Lia Ditton catches up with round-the-world cruising couple Gillian and Graeme Mulcahy, now safely in the Mediterranean after transiting up the Red Sea onboard their 39ft ‘Kathleen Love,’ at the time when the 58ft sailboat ‘Quest,’ was seized by pirates and her crew shot dead. Images and text courtesy of Gillian and Graeme Mulcahy.
Uligan in the Maldives – here we found 30 yachts at anchor agonizing over what should be the next move. It had become apparent that pirate activity had become much more extensive, as they operate from mother ships over all the Arabian Sea, concentrating on the major shipping routes.
Possibilities for the next stage were:
- To sail a more or less direct route
- To sail as far as possible up the Indian coast, even to Pakistan before crossing to Oman incurring up to 1000 extra sea mile
- To return to Thailand/Malaysia and hope the situation improved in a year
- To have the boat shipped to Turkey (at $650/ft = $25,500)
- To sail round by South Africa (big seas and an extra 12,000 miles to get home).
Together with another 9 yachts, we chose a slightly modified version of option one, skirting south of what appeared to be the main areas of pirate activity and sailing in convoy. Each of the other options had takers and some boats took the direct route alone. We had some encouragement from the fact that all the recent pirate attacks had been on commercial vessels; there had been no attacks on yachts in this region for over a year (tragically this was to change).
After a thorough briefing we set out. Each boat (with a code name – we were Eagle 3) had an allocated position in the convoy, which we stuck to as closely as possible. A schedule of VHF channels was determined, changing each day. One boat acted as liaison with the authorities via satphone (UKMTO and MSCHOA) and gave our positions. Within a couple of hours of leaving, one boat had a severely overheating engine and had to return, leaving nine to continue. Lights at night were to be kept to a minimum, weak stern lights only.
The boats included a 36ft gaff ketch (singlehanded), a 28ft Polish boat whose lady skipper will shortly be completing her third circumnavigation in 6 years (mostly singlehanded), a badly sailed 51ft ketch and a 40ft cat, which did not sail well upwind. The varying sizes and performances made position keeping tricky, particularly at night, and we found that we were sailing much of the time reefed and playing with the sail plan to stay with the slower boats. The pity is that we enjoyed some of the best ocean sailing conditions we have experienced – moderate winds, flat seas and almost unbroken sun.
So we settled into the routines that the convoy needed and plodded on, committed to sticking together – a tall order for a passage of 1500 miles! Some periods it was necessary to motor to keep up a reasonable speed when we might have otherwise been content to sail slowly if on our own. The cat developed a rigging problem one morning so we all hove to while they fixed it. Another boat’s transmission cooling failed – the largest yacht took them in tow for 24 hours while a replacement system was put together. Some boats were more prone to wander than others, but groupings were then restored as necessary. The two Canadian boats who had brought us together and led the convoy did an excellent job in diplomatically keeping us all in order.
As we went on, the discipline of keeping position improved, aiming to stay within 2-300m of our neighbors. We practiced a maneuver to take close order in the event of suspicious vessels approaching. We did not, however, perfect ‘formation gybing at night’! Speed targets were set periodically by the slower boats according to what they could manage under sail or with motor assistance. Keeping in formation did require a high degree of concentration, particularly at night, so ‘happy hour’ was celebrated on most days only with tonic water, (boo, hiss)!
One morning a warship appeared on the horizon and diverted to have a look at us, before heading off back along our route, possibly to check on other small groups of yachts which we knew to be following. We were also flown over by a couple of helicopters and reconnaissance planes. The presence of the military was reassuring but, realistically, it is unlikely that any real protection could be expected.
Towards the end, we changed our destination from Salalah in Oman to Mukallah in Yemen, following closely to the north of the protected shipping corridor through the Gulf of Aden. One night here, we encountered a large convoy of commercial vessels eastbound, accompanied by two warships, which kindly shone bright searchlights directly at us destroying our night vision!
An extra complication had now entered the equation as we heard that Middle East political disturbances had reached Oman and Yemen, and Aden where we would be particularly ill advised to stop. Closing the Yemen coast in the early hours we saw the flashing lights of small fishing boats and their markers. In quick succession, three boats got caught on fishing gear so we hove to until daylight and made our final approach after 13 days at sea.
In our few days in Mukallah we were able to refuel, provision (excellent supermarket, hooray) and catch up on the news, which unfortunately included that of the US yacht ‘Quest,’ sailing alone, whose crew were all killed several days after being taken by pirates. Our last visit to the city coincided with a political demonstration accompanied by some gunfire, so we decided to leave and head direct for the Red Sea, bypassing Aden.
Another 4 days in convoy saw us enter the Red Sea, which greeted us with increasing winds, which characteristically funnel between the landmasses. Here the convoy split, deeming ourselves to be out of the main pirate areas. We and three other boats headed for Assab in Eritrea, feeling in dire need of sleep, particularly as the last night before Bab el Mandeb had brought another encounter with a fishing fleet. Part 2 tomorrow.