As if the recent murder of four American cruisers wasn't enough to shine a huge spotlight on the Indian Ocean's Somali piracy problem, the big crisis now is that the Somalis have grabbed a Danish family of five, including three kids (ages 12 to 16), who were en route to the Red Sea aboard their 43-foot boat ING. Jan Quist Johansen, his wife Birgit Marie, their two boys Rune and Hjalte, and their daughter Naja, together with two other adult crew members, are now reportedly ashore in Somalia being held hostage.
Funny how Somali piracy was only a back-burner issue when it was a simply a case of some 30 commercial vessels and 660 merchant mariners being held prisoner. Now that some recreational sailors have been dramatically victimized, pundits are talking darkly of a "9/11 moment" and are insisting that something must be done to solve this horrible problem.
What exactly can be done is not very clear. An amphibious assault ship and two support ships, together with elements the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, recently departed San Diego bound for the Horn of Africa, but it seems unlikely they’ll be storming ashore in Puntland to raid pirate bases. Back in the days of the Barbary pirates, Thomas Jefferson could send our fetal Navy and some Marines to the shores of Tripoli without unleashing a host of undue consequences. But trying the same thing in Somalia now will certainly lead to a large pile of dead hostages, including now those Danish teenagers.
What seems ironic about this is that folks like the Johansens really shouldn't be anywhere near Somalia in the first place. The Sunderland family earned themselves a huge dose of public criticism last year when they sent daughter Abby off to cross the Southern Ocean in the middle of winter, and I’d say the Johansens have behaved just as irresponsibly. Not only were they sailing on their own through the most pirate-infested waters in the world, with their children and without the support of a convoy, they were regularly posting their position for all to see on their blog at the SailBlogs website:
Amazingly, they’re not the only cruisers in the Indian Ocean doing this:
Meanwhile, Dutch cruisers Rene and Edith Tiemessen (who are sailing with a 2-year-old child aboard) have been complaining publicly about how military vessels patrolling the area have refused to provide an escort for the TTT (Thailand to Turkey) Convoy they've organized. Rene Tiemessen has asserted he has no reasonable alternative to crossing the Indian Ocean with his family under sail, and that voyaging around South Africa would be just as dangerous.
As a cruiser myself I find all this a bit embarrassing. Being able to roam the world's oceans in a private yacht is not some God-given right, but an immense privilege. Those who behave otherwise are doing our sport and lifestyle a grave disservice.
There are in fact very reasonable alternatives to transiting the Red Sea under sail so as to reach Europe and the Med. Yes, squeezing around the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic can be challenging, but it is perfectly feasible and is now clearly safer than sailing anywhere near the Horn of Africa. During the eight years the Suez Canal was closed after the Six Day War (1967-75), bluewater sailors always used the Good Hope route to get around Africa. These days many still use it, including all those participating in the World ARC rally run by the World Cruising Club [http://www.worldcruising.com/]. Conditions can be rough, but there are many places along the South African coast where you can sit tight and wait on weather. The country itself, meanwhile, is very beautiful and well worth exploring.
Another alternative is to put your boat on a yacht-transport ship. If you're looking to get thru Pirate Alley direct to the Med this season, Dockwise Yacht Transport has a ship sailing from Phuket, Thailand, for Genoa, Italy, in May.
Or you can sell your yacht, fly to the Med, and buy or charter another one when you get there.
I'm not saying you should be prohibited from sailing past the Horn of Africa. It is always a skipper’s sole responsibility to assess the risks of any given passage. But if you do decide to sail past Somalia, you'd be very wise to do so in a well-organized convoy and you should not expect the navies of the Western world to babysit you en route.
It's also a good idea not to publicize your whereabouts online. Somalia may be a "failed state," but I am quite sure they, too, have Internet access.