of miles from landfall, so such a closing-type speech was, hopefully, somewhat out of place. Maybe he thought, ‘Now or never.’ A few days earlier, we had received news that the convoy ahead of us, the only other convoy to also pass through the middle of the Arabian Sea, rather than the longer Indian route, had been chased and shot at. This was particularly unsettling as we received the news very near where the incident had occurred the day before; not only that, those yachts barely got away at seven knots, after a three-hour chase scene. We could only do five.

This particular speech off Socotra eventually petered off into radio silence, everyone feeling optimistic and united, maybe. One of the last comments, of course, was: “We’re not there yet.” Right on cue, one of the forward boats spotted a small skiff approaching. Since leaving the Maldives, we had seen one warship and a helicopter gunship, as well as several merchant ships, but nothing definitely recognizable as pirates. I suppose this little skiff scared us to death. We did not call for Excalibur, though, because it might be seen as a fearful maneuver (which it was) and because, caught up in our self-congratulatory persiflage, the skiff had been allowed to approach to less than 100 yards without notice. Someone commented that he might be a fisherman; Eagle 4 enquired with somewhat forced humor whether he was fishing with a net or a Kalashnikov. The skiff came up behind the convoys, turned away, did a circle, fell behind. As we went north we saw more skiffs. None of them shot at us; the design of a lot of them was similar to those in southeast Asia or off Sri Lanka.

Avoided by shipping    
One positive aspect of running in a convoy of small boats was the effect we had on shipping. Occasionally a ship, seeing our radio signal (nine tiny blips floating in the middle of nowhere) would think we could only be pirates. Their lights would go out and they would change course to avoid us. This was amusing to watch and extremely satisfying. Usually we watch out for large ships, who seem to have no qualms whatsoever about running down small craft in the night. Anywhere else, they probably would not even notice.

The beautiful weather we had all the way across from the Maldives finally broke, just as we were rounding Socotra. Who says the wind doesn’t care? This change in weather may have saved all our lives: most pirate skiffs can purportedly do up to 30 knots in good weather; in a heavy sea and wind blowing straight onshore at Socotra, our course 70 miles offshore was undoubtedly more secure. Our speed was also kicked up several knots.

Off Socotra, however, we observed a very strange incident involving two gigantic ships in the shipping lane, which at this point was running approximately east-west. One ship was heading east on the lane; a second ship was heading west. The two ships got closer and closer, on an obvious collision course: we observed this on the radar. The first stopped; the second approached within 15 miles. Twenty minutes later the first turned around and started going west! Soon after that, the second proceeded west as well. This may have been a pirate mother ship taking a merchant ship, but was more likely the transferal of pirated goods.

On the 18th we had a covert discussion on Channel Golf in which we altered course to skip Destination ‘Sierra’ and go straight to ‘Mike.’ We arrived at Mukalla on the 20th, stretching out into single file as we approached the harbor. The shore was incredibly dry: a line of steep hills the color of mud stretched back to ridges, becoming sandier on the way down. The shoreline itself was lined by broken, staggered cliffs and below these, the town, starkly white and massively overpopulated. Up on the hills, four square forts sat like unadorned crowns. The harbor was very small, made smaller by the presence of a dozen wrecks, several of which were barges, blocking the already cluttered beach. The breakwall had an armed guard; as we filed into the harbor the patrol boat, with a .50-caliber gun on the foredeck, came zooming out to circle around our fleet. We anchored with two other boats, catamarans, rafting up with each other to save space and damage. We all began to procure water and fuel, sharing jugs for efficiency.

Feb. 22 was a town day for most of us. We landed on the spot of concrete wall unembellished by either sinking or sunk hulks; one such, an 80-foot dhow, was mostly submerged to the left of our landing. We could see it plainly through the clear water. The dhow curved down around the corner of the concrete dock, making it by far the most interesting landing we have come across. After a while a very short soldier appeared, with transport for our group. Once we’d been issued shore passes we began the hunt for an ATM that would issue both local currency and U.S. dollars. We then went to find access to the Internet, followed by the supermarket. We attacked the walls of food. There was an entire section for dates, a wonderful thing for any supermarket. With three full cartloads of food, we returned to the checkout with the other Seabirds. Our transport vehicles, as we approached en masse, gave us reproachful looks but sank without comment under the weight. Returning to the harbor, we could see our fleet, looking organized and somewhat formidable. It was a good feeling to be in a group of yachts, rather than solitary and vulnerable.

Shots fired ashore
Over the next few days, however, we continued to hang around working on boat maintenance and went on several more excursions into Mukalla. I went in with 10 or so other Seabirds on an eventually fruitless search for propane; the local nozzle fill fittings didn’t match our bottles, no adapters could be found. Driving around Mukalla, we observed some symptoms of civil strife: rubble blocking roads in places, heavily armed military patrols, and large crowds of white-clad protesters. On the way back we heard five shots fired; our driver told us this was a warning signal. This was followed by several hundred more shots, and as we approached a bridge we saw a wall of protesters running over it at top speed. They were clambering over cars and ducking through oncoming traffic. Despite their obvious anxiety over the gun-wielding agents of civil unity behind them, they didn’t look panicked, or even overly fearful. Most just had a concentrated expression. We made it out of town, but took 10 times as long doing so as we’d taken driving in.

Our buddies Vera and John on Falcon 2 had a more extreme experience with the demonstrators; going to town for Internet and chicken, they were told the rioting was bad. In the supermarket, procuring poultry, they were told to leave immediately because their lives were in danger. Vera was in favor of leaving immediately, but John insisted on getting chicken, and they left with their objective complete. On the way back, however, their car was mobbed; the road was blocked by rubble; rioters armed with nailed sticks tried to break through their windows. Luckily, they escaped, somewhat alarmed; but, chicken in hand, the trip was deemed a success.

We left Mukalla on Feb. 24, headed for the Bab al Mandab Straits and the relative safety of the Red Sea. There was some discussion over how far from the coast we should go; on Falcon 1, we were in favor of traveling parallel to the shipping lane, which was heavily protected. We slowly diverged from the coast as we went west, converging with the shipping lane.

That first night out from Mukalla was probably the closest we came to disaster. Ships began showing up on the radar constantly, coming from all directions, prompting us to attempt multiple group turns, under sail and jibing back and forth, in the dark. Our formation collapsed shortly. Tiger 2 was unreachable and swerving around. Then we passed through a netted area, complete with several small fishing boats, confusing things further with their lights. Eagle 1 became tangled in the nets, calling “Emergency, emergency” over the radio. We had previously been running dark to escape notice outside the convoy, but decided we needed to turn our running lights on to facilitate survival inside the convoy.

Meanwhile Tiger 2 turned to starboard, crossed the fleet (unresponsive on the VHF), and continued starboard on a collision course with a very large vessel. On Falcon 1 we prepared to chase them down and lob canned goods into their cockpit to get their attention. With running lights on, we moved away from each other and continued on course, wildly out of formation. Eagle 1 escaped the nets; and Tiger 2 straightened up at the last minute, avoiding converting their boat into a liquid asset in a game of chicken with the freighter, whose captain had probably been watching the show with some trepidation, thinking we were insane, or pirates, or both. Needless to say, sunrise over the Gulf of Aden was very welcome.

We finally arrived at the Bab al Mandab Straits safe and sound (physically, anyway). As we approached the straights the wind, wrapping around the headland, picked up and switched behind us, the sea jumped up, and we shot through wing and wing, surfing down the following seas. A great exit from the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden. The plan had been to stick together for the next few days, but half an hour after passing through the Straits, we split up completely. The good wind sorted out the fast from the slow in short order, and with the threat of piracy diminished, we dispersed, planning to meet up later for a triumphant group gathering. Of our tremulous travel, Admiral Farragut would have approved: as he said, at the battle of Mobile Bay, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Max Merrill is 17 and has lived on yacht Glide (Falcon 1) for 13 years. Since January 2003 he has sailed with his family from Ventura, Calif., through the Pacific, SE Asia, Indian Ocean and Red Sea; they are continuing through the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Caribbean to be back in California around August 2012.

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