Oman to Yemen 'Pirate Alley'
Thursday 4th March to Tuesday 9th March 2010
We experienced many new things in Oman, e.g. it is the first Arabic, Muslim, country we have visited so most women are wearing the black burka but not all have their faces covered. The burka here is also quite decorative with the head veil very elaborately wound around huge hair do's giving a unique shape.
We explored many ancient archaeological sites, one city called Khan Rhoni dating back to 4 BC, was the centre of the prosperous trade in frankincense.
We also spent a fair bit of time at 'The Oasis Club' which is one of the very few licensed premises in Oman. Being close to the harbour it was the obvious place to meet each other and knock around ideas about the coming passage. (We also watched Italy beating Scotland in the 6 nations.)
'EM Convoy' (Early March)
The convoy was made up of many nationalities, American, Italian, Danish, Dutch, French, Belgian, Australian, New Zealand, German and British. The boats varied in size and speed quite considerably and the rule was that we go at the speed of the slowest boat. We decided to form four diamond shaped groups of five boats each, with all four groups forming a larger diamond. The groups were named Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta. Equinox was placed in the lead group as Alpha 3.
We also had a named contact in the task room of the Coalition Forces, to whom we would report four times a day during the passage. Our inter convoy communications channels were set at 67, 68 and 69, and all radioing to be done at low wattage and preferably hand held radios. At no time were we to discuss position, course, or any other information which might disclose our whereabouts.
It was agreed that should winds allow for sailing, boats would reef in to maintain the speed of the slowest boat and no-one would be left behind for any reason. Towing boats were identified in case of emergency.
Each group had an appropriate leader, ours being Joost, the convoy organiser.
As you can imagine the few days before departure were frantic, organising parts, diesel, water, provisioning etc and Mohammed, whom I mentioned previously, was a complete star. He is the official 'agent' trusted by the military presence, to keep us all in line and see to our needs. He does so admirably and all for 20 USD (Unfortunately last year some yachties ripped him off and did not pay him his fee or for hired cars. Rotters!).
At last the morning of Thursday 4th March dawned and being group Alpha we led the convoy out of Salalah at 8.30 am. We stopped at our first waypoint to allow the groups to form. What a beautiful sight as we all gained speed in disciplined formation.
The problems started almost immediately. One boat, a catamaran, experienced outboard engine failure and discovered they had diesel instead of petrol, so had to return to port to change it all.
Also within the first hour, five boats caught ropes from the dozens of pot buoys waiting to ensnare us.
Position at 1835hrs, 16deg 31.11N 53deg 34.87E, DTG (Distance To Go)560nm, SOG (Speed Over Ground)4.4 knots.
On day one we used sightings of fishing boats to practice our 'defence' formation, which means engines at idle for the lead group and on full for the following groups to close up, a version of 'circling the wagons'. We repeated this three times over the next two days, once being a true alert on spotting what looked like a 'mother ship' with six attendant skiffs. Howerver all was well and we passed them safely. Incidentally most of these skiffs carry AK47 weapons on board either to shoot pirates or if they are pirates to shoot you. This was proven when we were offered an AK47 in Yemen for 600 USD including ammunition. We refused the offer.
On day two after an active night of watching out, not so much for pirates, but more trying not to collide with each other, we decided to space out more at night. Most attacks happen at dusk and dawn, so at these times we closed up the formation for a few hours. We had a heartening moment when an Aussie Navy helicopter flew three times around us, very low, and confirmed the presence of the coalition forces in the area. We could hear the Coalition Warships on the radio all the time and right through to the Red Sea.
Unfortunately but inevitably it became clear early on that we had a few anarchists in our midst. They took off in all directions, sailing fast, putting themselves and the group in danger. They had to be called back frequently. Others just could not listen to simple instructions which were usually agreed by the majority for the general good of the convoy. One particular group which through manipulation was entirely of one nationality, having evicted the only 'non-them' boat, were so busy b****ing on SSB (another radio system with prearranged reporting schedules) that every instruction had to be said twice, once for the convoy and once for them. They made racist remarks, ridiculed other boats actions and made themselves and everyone else miserable. I made a plea through our leader for a bit of tolerance and team spirit from these guys. The sea state was calm, but the waves of testosterone coming from behind us were almost overwhelming (and that was just the women.).
The method chosen to keep the groups at fixed distances apart was the use of XTE (Cross Track Error). Essentially it is the distance off a fixed track set by GPS coordinates. However it became clear that there were different standards in charts, chart plotters, GPS, great circle 'v' rhum line that this system would not work. Hours and hours were spent discussing this, resetting chartplotters, and every one with their own theory. Eventually we used radar to keep a fixed distance apart, much simpler.
On day three we had a 10-minute stop for oil checking. Well 19 boats stopped, but one kept going, ploughing through the convoy since they had failed to hear the instruction! Yup same group. We had another close encounter today when a couple of skiffs came up to the fleet, but they only wanted cigarettes and food. Once given they went off with big smiles and waves. They all looked like extras from 'Pirates of the Caribbean'.
Day four; Sunday 7th March, 1216hrs, 13deg 58.94N 48deg 57.60E, DTG 247nm.
One boat experienced engine failure due to dirty fuel. We all stopped to allow them to change filters after which they restarted. However four hours later they conked out again. Obviously this was going to be a recurring problem, so the decision was made to put them on tow before dark. Our friends on 'Astra', as one of the appointed towing boats, volunteered and hitched them up for the night. They then became Tango 1 and Tango 2 (T for tug boat) and were positioned in Alpha group. 'Astra' had been Bravo leader, so another boat took over that role and we moved to Charlie group to make room and became C2. You may begin to see the picture.
Day five, Monday 8th March, 0505hrs, 13deg 32.38N 47deg 50.30E, DTG 177nm.
Last night we all had a bit of a fright when a member of Alpha group decided to turn into wind to hoist his mainsail, in pitch dark, with no warning to the rest of the fleet. He had been a bit erratic in behaviour previous to this, falling behind, speeding up, not answering his radio etc, but this was different. The whole of D group were yelling as he headed towards them. No response was forthcoming and he never owned up to the action. He was therefore evicted to C group and we returned home to Alpha, now as Alpha 4 (Phew!).
The tow was unleashed this morning as T2 managed to get the engine running. It seems the problem was bacterial growth in the tank which is not surprising given that this boat had been laid up in Salalah for two years. It was decided to attach the tow again for the night just in case of further breakdown. The convoy agreed that it would be prudent to maintain as much speed as possible to enter Aden in daylight the next day. We were all feeling the strain by now. It is very tiring having to sail so close to other boats and the unnecessary quarrelling between certain factions had increased tensions considerably.
Tuesday 9th March 2010. Equinox led the convoy into Aden and dropped anchor at 1420hrs (Fearless leader was exhausted).
I must say this has been a unique experience, but not one we would choose to repeat soon. Our fearless leader did a sterling job. He is only 30 years old, but managed to keep his cool under difficult circumstances, at times having to deal with fairly aggressive bullies.
Conclusions; Sailors are independent thinkers and do not respond well to instruction. Their tolerance to the presence of other boats close by is limited and especially in those who have never raced. They need huge distances to feel safe. We also noted that the size of the boat is not necessarily linked to the size of the ego. The biggest boats were often the most adaptable. Also in hindsight, for a convoy such as this some kind of proof of sea worthiness would be prudent, since many problems were due to avoidable breakdown.
There is a rumour that the Somalian pirates are wearing T-shirts which read 'I survived the EM Convoy'. Nuff said.