They came out of the mist at dawn from slightly ahead and on the starboard bow: three old ship’s lifeboats with blue plastic sheeting on the topsides. They were on a course to intercept Bambola, my 36-foot Moody. I was crossing the Gulf of Aden in company with the German single-hander Ulf Reimer in Josephine, a 35-foot aluminum yacht of his own design.
Each lifeboat was desperately overcrowded with 30 or 40 people. I went below and radioed to Ulf that we had company. Then I heard the first gunshots. Looking out of the hatch, I saw that the boats now had men standing up in the bows holding automatic weapons firing in the air, shouting and gesticulating for me to heave to. I dived below and hit the channel 16 button on the VHF and transmitted “Mayday, mayday, mayday. I am being attacked by pirates in position 13.31 north 48.24 east. I am a sailboat.”
There came an immediate response.” “This is a U.S. warship. What is your position again?”
I repeated the position and gave the name of my boat.
“We are 20 miles north of your position heading towards you.”
“They are shooting,” I said and looked out of the hatch to see the lead boat approaching with a man aiming an AK-47 at Bambola.
I put down the radio mike, covered my laptop with the logbook and went into the cockpit with my hands up.
Ulf and I had agreed to meet in Salalah, the most southern port in Oman, to do the potentially dangerous passage through the Straight of Aden to Djibouti in company. Like most of the British and European yachts, we felt that the rumors of pirate attacks were greatly exaggerated, and with the large military presence in the area, the chances of having a problem were low.
With my wife Monique onboard as admiral and a 21-year-old German crew, Alex Busch, sharing the four-on/four-off watch schedule with me, we had found the start of the 700-mile passage from Salalah very slow with light headwinds. Later, about 30 miles off the Yemen coast, the winds went NE to a more reasonable 12 knots. Ulf’s VHF broke, and I passed him my hand-held VHF, which turned out to be very fortunate. On that morning of March 2, I had the 0300 to 0700 watch and was looking forward to Alex taking over.
With the Kalashnikovs pointing at me, I came out into the cockpit. Another volley of shots was fired into the air, and the pirates gesticulated for me to pull down the sails. I got a winch handle to furl the genny, and immediately the guns were aimed directly at me, and up went my hands again. Alex sleepily arrived in the cockpit and assessed the situation.
“Go and drop the main,” I said. “I’ll furl the genny.”
We both moved slowly and calmly. I let the sheet go and started to furl as the two pirate boats came at Bambola from both quarters and nosed into the boat, allowing the armed men to scramble aboard with automatic pistols and AKs. Alex and I again raised our hands as the boom crashed around. “I ought to winch it in,” I thought. “It might hurt someone.” Then I realized I would be very pleased if it did.
Whilst the others kept their guns trained on me, one of the men went down the hatch into the saloon and disappeared down the passage toward the after cabin, where Monique and I slept. I waited for screams or shouts from my wife, but moments later the pirate reappeared and gestured for me to join him. I learned later Monique had shut herself in the head, the door to which the pirates never found!
In the saloon, the pirate stuck his Kalashnikov into my stomach, rubbing his thumb and finger together screaming, “Give me money! Give me money!”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll get it.” I turned to the after cabin, where my stash of U.S. dollars ready for the Red Sea was in a drawer. I returned with $600 and handed it over. Almost immediately, a second pirate dived into the saloon, and the two of them started fighting over the cash. A third one pointed his gun at me from the hatch and indicated I was to come back into the cockpit. Alex was sitting quietly by the mast, staying very cool. One of pirates grabbed at my wristwatch, tore it from my wrist, then went for Alex and stole his watch. The two from below emerged clutching my SSB and the VHF with a Raytheon repeater still attached to a wood panel that they had torn out. Another went for the solar panels on the stern arch but was unable to pull them free from their bolts. He went for me demanding binoculars, and I indicated where they were kept.
Astern, I could see Josephine had the third pirate boat close by. They gesticulated to him to drop his sails and fired shots into the rigging, doing some damage. Ulf pretended not to understand and went below. He loaded his flare pistol and fired shots up in the air through the open deck hatch. At the same time, Ulf called mayday on my hand-held VHF, giving our position. With only two gunmen in the third lifeboat, they did not board but headed back to Bambola, where the pirates were now shouting to the first two lifeboats to come alongside again. The poor people crowded into the lifeboats, crouched down on the sole, seemed even more terrified than I probably looked. They were obviously not involved in any way with pirates except, I suspect, had paid to be smuggled from Somalia to another country. Crashing into Bambola’s quarters, the raiders departed with their booty. As the three boats headed to the northwest, we took a compass bearing of their track.
Ulf motored over and gave me back my hand-held VHF so I could talk to the U.S. warship, which arrived half an hour later. It was a fleet auxiliary with a civilian captain. I persuaded him to follow the pirates, and he called his headquarters for instructions. Later he radioed me that he had found them and was circling. Another more suitable U.S. “facility” was on its way to take over the situation. I thanked him, and we set sail for Djibouti, where we were given a great deal of help and kindness from the German warship Elbe, which was based there.
To my horror, I was informed that the U.S. Navy had chosen to not apprehend the pirate boats and had left them free to attack the yachts following in our wake. Clearly, these pirates had attacked other boats and now knew they would not be apprehended by U.S. forces and are free to attack others with impunity.
Exactly one week later, in approximately the same position, a group of five yachts, including Imani (U.S.) and Sea Dove (U.K.), were attacked by what appears to be the same pirates. The only difference being it was some three hours after dawn, and the pirate boats came from astern. I was in another boat answering questions on the Red Sea net (8,173 kHz), when Imani broke in to ask me if the pirate boats were blue in color as the three boats crowded with people were approaching. I answered “Roger.”
Imani and the others opened their throttles, and despite being fired upon, were able to outrun the pirates. I contacted the warship Elbe on VHF 16, which contacted the U.S. navy, which sent an Orion aircraft to circle the pirates and later a frigate to patrol the area.
At press time, no action had been taken by the U.S. Navy to apprehend the pirates, so it does not bode well for next year’s group of yachts transiting the Gulf of Aden.
Michael E. Briant is a British voyager on a circumnavigation aboard his yacht Bambola.