Modern Day Pirate Attack!!


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[FONT=Verdana,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif] 'Cheoy Lee Ketch' . [/FONT] A few days ago, a story flashed around the world that an American flagged Cheoy Lee Ketch had been attacked by pirates. This story was denied by the Yemeni coastguard, and confusion reigned for a few hours until the second flash came – false alarm...

The boat concerned has now arrived in Aden and crew member Merle Clawson has given Sail-World Cruising this first hand account of the pirate attack that was anything but a false alarm!

Merle, Mary and their 18-year-old daughter Crystal had sailed half the world’s oceans in their 38ft Cheoy Lee sailing boat Tir Na n’Og by the time they reached the Arabian Sea. Travelling from the Maldives to Salalah in Oman, they had wind on the nose. In 12 days they logged only 18 hours of sailing. They pounded into the wind, engine roaring, and Merle announced that it was his last sailing experience.

‘This is a sailboat,’ said Merle, ‘and for the last 6000 miles we have spent most of our time motoring!’ In mutinous tones he continued, ‘When we next set foot on terra firma, the boat is gone, history, sold, sunk, cut up for scrap, I don’t care what, but I am no longer part of the adventure.’

Merle continued to be convinced that his sailing career was over , ‘I had never felt like that before at sea – my mind was made up, that’s it for me. I had had enough ‘adventure’ to last a lifetime.’

Twenty miles out of Salalah they saw the Middle East for the first time in their lives, and the thought was both fascinating and daunting. It convinced Merle that his decision was the right one ‘The Middle East - such history, the cradle of civilization, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, a whole different culture, camels, the Red Sea, Jesus hung out here, Iran, Iraq, the Palestinians & Israelis, no alcohol, pirates. That confirmed it for me, we were out of the sailing business. It was just getting too hard, or I was getting too old, or both.

Vasco da Gama in Port Salalah . .. However, there were twelve boats in the anchorage when they arrived, and things started to look up. The 12 boats were part of the ‘Vasco da Gama Rally, headed from the Mediterranean to India. (See Sail-World story). the Oasis Club in the Port of Salalah is aptly named. The ‘Oasis’ consists of a perfectly ordinary bar, with a wide range of bottled drinks, a polished timber bar, and a lively restaurant which serves a pretty edible range of western food – this in a country which strictly forbids alcohol and the food is does definitely not include such things as Vienna Snitchel and Chicken n Chips.

That night in the seaman’s club, drinking what they described later as ‘vast amounts of alcohol’ and telling ‘lies about recent and past adventures’, the Merle found himself talking in the future tense. In the bar that evening, as well as the da Gama Rally boats, were crew from Coalition warships based in the Gulf as a peace-keeping force. They found themselves asking the other yachties questions like, ' How was the Red Sea? Any pirate problems? Did you stop in Yemen? Can one really buy beer in Aden?'.

However, they had little premonition of what was to befall them in the next few days.

Merle takes up the story:

‘The next leg, 600 miles from Salalah to Aden is talked about extensively by all cruisers in the region and written about in every cruising guide of the area. This is the mother-pirate country, to be sure, to be sure. So far this season, probably a hundred yachts had made the trip and no serious problems had been reported.

‘The military presence in this part of the world is extensive. Yemen has a coast guard now, and the coalition forces are very visible in the area. We had beers with America’s finest in the club in Salalah, and were informed that they would be out there keeping that proverbial eye on us all. I must admit it did make us feel better about the upcoming voyage.

‘We planned to leave in two days with another boat we had been hanging with. Unfortunately, his gearbox went south the next day so he wouldn’t be going anywhere for a week or more. Tir na n-Og headed out the next day at dawn. Our engine was now in excellent working order, the Coalition ships were there, not a single boat had had pirate problems this year - What could possibly go wrong?

‘We left Salalah at sunrise with a forecast of north winds, which of course, would have been a good point of sail heading down the Gulf of Aden. You guessed it, winds on the nose! We spent the first 24 hours tacking back and forth into short, choppy seas, putting only 60 miles between Salalah and ourselves in that time.

‘About two days later the winds had lessened and we cruised into Yemen territory and started to see small fishing boats as far off shore as forty miles. They were just skiffs really, about 15 ft. with 50hp outboards. They were all heading directly on, or off shore. Only one stopped to check us out, and he only slowed down and waved. Most of the cruisers who had come from the Red Sea to Oman, said the boats that had approached them could be a little aggressive coming up banging into their boats, but only wanted food, water or cigarettes. 'Just give them a bottle of water and maybe a pack of cigarettes, and they’ll happy'.

Yemeni Dhow . .. ‘We passed Al Mukalla, a known pirate area, at night some forty miles offshore. The next day motoring in light winds, I noticed a dhow (a local sailboat about 35 feet long) up ahead about three miles. I could see as we came closer that there were about eight men aboard.

‘This is the first one we had seen under sail, but it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. It was on a heading for Mukalla on a beam reach moving very slowly. It maintained its heading as one of the small skiffs being towed launched and came our way. Taking no chances I roused Mary and Crystal who were sleeping after night watch. As the tender approached I counted three guys, all of them smiling, heading for Tir na n-Og.

‘They approached the starboard side, banging into our boat, asking in sign language for food, water, cigarettes and petrol. We had all this at the ready, except for the petrol, which we had none. They left and moved about 100 yards away. It seemed as if their engine died, but on a closer look, we noticed they were eating all the food we had given them before returning to the dhow. They returned to the mother ship about 15 minutes later when we were about a half-mile past their track.

Gulf of Aden . .. ‘The mother ship changed course towards us, three more men jumped into the tender and headed back our way. Now there were six of them coming towards us and we were a little more concerned. Upon approaching they had three jerry cans held up and were yelling for petrol. This time the new guys were very aggressive and very insistent that they wanted petrol. Looking back on it now, we think they really wanted diesel for the dhow instead of petrol, but at the time we were very nervous facing six aggressive Yemenis. We would have been glad to give them a jug of diesel, just to get rid of them, but I wonder would it have been enough.

‘Mary and I were in the cockpit, and Crystal was manning the HF and VHF radios. At that point I kept saying, 'mafi petrol, mafi petrol, no petrol' when one of the new guys reached down and pulled out an AK-47 machine gun. A rag covered it, and when he pulled it up the rag was caught around the grip. They were five feet off the starboard side at this point. He was screaming in Arabic, and really had a crazed look in his eyes. My first thought was that this isn’t going well, and he no doubt was going to fire on us. He was frantically trying to remove the rag when the driver of the tender moved ahead with a jerk, and the kid with the gun fell, I say kid, as most of them seemed very young.

‘At that point I made eye contact with the driver and he had a scared look on his face for some reason. The one with the gun was yelling at him big time, but he just moved off. The machine gun was free then and the kid pointed it at us and was screaming something we obviously could not understand; at this point they were about 100 yards off the starboard quarter. I thought for sure he was going to open up and start firing. They rushed back to the mother ship that was now a mile away, and loaded some more men. This was not looking good.

‘Full power gave us close to six knots, but that would be no problem for the tender when he returned. I really thought they were coming back with bad business in mind, they had seen all the jerry jugs of fuel on our boat and wanted them. We only saw one weapon, but of course one or ten would be all the same to us.

‘Crystal had called a Mayday on channel 16, best we can remember at approximately 1140h. Our position at the time was N13:35 E048:37. That is approximately sixty miles WSW from Mukalla. Mukalla Port Control answered requesting position and situation and Crystal responded with the information.

NYK Andromeda . .. ‘Three freighters responded immediately saying they had our position and were at max power en route to us. The freighters NYK Andromeda and Stena Vision were west of us seventeen miles. Nord Ace was east and turned about to come to our assistance, she also informed us that she telephoned the Pirate Reporting Center in Bahrain. These ships had us on radar and were closing as fast as possible but it would be at least 45 minutes before anyone reached us. That is a long time in a situation like this. Still, we were amazed and reassured by the response and very happy that someone was coming.

‘We were out-running the mother ship, which was slow, but the tender was en route again. Not long after the tender started her third approach she turned back toward the mother ship, we have no idea why. It might be that is was petrol they needed and were now running low or they heard the constant chatter of the Mayday on channel 16. If the bad guys had a VHF radio, which they probably did, we were sure they knew the cavalry was on their way. The tender was back on the mother ship about three miles away when the first freighter came over the horizon forty minutes later, and the dhow turned south.

‘The container ship NYK Andromeda came 50 yards down our port side and headed straight for the dhow now six miles behind. We are not sure just how close they came to the dhow, but there was no doubt they got their attention. They got ours, when that leviathan was bearing down on us at full speed it was a scary sight, and they were on our side and in full radio contact with us, imagine if they were not friendly. The dhow had now turned for the Yemen coast. Stena Vison slowed and hung out with us for some time. I don’t know if these ships realize what they did for us, the change in demeanor on Tir na nOg was palpable. We felt so safe, I just wish they could have stayed or picked us up and taken us with them. In the next hour we received calls from Coalition warship #5 en route from somewhere, no ETA.

US NAVY P3 Orion . .. Two hours later everyone was back on course with much Aloha from this end. At 1500 a US Navy P-3 Orion came down the port side at 100 feet. What a beautiful sight. They called on Channel 16 to make sure we were doing okay. They flew around us, back and forth some ten miles for the next hour. No doubt we were a bit gun shy when the sun went down, but feeling more secure because everyone knew where we were.

‘Of course, every pirate within a hundred miles knew also as we had given out our position so many times. Ten hours after the incident, at 2200h a ship started circling us. We were running with no lights, as is usual in this area. The vessel came right up behind us and I called in the blind on Channel 16.

Coalition warship . ..
Welcome coalition warship #2, a US coastal cruiser that looked awesome in the full moon light. They were just checking to make sure we were doing well, and wanted to hear our story. When he steamed off to the east over the horizon the last thing he said was that he wouldn’t be far. What a warm and fuzzy feeling! I never thought I’d say this, but I think I’ll pay my taxes this year. We spent the next two days very alert, making landfall in Aden at sunrise.

‘Do I think these guys were full blown pirates? Probably not, but when someone is pointing a gun at you they are what they are, an imminent danger. Would he have used the weapon, the $64,000 question, we don’t know the answer, best case they would have come aboard and stolen everything, worse case… We are very thankful it worked out the way it did with no shots fired, and the maritime community responding quickly and professionally.

‘We pulled into Aden because we needed a break. We hope to leave in the next few days for the Red Sea, and are looking forward to a peaceful run. If all that happens from here on out are winds on the nose at 40 knots, we’ll take it!’
A good read, but I don't see the big deal really. Pirates have always been part of sailing, and these guys weren't anything but a little threatening. They were however obviously quite poor and very hungry, and when people are like that they act in desperate ways.