*This post was sent in several days ago and inadvertently delayed.
April 1, 2012:
The seas have been flat calm since we departed Mumbai, the sun has been shining and our guests are happy to have a few sea-days after our calls on the west coast of India.
We are making for the Bab El Mandeb straits between Yemen and Somalia, the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The straits are 10 miles wide, however the shipping lane is only 4, 2 for west-bound and 2 for east-bound.
We have been on heightened awareness since leaving Mumbai, for the waters were are transiting are an area where Somali pirates are known to operate. We have taken precautions, speed and our high freeboard, (the distance between the waterline and our open deck) has us at an advantage when one compares the slower moving and lower freeboard cargo ships.
There is a naval presence, a multi-national task force, which tries its hardest to patrol an area of almost 2 million square miles, their rules of engagement are complicated and there is little they can do once a ship has been taken. There are exceptions of course, such as the much publicised retaking of a container ship and the release of the American Master, who was being held hostage.
That being said, we do not and have not let our guard down. It is a little known fact, possibly because of a lack of information, that in 2011, there were dozens of ships hijacked and the Somalis hold some 470 hostages, the crew of those ships. The hijacks were the successful ones, there were many more attempted hijacks, unsuccessful for a variety of reasons. This is big business, hundreds of million in ransom was paid in 2011 alone, to these despicable people. It is surmised that their tentacles reach across the globe, with persons in shipping involved.
We are in the IRTC as I write, the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor. 540 miles long, its eastern boundary starts south of the Yemeni border, its western end just before the Bab El Mandeb straits. It is just that, a recommended route for all east and west-bound vessels through these waters. There is a heavier naval presence here and slower-moving ships can move in convoy, escorted by warships, down the ‘corridor’. The VHF on the bridge is busy with instructions, a west-bound convoy is assembling astern of us, an Indian naval ship, the escort, fussing around her ‘chicks’, instructing them to assemble and what speeds to make, who on earth would have thought it necessary in this day and age.
Many of the vessels are now carrying armed guards, an expensive but reassuring precaution. The ‘pirates’, (less polite descriptions come to mind, however I will refrain), use hijacked ships and boats as ‘mother’ ships, ranging from dhows to larger (hijacked) cargo ships. Their modus operandi being to get close enough to a ‘victim’ to able to launch skiffs, fast-moving small boats, the occupants of which will attempt to get alongside and gain access to the deck by ladder, once they have done so, access to the bridge and stopping the ship is their remit. Once subdued, the vessel will be taken one of several towns in Somalia, anchored and then they wait for the bargaining to begin. Some ships have avoided being taken, despite being boarded, by the crew moving to a ‘citadel’, a secure interior space, with communications and if possible, control of the engines.
We are being ‘watched over’, having reported to naval headquarters long before we left Mumbai and regularly sending in position reports, they have means of knowing where we are at all times. Reassuringly, we have seen warships on the horizon today.
We are moving at high speed, overtaking all but the fast container ships in the corridor and by tomorrow morning we will be entering the straits, thus entering the Red Sea, on our way to Safaga, Egypt. Once through the straits I will sleep a little easier, although the risk is still there, it is substantially reduced.