Break On Through
Dawn has finally arrived. Alone in the cockpit, I am quiet, contemplative. My co-captain and young crew slumber on, seemingly unconcerned. Behind me, beyond the hills surrounding Thailand’s Nai Harn Bay, the sun rises. Its beams glow bright, sharpen and focus westward toward the Maldives and the seas beyond—seas we will soon traverse in wonderment and worry.
My husband, Brian, and I sailed these waters more than 20 years ago aboard our 39-foot cutter, Glide, but the world has changed. Then, few cruising boats sailed here; now there are close to 200 a year. Commercial traffic has also increased, and so has piracy.
Glide has changed as well: where before we were two aboard, now we are four. A quarter century of water has passed beneath our yacht’s keel and into these waters we now bring a new generation, our teenagers, Max and Gina. We are eight years into our circumnavigation and homeward bound to California.
Looking westward from Thailand into the future, we realize we will be concerned on this passage with more than wind, weather, boat condition and provisioning. We have tough decisions to make. Should we chance the Arabian Sea, or change course for South Africa, a route fraught with potentially challenging weather as well as pirates? Should we go eastward via Japan, or leave Glide in Thailand? Should Max and Gina accept their grandmother’s offer to fly them out of harm’s way while Brian and I undertake the crossing alone?
In the end, we put it to a vote.
Completing a circumnavigation is a big priority for Max and Gina, so flying home is out. Although we like the idea of sailing alone, quickly and silently, no yachts in a convoy have ever been pirated, and in a convoy, we can pool resources and abilities. We narrow it down to either the Vasco de Gama rally—well-established and departing from Cochin, India—or the new TTT (Thailand to Turkey) rally. We like the TTT because it departs from Oman, with most boats leaving in mid-January for the Maldives. We also like the TTT because it is non-profit, with proceeds going to support the Chandlers, a cruising couple who were kidnapped by pirates and held in captivity in Somalia for over a year.
The decision is unanimous. We’ll go with the TTT—30 boats together, united. Now departure is upon us, and I can’t help but wonder and worry. We feel our choice is reasonable, but is it wise?
A Convoy Crumbles
With high hopes, we set off for the Maldives, where we will join the TTT convoy. The last real passage we’ve done was two years earlier, from New Zealand to Thailand, and after all these months in Asia, it feels good to finally be en route to the Mediterranean. This passage marks a transition for Max and Gina: they will now be standing full watches, exercising all their navigational and sail-handling skills. School work will be completed as time allows, but no longer will Brian and I stand the majority of the watches to facilitate sleep and bookwork. We hope to be across the Arabian Sea and through “pirate alley” in a couple of months.
By the third day, we have a fair wind and are sailing nicely in balmy weather. We check in every morning with the TTT rally, giving our position in terms of secret points A, B, C or D. For the moment, piracy is far from our minds. The sky is a brilliant sapphire blue, and the fishing is superb.
Approaching Sri Lanka a few days later, the breeze picks up, and the seas turn ugly, forcing a number of boats to divert into Galle, including the convoy leader Alondra, which has damaged sails and engine problems. Concerned that our time in the Maldives will be too short, we press on, reefed down in 25 to 30 knots of wind. Glide enjoys the wild ride. We are confident conditions will improve once we move past the wind funnel created by the Gulf of Mannar.
In port before we left, the daily TTT VHF net started with a theme song, “Chain of Fools.” We hoped it wouldn’t be prophetic, but now at sea, we aren’t so sure. Although we check in with the other boats via email and SSB radio, the crew of the lead boat has relied on their satellite phone to relay information via the morning net—a cumbersome system at best, especially after they divert for repairs.
Midway through the passage the convoy is also forced to alter its arrival point from Kulhudhuffushi to Uligamu. This is after the first boat to arrive in Kulhudhuffushi discovers they can stay only three days, unless they purchase a $657 cruising permit. Inevitably, the combination of poor communications and misinformation causes a number of convoy members—ourselves included—to question the quality of our leadership.
Catching our Breath
We sail into Uligamu on a Wednesday and drop our hook in clear water to await clearance, pleased to have made 1,500 miles in 11 days. Tired, salty and unsettled by the lack of communication, we look forward to six days of rest before the convoy’s departure—until a VHF check-in reveals our “recovery” time will be packed with daily meetings ashore. On Thursday we take a day off to visit the neighboring island where we find a pervasive atmosphere of trust and tranquility. We swim with the manta ray in the anchorage, and enjoy a delicious dinner with the islanders. But in the background, “Chain of Fools” is playing, and the song is running out.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday are devoted to meetings and analysis. In between, we fit in reprovisioning, engine maintenance, laundry, cleaning and schoolwork. The anchorage is full of sailors trying to make plans. Among the TTT boats, the common refrain is: “Does anybody know what is happening with our leader?” But no one has an answer. There is nothing to hold us together or resist the negative momentum that started at sea and is increasing on shore.
Naturally, we consider other options. Some boats decide to turn back—Southeast Asia is, after all, a wonderful place: gorgeous, hospitable, economical and safe. Others take off for Africa. A group of four catamarans decides to make up a separate convoy. A few yachts head west on their own.
On Glide, the route is the clincher. We plot the locations of the most recent pirate attacks and can see they are no longer limited to the Gulf of Aden, but are spread across the Indian Ocean. In fact, the Gulf now seems relatively safe by comparison. It is well patrolled, and we see no point in following the recommended route—up the west coast of India nearly to Pakistan, then down to Oman. In years past that may have been best, but the area is now riddled with pirates. It is also much longer, upwind and against the current—all factors that would increase our exposure time.
While in Uligamu, we find another group of 10 boats on the verge of departing, and they say we are welcome to join them. We attend their meetings and find they are not just pooling resources, but creating a healthy atmosphere of support, confidence and trust. We like these people. They are genuine and are committed to departing soon. Ultimately, we throw in our lot with this new group, who call themselves the Seabirds.
A New Convoy
At 0900 on Monday, February 7, the first Seabird group, the “Tigers,” sets off. Fifteen minutes later, the “Eagles” depart, followed by the “Falcons.” Of the 10 boats in the group, three of us are defectors from the TTT convoy. The day is gorgeous, clear and calm, with a lovely, light breeze from the east—an auspicious start, indeed! We are relieved to be back on the open water.
In short order, we are motorsailing along in good formation. There are a few initial hiccups caused by clogged fuel filters, and one boat has to turn back, but the remaining nine Seabirds press on: two Americans, one Austrian, one British, two Canadians, one Danish, one Polish and one Swiss. We sail in a diamond formation made up of the Tigers, followed by a pentagram of Eagles and Falcons. Each group has a lead boat and a communications boat. Glide is Falcon 1, and brings up the rear with the other American boat, Falcon 2.
In the event of an attack, our primary defensive tactic will be the “Excalibur,” in which the front boats stop to allow the boats in the rear to rush up into tight formation. We then plan to delay, frustrate or avert any boardings by doing things like throwing polypropylene lines into the pirates’ props. We practice the maneuver the first morning out and manage to come together in nine minutes.
We remain in formation all the first day and all through the night. By morning we are exhausted from the strain of motoring in such close proximity, with only a half-mile between each unlit boat. As the sun rises, so does the wind, and we begin sailing. Now that we can see each other we are flying in all directions. It is madness, perhaps, but being Seabirds we cannot stop ourselves. To find joy and freedom in the midst of stress and fear is a delight, highlighted by the contrast. At dusk we and the other Seabirds settle back into formation for the night. It has been a rare moment of liberation. We are more than 100 miles from the Maldives, but have not yet entered the true danger zone where we will have to decide whether to head north to Salalah, Oman, or take a more direct route to Yemen.