Pirates? And a busted head gasket…

Rob Almeida
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October 1, 2010


By Rob Almeida – 8 March 2006

It was quite a day out here in the Gulf of Aden, the 600-mile stretch of ocean separating Somalia and Yemen, but we’re finally moving again and making tracks west.  Calypso, my parent’s Valiant 40, had been in Salalah, Oman for almost two weeks before departing with six other sailboats of various sizes and nationalities two days ago.

My parents had been sailing for the past eight years through the Caribbean, across the Pacific, Indonesia, and now the Arabian Sea.  With constant reminders of pirate activity in the area, they were happy that I had been able to meet them in Sri Lanka for this leg of their voyage.  They were also relieved that they weren’t the only couple trying to get their boat to the Mediterranean that spring.

During our stopover in Oman, there was much discussion among the boats regarding piracy and how to mitigate the threat. Daily skippers meetings were held over pints of beer at the expat club discussing how best to sail as safely, inconspicuously, and as expeditiously as possible through these pirate-frequented waters. The uncertainty of what lay ahead was front and center on everybody’s mind.

Last night our internationally-flagged sailing convoy, collectively called “Dexy’s Midnight Runners”, established contact with the USS Decatur (DDG 73) on VHF radio who gave us a position to avoid, due to recent pirate activity.  Unfortunately, that position was directly in between us and where we were going.  Having good communications with Decatur, we felt comfortable that if our safety was ever in doubt we would be able to contact them and help would be on its way in a hurry.  Unfortunately, soon after talking with them, they fell out VHF range and we were once again, alone, and fending for ourselves as we entered Pirate Territory.

As the night went on, endless chatter on the VHF and HF radios about contacts in our vicinity kept us all awake and the stress levels high. “Sir George”, a boat skippered by a direct descendent of the man who discovered Mt. Everest, was having difficulties with its engine and was unable to keep up with the rest of the squadron.  By morning, Sir George had fallen behind and was nearly 4 miles from the rest of the fleet, and dead in the water in need of mechanical assistance.

Soon after discussion began as to how to fix Sir George’s engine, high speed boats appeared on the horizon heading directly for us and soon two issues were on everyone’s mind, how to fix Sir George’s engine and what the intentions were of these boats.  Ideas came flying across on the radio, one of which was proposal to have me simulate being a US warship on the radio.

A proposal that I quickly squashed.

I then reminded the group that the issue at hand was to fix Sir George’s engine problem, and not crazy ideas of talking on the radio to people who don’t understand English and don’t listen to the radio.

Minutes later, a fishing boat came alongside Sir George and the utterly terrified Thai wife of the Kiwi skipper began screaming into the cabin. The skipper, who was on the radio with us, quickly dropped his radio and went topside to assess the situation.  With the rest of the squadron listening intently on the radio for any hint of what was transpiring, the skipper came back on the radio and advised us they were fisherman looking for whiskey and directions to where the fish were.

With Sir George’s engine issue now getting critical, we all turned around and my dad hopped on board Sir George to lend a hand.  While he was gone, a half dozen more fishing boats appeared and two of them started coming toward Calypso.  Going very slowly, they actually rafted up with each other, appearing to discuss what they were going to do.  The two boats had nearly 8 people on board and as they drifted closer to within 40 feet, I started to wonder what exactly their intentions were and started the engine to back away.

They began to shout at me, asking for the typical handouts such as cigarettes and whiskey.  I replied saying that we were all out.

They then yelled, “Fish! Fish!”

Assuming they were asking for directions to the fish we had seen earlier that day, we pointed in the direction from which we came, and they were soon out of sight, heading east.

Sir George ended up having to limp back to Salalah due to a blown head gasket and the rest of The Runners continued on without incident.

[Image (c) Robert Almeida Photography]

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