Don’t risk your life and liberty in pirate alley off Somalia, yachters told.

Halkaan ka akhri

Naval commanders have accused British yachters of putting themselves at needless risk of kidnap by organising convoys through the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden.

Undeterred by the abduction of their fellow mariners Paul and Rachel Chandler last year, the convoys hope for safety of numbers by sailing in formation during the trip through “Pirate Alley”.

The perilous five-day, 650-mile journey between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea saves a detour of thousands of miles via South Africa for yachts heading for the Mediterranean – and also offers the ultimate tale to tell in the clubhouse back home.

But it has alarmed commanders in the international anti-piracy force, who say the unarmed convoys are sitting ducks for the pirate gangs that have raked in millions of dollars in ransoms in the past two years.

Officers from European Union Naval Force Somalia spelt out their concerns to the British yachters at a meeting last week at Northwood, the Nato headquarters near London where the anti-piracy operation is based.

They point out that unlike commercial shipping vessels, which are bigger, faster and harder for pirates to board, low-slung yachts are particularly vulnerable to hijackers.

The meeting came in the week that Mr and Mrs Chandler, who were snatched en route from the Seychelles to Tanzania, spent their first anniversary in captivity.

“This area poses an extremely high risk to shipping, and an even higher risk to yachts specifically, as I think is obvious from the kidnap of the Chandlers last year,” said Simon Church, industry liaison officer for the Horn of Africa Maritime Security Centre, which provides safety advice to mariners in the region.

“Yachters do of course have the freedom to go wherever they like, but our preference would be that they go somewhere else.”

The anti-piracy force’s stance is disputed by the yachters who joined the convoys, who are upset that the naval ships are not willing to provide them an escort through the danger zone.

“I do not see why they are mandated to protect commercial vessels, but not the taxpaying yachtsman,” said Tom Sampson, a retired RAF officer, who writes in the latest edition of Yachting Monthly about his role organising a convoy last spring.

“Yes, of course going through that region is dangerous. But as a circumnavigating yachtsman we are always being faced with dangers of one sort or another all the time. You can go overboard in a storm, fall ill at sea, suffer a breakdown or whatever.”

Mr Sampson, who sails with his partner, Nicolette Knoop, supervised a convoy of some 27 yachts from 17 nations, whose crews included women and an elderly couple.

Prior to setting off from the port of Salalah in Oman, he drilled them in techniques for formation sailing in groups of six, each with a military-style code name and a sub-commander. All participants had to be able to complete the entire journey without refuelling and, to avoid the attention of pirates, they kept lighting and radio use to a minimum.

However, he admitted that some in the convoy found the journey “frightening”. At one point, sailors listened anxiously to the radio as reports came in of pirates attacking a commercial vessel just 30 miles away, and on several occasions they watched in terror as suspicious-looking vessels approached them.

In another account of the journey given in last month’s Cruising World, one yachtsman wrote: “We watched with dread as a large, rusty fishing boat slowly revealed itself in the morning mist… it was exactly what we hoped to never see.”

He described the panic when a skiff set off from the fishing vessel and headed for one yacht at high speed, scattering the convoy immediately. It turned out to be a group of fishermen begging for cigarettes, but the incident showed how nerve-wracking the voyage was.

Critics believe it was as much by luck as judgement that disaster did not strike.

“There is no safe place anywhere in the Gulf of Aden,” said one kidnap and ransom expert who has dealt with more than 20 piracy cases in the area. “These people are playing a dangerous game.”

The International Sailing Federation, which attended last week’s meeting at Northwood, has agreed to reiterate the anti-piracy’s forces’ concerns to its members. But more convoys are expected to go ahead next year. The chair of federation’s international regulations commission, Alan Green, said that many in the round-the-world yachting fraternity accepted risk as part and parcel of the experience.

“Fortunately, people still have the freedom to sail where they want, and the only people who will stop them going through the Gulf of Aden are the pirates themselves. Having said that, it is dangerous just going across the Atlantic.”

Mr Sampson added that for leisure sailors wanting to travel between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, there was little option but to the use the Gulf of Aden. The alternative was to go via the Cape of Good Hope – a perilous journey in itself because of the rough seas – and then follow the trade winds across to Brazil and then back across the Atlantic again.

“That journey will take a minimum of two years, given the periods when sailing is not possible because of the hurricane and winter seasons,” he said. “By comparison, a leisurely sail from Salalah to the Eastern Mediterranean takes about 2 months.”

Scares notwithstanding, most sailors also seem to have been proud to have gone on his convoy through Pirate Alley. Having safely arrived in Aden, the crews held a large party. They also printed themselves commemorative skull-and-crossbone certificates for travelling through the “most dangerous waters in the world, avoiding dull moments, fishing nets, and the notorious Somali pirates”.

Source:  Telegraph

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