Bound for the Red Sea
Our convoy is a bit rough at times, but it works. The organizers, Danielle and Roger aboard Chocobo, are inspirational. They serve as communications boat for both the Tigers and for the Seabirds as a whole, while John and Monika aboard Seeamia take on the responsibility of overall group leadership. Though each vessel is individually registered with the Maritime Security Center Horn of Africa and other security organizations in the area, Chocobo has also registered the Seabirds as a convoy. As the primary communications vessel, they call in our daily position and route changes and receive piracy reports from the authorities. Most boats also have email aboard, which allows us to receive piracy reports along with news updates from the military and friends. As per our agreement with the convoy, however, we never divulge our position.
Keeping our boats in formation requires close attention to course, speed and relative position. We agree to a minimum of 4.5 knots under sail, and 5.5 knots under power. It sounds simple, but proves to be challenging and maddening: challenging to get it right and keep it right; maddening to accommodate our different speeds, sailing abilities and personalities. We are nine vastly different boats with 19 sailors keeping watch for nearly 2,000 miles, under imminent threat of pirate attack. On Glide, we are triple reefed to go slowly enough, while the slower boats struggle to keep up, often using their motors. I can tell this is wearing on them, and we all offer extra fuel to help out.
Nights are the hardest. We run with minimal lights. Each group also has one boat running long-range radar to monitor any other vessels in the area, while another runs 1-mile radar to keep our individual boats in position. Yet another boat runs AIS to identify registered ships we may encounter. We all remove our radar reflectors so that boats beyond a few miles will not pick us up. We plan to evade any suspicious vessels before they see us. Small skiffs will not be visible on radar, so we kept vigilant watches, as much for each other as for pirates and small fishing boats.
It is astonishingly difficult to keep from running into each other in the dark but we improve with help from the ever-calm Anders and Birgit aboard Margarita. As our Com boat, they wear themselves thin checking our positions on the radar. Throughout the night, they call with gracious requests to move a little to port or starboard, thereby averting many a collision.
The slower boats in each group are given lead positions to set the pace. Our singlehander, Martin from Austria on his 36-foot gaff-rigged ketch, Anima, is in the very front. An excellent sailor, he constantly trims and changes sails to maintain the correct speed. On board the smallest boat, Asia, a Mantra 28 performance cruiser, the skipper, also named Asia, is another excellent sailor. Two years earlier, she singlehanded around the world nonstop in 198 days, starting and ending in Panama. Now she has one crew, Alex, but her boat’s size makes her slower, and she motors to keep up, while also leading the combined Eagle-Falcon group.
By the fifth day, we are all doing pretty well, though the couple on Tiger 2—lovingly nicknamed “Tiger on the Loose”—continues to struggle. They are out of formation many times and nearly run into most of us as they cut in and out of the fleet. They seem unable to keep a course without the help of their autopilot, which frequently malfunctions. Their VHF is often on the fritz, sometimes forcing other boats in the convoy to take evasive action. One cruiser claims to be more frightened of Tiger 2 than the pirates.
The convoy suffers other mechanical problems: one boat has a broken turnbuckle, another has a damaged exhaust system, several have autopilot problems, and another has transmission problems requiring an 18-hour tow. Nearer the coast, fishing nets become a problem. Try as we might, we cannot always avoid them, which inevitably leads to much milling about as trapped boats extricate themselves.
As news continues to come in about attacks off the Omani coast, we decide to alter course for Yemen. This shortens the distance we have to sail, but also brings us closer to Socotra Island, a notorious pirate stronghold to the south. Luckily, the winds shift north as we change course, making for rougher seas and diminishing the likelihood of pirate attacks—we figure even pirates don’t like to go to windward.
Nearer the shipping corridor leading into the Gulf of Aden, traffic increases dramatically: planes and helicopters fly overhead, warships scrutinize us, and a fleet of 15 Chinese oil tankers, with a warship at each end, passes by in the middle of the night with searchlights on us the entire time. Fortunately, most vessels we see are as scared of us—a convoy of unidentifiable small craft— as we are of them. We see them on radar and begin to worry, but as soon as they spot us, they douse their running lights, increase speed, and hightail it away. How funny that we could be feared, as if we were a pirate fleet.
When one boat brings the fleet to a halt for a minor repair, we take the opportunity to dive in for a refreshing swim and then tow Gina in the kayak for a while. We wonder what the surveillance aircraft think as they fly overheard: crazy yachties, all of us. Perhaps it is a false sense of security, but we do feel protected.
But then, on the way into Mukalla, Yemen, we receive a call from a coalition forces plane. They wish us well and hope we are away from here as soon as possible. The yacht Quest, they tell us, with Americans Bob Riggle, Phyllis Macay and Scott and Jean Adam aboard, has just been taken by pirates to the northeast of us.
A Restless Stop
We stop to provision in the tiny guarded harbor of Mukalla, where riots are taking place. The second night there, we have a strategy meeting on Chocobo, where we toast to our progress, our leaders and Tiger 2 for providing comic relief. Despite being tired, we are all love and smiles—for the moment, the hard edge of piracy seems far away
In the morning, we learn what happened: Tiger 2 had been dreaming that his boat was out of control and was still sound asleep when he got on the VHF. Chocobo told him his engine had stopped, and that we would all help him fix it in the morning, that everything was okay and he should go back to bed, which he did. The stress of our voyage, it seems, is following us into our sleep.
Later that night, a call comes over the VHF from Tiger 2. In heavily accented English, he shouts, “Going forward, forward, big problem, can’t stop, can’t backward, problem, help…” Leaping from our bunks to take action against the Tiger in our midst, we clamber on deck. The harbor is chock full of boats and Tiger 2 would be a 46-foot battering ram, but the boat doesn’t seem to be moving.
The VHF comes to life again, this time in French, and Chocobo gives hurried instructions. Then there is silence and stillness. Nothing moves. We conclude the Tiger has stopped his engine, and we pray he will not start it again. Disconcerted, we try to go back to sleep.
Break On Through
We leave two days later, anxious to be underway. The rioting on shore has increased, our visitor passes have been confiscated for our own protection, and the news of the crew murdered aboard Quest has left us shocked, jittery and mournful. The bubble of our false sense of security has burst. It is time again for the Seabirds to fly.
We still have 415 miles to go. But with fuel and water tanks now full, we have a number of options. We can go into Aden or Djibouti or anchor near the Bab el Mandab—the “Gate of Tears” separating the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea. We can also shoot straight on through, weather permitting.
Soon after our departure we pick up a favorable wind from astern and decide we will head directly for the Red Sea. There is no turning back. Seventy-two hours later, just after dawn, we are reefed down and rocketing, exhilarated, through the Bab El Mandab at 7.5 knots, blasting the Doors classic “Break on Through” on the speakers, belting out the lyrics: “You know the day destroys the night, night divides the day, tried to run, tried to hide, break on through to the other side!”
The boats at the front of our convoy report nine-foot following seas, and we cheer even louder. Huge swells lift us high. Ahead we can see the horizons of Eritrea to port and Yemen to starboard, hazy with dust, as we surf down waves capped with breaking crests. We’ve made it through Pirate Alley into the Red Sea. Our long passage is over.