It was a glorious spring morning in the east end of the Gulf of Aden, with a 12-knot northeasterly carrying Saltaire, my vintage Cal 30, on a broad reach toward Aden, the last Yemeni port before reaching Bab al Mandab, the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Thick, yellow plankton, which had turned the water’s surface into an eerie, bright-green blanket the night before, oozed around the bow in clumps, leaving jagged trails of gray-blue water in the boat’s wake.
The only mishap since leaving Cochin, India, 20 days before, had been a tiny leak opening up in the main water tank near the island of Socotra, leaving me with only 10 gallons of fresh water in jerry cans. Nothing a little dab of JB Weld couldn’t fix. Otherwise, it had been a slow, monotonous beat to weather in a light northwesterly across most of the Arabian Sea.
A British Navy helicopter, part of the U.S.-led coalition forces operating in the Middle East, appeared out of nowhere one morning while I was sailing past the Horn of Africa. The crew asked me for vessel identification and expressed concern about any trouble I might have had with hostile vessels. I assured them everything was going great, and also suggested they pick a new emergency radio frequency within a range accessible by ham and marine SSB sets.
When they returned 20 minutes later, the radio operator gave me a new frequency to pass on to other cruisers. The pilot then saluted me by standing his ship up end on end with the nose pointing nearly straight into the water, and then blasted away as I gave the crew a thumb’s up from my cockpit. It had been a fun, productive meeting.
Piracy had been a key topic on the Red Sea Net for several days, and most voyaging craft were meeting in Salalah, Oman, to wait out the upcoming Muslim weekend, Friday and Saturday, when most piracy attacks occur in that region, and to work out strategies for averting attack.
Onboard Saltaire, beating against a 25-knot northwesterly to Salalah had become untenable a couple days earlier. I had lost too much ground and decided to continue straight for Aden. Undaunted, I followed a set of my own waypoints, designed to keep me at least 45 miles off the coast of Yemen and well clear of the north Somali coast.
Voyagers chased by brigands
Reports of harassment by Somali and Yemeni vessels were becoming more frequent on the Red Sea Net. Numerous sailors had been chased by Somali and Yemeni vessels, in one case by rogue members of the Yemeni coast guard.
And then it happened. On the net, we listened anxiously to details coming from a friend of the French couple aboard Notre Dame, which had been attacked by a Yemeni vessel at 13ï¿½ 30′ N, 47ï¿½ 51′ E. The couple had arrived in Aden bereft of many valuables and much of their electronics. Fortunately, they had not been harmed.
By this point, I thought I had a solid strategy for avoiding a similar attack. Bill and Lisa Bailey of Apollo (Honolulu) had been receiving my position reports in Spanish, which I figured would help foil any nefarious individuals who may have been eavesdropping on the net. And besides, Saltaire is a small, inconspicuous boat with a short rig. I figured someone would just about have to bump into me to see me on open water, even though I had already entered the danger area, a section of the Gulf of Aden bordered on the east by a line running due south from Al Mukalla, Yemen, to the Somali coast, and by a parallel line roughly 120 miles to the west.
Bill Andrews, single-handed on the Westsail 32 Quest (Auburn, Wash.), had come up on the net that unforgettable day, asking me for the location of the danger area and to get my ideas on the best way to avoid a pirate attack. My smug self-confidence in assuming an advisory role among the fleet turned out to be tragically ironic. This radio contact, intended to solicit my sage pearls of wisdom, was my last such contact before making landfall in Aden.
Toward midafternoon the wind began to calm. Under a blue, cloudless sky, a small school of dolphins squeaked and played merrily around Saltaire’s bow while I motorsailed at a fuel-saving 4.5 knots.
A diesel-powered wooden dhow a half mile off my stern had been heading south toward Somalia but then abruptly veered to starboard and began following me. I nonchalantly inched the throttle forward and added some distance from the ponderous yet determined vessel. As if sensing the tension, my dolphin friends suddenly abandoned me, vanishing deep into the brine.
Doggedly, the slow traditional craft fought to close the gap between us. Then abruptly it turned south, having given up the chase. I breathed a deep, though somewhat nervous, sigh of relief. After all, it was Friday, and Al Mukalla was now only a few degrees past due north of my position.
A dark silhouette
Another hour went by, and the sun shone over the west, so I made only fleeting glances at the water lying in my path. Through the glare I could just barely discern the black silhouette of a dhow on the horizon off my starboard bow, heading northeast toward Al Mukalla. Another close call, I thought, my attention turning to the GPS, engine controls and comfort of familiar surroundings.
When I looked up again, the silhouette seemed to halt, pitching in the low swell, and turn south, but at a distance of at least 2 miles, I couldn’t be sure. As the seconds ticked away, there was no mistaking the vessel’s direction. It was headed directly across my path, gradually backing its course to intercept me.
The dhow picked up speed and headed directly toward me, soon only 100 yards off my starboard bow. I quickly made mental notes of the vessel: 50 feet long, black with a 12-inch-wide yellow rubstrake, orange plastic tarp acting as a spray dodger across the bow. I glanced at the clock, 1800 hours, and marked my position on the GPS: 13ï¿½ 13′ N, 48ï¿½ 33′ E. When I turned to port, the dhow blocked my path, forcing me to turn to starboard, and then it moved to cut me off again. It was useless; there was nothing I could do to avoid contact with this sinister presence.
Pop! A single round from a military semiautomatic rifle quashed whatever hope of escape I was still clinging to.
Pop, pop! Two more rounds in rapid succession, over the mast. “Damn, we’re into it now,” I muttered through clenched teeth as I pulled back on the throttle, my veins pumping with adrenaline.
“Stop, stop, stop!” Three men stood on a high poop deck, hollering, and then the one gunman squeezed off another round &mdash pop! They waved their hands in a downward motion, ordering me to lower the mainsail. My eyes were locked straight ahead, beaming through the dark cave of tunnel vision as I mechanically tore down the mainsail without bothering to furl it, allowing it to drape flaccidly over the cabin.
The two vessels slammed hard together, starboard to starboard, and the three tall, gaunt men, clad in tattered T-shirts and long pants, no shoes, jumped aboard Saltaire. At least 20 women and children were visible over the low transom as the dhow pulled away at the hands of the helmsman, now the only male I could see remaining onboard. Somali dhows are known to transport illegal domestic workers and prostitutes into Yemen, generating a nice side income for corrupt Yemeni coast guard officials who, for a handful of rials, allow entry of the human contraband.
Each pirate took his obviously well rehearsed position. The gunman, the shortest of the three, sat on the LPG tank deck-mounted at the starboard stern. After a moment of hollered threats from the trio, the gunman pointed his rifle upward and rested the butt on his knee.
The leader, 6 inches taller than I, opened the proceedings by threatening me with the shiny, 10-inch blade of a homemade dagger. His assistant had already started rifling through drawers, bags and whatever else attracted his attention. Then a wonderful little prize caught the leader’s eye: a thick, 18-carat gold chain, a gift from my fiancÃ©e, Marilu, shining there around my neck for all the world to see. Boy, did I feel like an idiot.
“No, no, please, please, my wife give me,” I pleaded melodramatically as the leader grabbed the gold chain, intending to break it free. With his fist against my throat, he looked me in the eye, paused for a moment, and relinquished the chain. He then quickly turned around and went below to search the cabin. I was dumbfounded. “This chain is worth at least 200 bucks,” I thought to myself in amazement, “and he just let me keep it.”
That momentary drop of the guard would cost these men a whole lot more than a trifling $200. With the gold chain as my talisman, I had drawn a line in the sand, turning the table in my favor. Yet it was far from over.
Life’s circumstances had assigned a role to each of these swashbuckling young seaborne highwaymen. They had come from a place where no state exists and opportunities for anything beyond mere survival are few. Nonetheless, the situation thrust me into the role of adversary, and that meant resisting the attack by whatever means available.
The leader easily found the fake Adidas decoy wallet hidden in a galley drawer. Waving a single $20 bill in his hand, he shouted, “Where’s the money!”
“I have no money,” I answered in polite defiance, and then showed him an expired ATM card I had left in the wallet. I had even written a fake PIN in the signature block.
“You have whiskey! Where’s the whiskey?” In many poor countries, the universal word for any spirit is simply “whiskey.”
“I drink whiskey; no more whiskey.”
Whenever the gunman trained the hot, smoking muzzle of his peashooter on my rib cage, screaming threats (on my life, I presume) in his native tongue, I simply played dumb, waved my hand limply at the side of my head, and said, “No understand.”
Cut off from radio communication
Wielding his dagger, the leader methodically cut the cables to the VHF and amateur radio sets, saving the connectors for future use. Obviously, he had done this before. His assistant collected my two Pentax single-lens reflex cameras, which were old and worn, yet still had illustrated my occasional attempts at writing. He also grabbed an old watch I had forgotten I owned, and a few other goodies I’m still not aware of having lost.
Modern-day pirates rarely harm or kill their victims, although a few such cases in the Gulf of Aden have been recorded. It is unclear to me exactly what triggers violence in this type of scenario. However, it seems logical that a frustrated pirate, seeing that he is scoring only a paltry haul, is more dangerous than a successful, satisfied pirate. It was at that point, where the leader’s anger and frustration, no doubt coupled with the realization that his prey was craftily dodging his efforts to find a cache of cash, that I began seriously to fear for my life.
Threatened with a blade
His anger piqued, the leader sprang out to the cockpit, pointed the dagger at my chest, and demanded one last time: “Where you put money! You have money!” I looked aft from where I was sitting on the starboard cockpit bench and for a moment studied the rifle bore aimed at my midsection.
In a nanosecond I considered the options. If I turn over the cash, that makes me a liar who has wasted precious minutes of their time, which could get me killed. On the other hand, if I stick to my lie and they find the money, I’m a goner for sure. But if they don’t find the cash â€¦
“Sorry, no money,” I said with a shrug.
The leader leaned toward me, waving the sharp, crudely manufactured badge of his profession only inches from my face. I didn’t flinch. He stood back, breathed deeply and went back down below. Whew.
He moved about the saloon, making one last cursory search for something of value he might have missed, and then laid his hand on the permanent-mount GPS, which he had ignored up to this point. He looked at me, and I looked at him, this time dropping my shoulders and unashamedly appealing to his sense of pity with real hurt in my eyes. Neither one of us uttered a word. He removed his hand, snapped an order to his assistant, and the two stepped up to the cockpit.
The dhow motored back, this time with its port side to Saltaire’s starboard side. The leader remembered to ask, “What kind engine you have? Gas, diesel?” No doubt they needed fuel.
“I don’t know.” We both knew full well his time was up and they needed to get underway.
He butted the air with his chin, and his eyes stretched wide in disbelief. “You don’t know?”
“I don’t know,” my voice rasped slowly in a final show of resistance.
He shook his head, and the trio, led by the gunman, jumped up to the dhow. While the big wooden boat pitched and rolled, the leader and his assistant leaned over the side to keep the two vessels safely apart, lest they damage my hull. A kind gesture.
Pop! A final salute issued from the lone rifle as the crew waved mockingly. “Bye, bye!” They looked and sounded as if they had just visited their favorite uncle &mdash or perhaps more accurately, their most generous uncle.
My two-day absence from the Red Sea Net naturally had caused a stir. The Baileys had assumed the worst and put out word to the cruiser fleet to keep a look out for me. From the moment I arrived in Aden, my fellow voyagers would have me repeating the details of my adventure many times over.
Free cold beer from numerous yachts soothed the soul and reminded me of the basic kindness, camaraderie and empathy that exist among cruising sailors on every ocean. In sharp contrast, when I submitted the obligatory incident report to the Yemeni maritime authority in Aden, the head coast guard official treated me as if I were a criminal.
Considering the approximately $2,000 in lost equipment I incurred, my actions appear to have paid off, especially if I add up all the things in plain view the intruders left behind. I didn’t get hurt, and the pirates didn’t take anything required for the safe navigation of my vessel.
The gold chain had marked an early turning point in this encounter. The leader’s reluctant magnanimity had exposed a crucial flaw, which I was to test to its limits. Over the ensuing 15 minutes, what he tried but failed to convey was that he was an ominous force to be feared and respected. In his moment of weakness, he had revealed that he wasn’t quite as tough as he tried to appear.
I must emphasize, the particular head games I played with these pirates were born of a chance moment, a turn of events I never could have predicted, and certainly not something guaranteed to work in every incident of piracy. On another patch of water, in a different corner of a far-off ocean, that game easily could cost me my life. I hope I never find out.