Voyagers shot at while passing Socotra Island

While on a circumnavigation aboard our 40-foot steel ketch Amaroo, we had a terrifying experience off the island of Socotra. We have had more experiences in one year than most people would have in a lifetime. We have encountered life-threatening situations and experienced fear beyond what we’d ever imagined.

We sailed out of Victoria Harbor, Mahé Island, the Seychelles, on September 16, 1996, bound for Port Aden in Yemen, a distance of 1,460 nautical miles. Before leaving we had discussed route details with other voyagers and, in particular, how close we could come to Socotra Island. The reason for our interest was the mixture of rumors and facts we had heard. Some of these reports included attacks on boats and a yacht missing in the area some years earlier. We found it very hard to ascertain how true and how long ago these incidents had occurred. Sailing directions, Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, sixth edition, has this to say about Socotra Island: “The character of the natives in the past has been belligerent . . . vessels are advised to stay well clear of the island.”

Socotra Island is part of Yemen, and our route at the closest point was 12 nautical miles from the island. Other voyagers had mentioned they were going to stay approximately 50 nautical miles off the island, but we wanted to reduce our sailing time. Our sail from the Seychelles had been uneventful. We had sighted some magnificent whales that came quite close to the boat, plus a few containerships. Nine days after leaving the Seychelles we could see the smoky silhouette of Socotra; it was late afternoon, the breeze dropped off, and the sea flattened to a milky calm. We started the motor, and although we like to sail it was a nice change after days spent on a fairly uncomfortable sea. We made the most of the of the beautiful sunset from our favorite spots on deck, and we savored our cold drinks as we took in what had started to be a lovely evening.

We settled into our usual routine. I started cooking while Allan went over some charts as well as keeping an eye on the radar. We wondered how the other yachts, also en route from the Seychelles, were doing, in particular a young guy from the Seychelles making his first trip out to sea as crew on a American sloop. We tried to call various boats on the VHF and HF radio but hadn’t made contact with any on this particular voyage, so we had given up a few days earlier.

Around 1900 that evening curses blasted over VHF channel 16 in poorly pronounced English. We both stared at each other, not saying a word. Here we were off Socotra Island, and I wondered if our immediate concern was the result of the many stories we had previously heard. As the swearing continued and no other English or foreign words were uttered, it seemed more and more suspicious. Their foreign accents were hard to distinguish but very loud.

We both went back to what we were doing and attempted to ignore the radio. Only a few minutes had passed when we heard what sounded like a humming noise muffled by the sound of our own engine. Before I could say anything, Allan burst through the companionway quicker than I’d ever seen him move. Usually I’m on deck just as quickly, but this time I felt uneasy and stayed below.

Allan quickly moved from our center cockpit onto the deck, his eyes piercing the darkness, trying to distinguish where the noise was coming from, while I switched off our internal lights to make it easier for him to see. When he returned to the cockpit he called out, “Turn the spotlight on. I still can’t see.” I could hardly see myselfthe numerous switches near our chart table were very dimly lit by the soft glow radiating from our chart plotter, our only light. I finally found the spotlight switch and told him it was on. He leaned over the steering wheel, undid the spotlight, and stood back in the cockpit. He flicked the main switch on and scanned the darkness with the spotlight’s strong beam. As he swung the light to the stern of Amaroo he could see a dark hump. There were no navigation lights on this wooden vessel, which seemed to be 400 to 500 meters away. Since the bow faced our stern, Allan found it hard to estimate the size of the boat.

Allan tried to steady the light on its bow so as to get a better look at the boat. With that two shots were firedthe sound rang out along our steel hullas the bullets hit.I was terrified and felt a mixture of shock and disbelief. My immediate thought was, “What if Allan gets shot?” I was just about to tell him to get down when he tore the spotlight cable out of its socket with such force he crashed to the floor of the cockpit. The light was now out and Amaroo was in a cover of darkness, as was our pursuer. Within a second Allan came diving into the saloon from the cockpit, barely touching the stairs. I was huddled between the galley cupboards and the engine room door trying to stay behind as much steel as possible and away from the unprotected companionway entrance.

Everything was happening around me, and I was so frightened. My mind started racing with a confusion of thoughts: Are they going to board us? What do they want? How many of them are there? Should I get up and put a Mayday call out?

I felt both vulnerable and helpless until Allan forced me back to the reality of the immediate situation by saying, “Gerry, help me get the flares out, quick. We haven’t much timeget the flares.” He pulled out the stairs, under which sat our abandon ship bag. We tore at the nylon bag, breaking the zipper in the frenzy and upending the total contents. A sealed plastic container held 20 various forms of flares, now to be used as our weapons of defense. We had no otherchoice,andifweattractedaship, welland good, though we didn’t think of anything but defense at the time.

In the dim light we fumbled through the flares, eventually finding a rocket flare. Not having time, Allan only pulled the trigger end cap off the flare. I could hear the boat getting closer and started to feel a growing sense of panic. Allan took out the safety pin on the flare and held it above his head while facing out of the companionway and then squeezed the trigger. The flare exploded and must have hit the water soon after as we could hear a hissing, bubbling noise. Allan scrambled over me and through the engine room door; he increased the engine revs to full throttle. Our automatic steering is inadequate at this speed and causes the boat to fishtail through the water. As Allan came out of the engine room another shot was fired. I was fumbling through the flares trying to find another rocket flare. We were sure they were still behind us, and Allan’s earlier reassurances of, “Gerry it’s going to be okay, don’t panic, we’ll get through this,” had lost their power.

Allan removed both caps from the second rocket flare, pulled the safety cord, and aimed at a 45° angle from the companionway. This time we heard a loud thud that was totally different from the first time. The sea was still calm, and we only had one rocket flare left. We agreed we would keep this last flare and use it only if we were boarded. Allan pulled the bigger of his two knives from the grab bag and placed it on the seat under the chart table. The thought of having to use the knife made me feel sick.

We still couldn’t tell if Allan had hit the boat, nor could we go up on deck to find out. I was still huddled in my spot wondering what we were going to do next. Allan moved closer and we huddled together, waiting for what seemed like hours but was probably only half an hour. We were surprised and pleased that we had not heard any more shots and wondered why. Maybe the combination of our fishtailing and rocket flares made it hard to come alongside and board. The other possibility is they did not expect any resistance and were concerned about these flares at even closer range. Whatever the case, we didn’t sleep that night for fear of their return. We discussed how lucky we were to have those rocket flares, a steel hull, andmost importantour lives.

Instead of heading for Aden as first planned, we headed for Al Mukalla in Yemen, which was closer, in order to inform the authorities of what happened. We were not sure if this boat was from Socotra, and even if it wasn’t we assumed the authorities would investigate or at the very least make some inquiries. We received a warm welcome on arrival in Al Mukalla, but communications problems didn’t help our cause. We became very frustrated when one guy said, “You look good, not hurt, no problem.” Whether they don’t want to know or there are just too many problems with internal communications and trying to carry out an investigation, we don’t know.

We got plenty of assistance with obtaining diesel and anything else relating to provisioning, but explaining that our lives had been endangered fell on deaf ears. We have since talked to people voyaging near Socotra within two months of the time we were there. One said that over their radio came voices saying, “We are going to kill you.” The other boat said they had their radio off but heard gunfire and saw lights about 90 miles south of Socotra.

Gerry Heitkonig and Allan Lear are currently in Paphos, Cyprus, continuing their circumnavigation.

By Ocean Navigator