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Report from “Pirate Alley” (Gulf of Aden)

April 22, 2008

S/y Dolphin
Gulf of Aden, 22 April 2008
0030hrs (local time)
Latitude 12º 49´N
Longitude 047º 15´E

Report from “Pirate Alley” (Gulf of Aden).

Yesterday afternoon we received phone calls over the Satcom from relatives of some of the crew, living in Germany and Austria. They were concerned as to our well being since hearing on the local news of a reported “pirate attack” in the Gulf of Aden, the report said a commercial tuna fishing vessel was boarded and hijacked by a gang of pirates.  This attack happened in close proximity to our location. The report was correct, but that attack was only one of FIVE during the last 24 hours.

Yes, pirates do still exist, unfortunately though they are not as charming and sympathetic as a certain Captain Jack Sparrow, the personification that most people associate with pirates nowadays.  Piracy on the high seas, especially this part of the world is nothing new. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and their satellite communist regime in Somalia, in the 90’s, there has been a regular pattern of pirate attacks.  I sailed through here, December 1998, as Captain on Geraldo Rivera’s sailing yacht “Voyager”.  We were chased by pirates, the duration of a night, in the Strait of Sucatra.

Only two weeks ago, April 4th, the French sailing yacht “Le Ponant” was attacked and hijacked in the same area as the tuna boat. Over 30 crew, mainly French and Ukrainian citizens were held hostage onboard, while the pirates took the vessel to a Somalian port.  One week later the French government paid a ransom of $2.000.000, the vessel and its crew were released.  Soon after four French assault helicopters, one warship and French Special Forces launched an attack, killing eight pirates, arresting the rest and recovering most of the ransom.

April 12th, before setting sail, on our return journey from the Maldives to the vessels home port Palma de Mallorca Spain, we contacted the IMB (International Maritime Bureau) Piracy Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They informed us that since the “Le Ponant” incident there had been no other attacks reported, as CMF (Combined Maritime Forces) had sent additional warships to patrol the area.  The CMF consists of Spanish, Italian, American, British, German, French and Australian warships.
But that report was two weeks ago………

April 20th and all hell broke loose here.
It started 20.35hrs (local time) with a Mayday call on the VHF radio.  “Faisal Mustafa” a small traditional wooden cargo ship, a common vessel in the Middle East known as a “dhow”, was en route from the Red Sea to India.  As it turned out their position was only four nautical miles off our starboard side. We witnessed four small speedboats (dinghy type) quickly approach the ship.  The last radio transmission, from the captain, was “Merciful God, can somebody help us, the pirates are boarding, merciful God, help us please!”  There was a commotion of screaming and shouting in the background, then the radio went silent.  We changed course immediately, contacted CMF and made radio contact with an American warship in the vicinity.  They advised us to head south westerly at full speed, to get away from the pirates as soon as possible and in the general direction of a British warship “HMS Chatham”, 30 nautical miles from our position.  They also launched a helicopter to meet us.  The helicopter soon arrived and stayed over us until “HMS Chatham” had us plotted on their radar.  Meanwhile the American warship was steaming towards the distressed vessel to help in some way.  We still do not know the outcome of that situation.

Later the “HMS Chatham” Operations Officer advised us to continue towards our destination, Djibouti, on a westerly course leading us into an area patrolled by the German warship, frigate “Emden”.  Sailing along through the night and 7 hours later we once again heard the heart wrenching “Mayday, mayday, pirate attack”.  This time the call for help was from “Takayama”, a Japanese oil tanker en route from Japan to the Suez Canal.  “Takayama” was under attack and only 25 nautical miles ahead of us, on our intended course.

From out of nowhere a small fast (appr. 30knots) fiberglass speedboat came alongside the tanker and opened fire with machineguns and RPG:s (Rocket propelled grenades). With the intention of stopping the tanker, they fired at the tankers rudder, she was badly hit along the whole portside, the lifeboat was shot to pieces, and the fuel tank was penetrated, causing heavy fuel oil to spill into the sea.

The captain of “Takayama” went full speed ahead and changed his course to North West, in the hope of reaching the German warship “Emden”, in the vicinity.  “Emden” launched a helicopter which was on site within approximately 10 minutes and the pirates subsequently broke off their attack, we later found out that they returned to their “mothership”.  By then “Takayamas´s” portside resembled Swiss cheese, with fuel pouring out of it.  “Emden” finally reached the tanker and helped temporarily patch the leaking fuel tanks.  She is now 30 nautical miles in front of us slowly limping towards the port of Aden, Yemen, for repairs, escorted by the German frigate.
During the attack, we were advised to change our course to a north westerly course so we could catch up with the tanker and safety of the German frigate.

At that point everyone thought it was over, there couldn´t possibly be more pirates out there.  We were sadly mistaken as at 12.28hrs it was time again for “Mayday”, this time another small cargo ship, en route to Somaliland, was attacked and boarded close to the Somalian coast, 12nautical miles.  As of yet we have no further information regarding that incident.  It was time again, at 13.05 another Spanish commercial fishing vessel, approximately 100 nautical miles east of our position, was also attacked and boarded. They are now hijacked and the vessel is on its way to Somalia, with pirates in charge and the crew is held as hostages.

We are now slowly steaming westwards (8 knots) with our eyes glued to the radar, and constantly scanning the horizon with binoculars.  All ships are on high alert and airing to the side of paranoia, changing course as soon as anything suspicious or unrecognized appears on the radar or horizon.  Everyone is just listening to the radio dreading the next “Mayday”.  Hopefully, Insh´Allah in this neck of the woods, it will not be us making that call………

Insh´Allah, God willing we will reach Djibouti, in one piece, within the next 36 hours, where we will bunker diesel, hopefully get fresh food and rest our minds of the mental stresses endured sailing through the Gulf of Aden.

Our only comfort at this point is seeing helicopters flying overhead, once in a while and the occasional warship. In fact we have a helicopter over us right now seemingly leading us in a westerly direction.

Whilst floating here feeling like sitting ducks, we could not help but wonder.  “Is it not about time that the rest of the civilized world dealt with this Somalian issue?”  “Is it not possible for either, if not all of these organizations UN, NATO, EU to develop a plan of action and resolve the instability of this poor country?”  After all NATO intervened with Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

If there is one place on earth that has been truly forgotten, it is Somalia, a country where the poor starving population has no human rights, no functioning infrastructure with no justice system, no police and where the law spells AK47, a weapon readily available and cheaper than a pair of tennis shoes.  Where RPGs sell by the dozen, where very few journalists dare to go and foreign aid workers can not go for knowing they would most definitely be kidnapped on setting foot in Mogadishu.  Where food aid shipments need naval escorts to guard their cargo being discharged and where fishermen become pirates at night.  Something is definitely wrong when a blind eye has been turned and this has been accepted for decades.

The only viable looking option is military intervention and I mean something more than the few thousand, poorly equipped, troops from the African Union (mainly Ugandan troops) stationed there right now. One would think it would be in the interest of the international community to see peace and stability here, since most of the Persian Gulf oil and commodities from the Far East must pass through the Gulf of Aden to reach their destinations in Europe and the east coast of North America. 

If this “piracy enterprise” continues as is it will definitely lead to many more deaths, hijackings, kidnappings, burning oil tankers and sunken ships.  These pirates are desperate, they have nothing to loose and they are prepared to risk their lives for daily luxuries most of us take for granted.  If they could have had peace, stability and prosperity sooner, they would most probably never have resorted to piracy on the high seas.  With a form of central government in control the pirates could be stopped, even before they step into their boats.

So, politicians of the world, do something!  Only you have the power to devise a plan and implement it.  Only you can make it happen.  The chaos in Somalia is so far gone and beyond control that there is no possibility that they themselves can bring anything about to resemble peace in the foreseeable future.  Many Somalis, I am sure, would be forever grateful and thankful to the international community if we were to help their country become civilized and peaceful.  Many mariners out there on the high seas would also be very grateful for any kind of normalcy.  Instead of worrying our selves to death over pirates we could instead concentrate on the usual nautical factors like the weather and wind…

Whilst translating this report from Swedish (my native language), it was our turn to call “Mayday”.  At 16.51hrs only 28 nautical miles off the Yemeni coast, Pos. 12º 22´N    045º 17´E, a crew member spotted two small speed boats, 4 nautical miles ahead and fast approaching from either side.  We immediately sent out a “Mayday” and made a full speed U-turn. Our call was received by Spanish warship “Mendez Muñez”, approximately 15 nautical miles from our location and a U.S Marine Corps surveillance plane was in the vicinity.  Within 9 minutes the plane flew over, circling us and the pursuing boats at very low altitude, the pursuers stopped and turned south.  The closest they got to us was 0.8 nautical miles (1.5km), but even that is to close for comfort…..

Johan Lillkung
Captain S/y Dolphin
Satellite tel. +870-764061860

Dolphin is a 27 meter long, private sailing yacht, currently returning to Spain having spent the northern hemisphere winter cruising the Seychelles and the Maldives islands.

Dolphin crew:
Johan Lillkung,   Sweden
Lionel Laboureur,  France
Rene Paganetti,  Germany
Sarah Fitsch,    Austria
Julietta e Silva,  Britain
Gordon Henderson,  R.I  U.S.A.

Click here to get this Report as pdf-file.