Cruising

Circumnavigation, Interrupted

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They’re mad as hell and they’re going to take it.

Sitting in the harbor at Mal, capital of the Maldives, once home to kings, the skipper of the Kelly Peterson 46 , Esprit, reports, “The country offers a $350 cruising package to visit the other islands, but we are going to sit right here with fifteen other boats that have decided not to do the crossing.”

The crossing that would take them through the thickest of pirate waters en route to the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, and the Med.

Instead, Esprit will ride a freighter to the Med, with plenty of company, come the end of March.

Five hundred miles into the pirated waters of the Arabian Sea they had ventured—feeling prepared, a man and a boy armed with guns in the cockpit and long knives at their belts, and a woman ready to pose as a man—with most of a circumnavigation behind them and happy visits to Sri Lanka and India still fresh in their minds. Then they learned that their cruising friends Scott and Jean Adam and two crew aboard the Davidson 58, Quest, had been killed. Brutally. By pirates. After departing India four days ahead of them.

Esprit had known as they left that Quest had been taken, but—

You have to take your chances, but—

The stakes had just escalated.

I believe we can consider the route through the Arabian Sea, past Somalia, now closed to all but the bold, not necessarily the wise. Dodging through and probably being okay no longer has a happy ring to it. Somali attacks are thickest off the coast of Oman (how ironic that the Sultanate of Oman has made a strong and welcome bid to join the ranks of mainstream yachting), but piracy is broadly spread across the entire region as far as the Maldives.

For circumnavigators, beating upwind around the Cape of Good Hope remains an option, but it seems that most of the boats now coming ’round from Asia, boats that had expected to transit the Suez Canal, are opting to ship their boats to the Med via freighter. “We’ll meet the ship in Turkey, in Marmaris,” said the skipper of Esprit. “We’ll take a week or two to explore that part of Turkey, then put the boat on the hard and go home to make enough money to cover the cost of shipping—which is more than the cost of a year of cruising.”

Might they ride along with the boat aboard Sevenstar Yacht Transport to Marmaris?

“One ship was taken a while ago while transporting yachts, so why would we want to? We’ll fly.”

I have this picture in my mind of Conestoga wagons creaking across the prairie toward Cheyenne country, families a’settin on wood planks, scouring the horizon . . .

We first met Esprit in this space as Chay, Katie and Jamie, with Katie declaring their coming of age as a voyaging team: “We are no longer the McWilliams family. We are Esprit.”

Personally, I met these folks outbound from San Diego, California on the 2003 Baja Ha-Ha Rally, and though we’ve kept in touch, I haven’t seen them since we arrived together in Cabo San Lucas, where I finished young Jamie’s lunch in a beachside caf (wouldn’t happen today) and Katie mused, “There’s an air of unreality to this. I ask myself, have we really done our first thousand miles?”

The harbor at Mal is 26,000 wandering miles on from San Diego and the starting line of the Ha-Ha.

Along with the cruisers gathered in Mal to hitch a ride on a cargo vessel are all but one of the boats remaining in the Blue Water Rally, now in-harbor in Salalah on the southeastern coast of Oman, close to the border of Yemen. They left Gibraltar eighteen months ago. s/v Quest had been part of the Blue Water Rally, bound for Salalah when the pirates struck, so there is more than enough shock to go around. And, after conducting eight of these circumnavigations, safely herding fleets of mostly first-time long-distance sailors, Blue Water Rallies Ltd. has announced that it is going out of business, a victim of hard economic times, and piracy. Which perhaps are one and the same. Their statement assessing the moment: “Proceeding in any direction from Salalah is too high-risk for the majority of the participants.” The sailors had expected to complete the rally with celebrations in Crete, but the rally is effectively ended in Salalah. They’re going to Marmaris, and that’s that.

The harbor at Salalah . . .

(A few years ago, on assignment for SAIL Magazine, I cruised through Fiji with that year’s edition of the Blue Water Rally. The times seemed complicated enough at the time, but now we know, those were simpler times.)

Back to Esprit. They had harbored in Cochin, a mix of old and new—

Then, five hundred miles out of Cochin and eight hundred miles short of Salalah, Esprit learned of the fate of Quest, up ahead, and made the decision to turn around and pass again through waters that were risky, but less so than the waters beyond. In recent weeks a handful of boats have successfully reached the Red Sea. They include Imagine, Pegasus, Cyan, La Palapa and Convergence, the latter a cat-rigged Wylie ketch owned by the founder of West Marine, Randy Repass. But these new developments are going to change the game.

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