SY Dolphin's Account: Transiting the Pirate Zone

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Crew members from the hijacked Ponant, after they were freed by paying a ransom
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News Services have kept the world abreast of some recent attacks in the 'Pirate Zone' of the Gulf of Aden. However, by the following account, these news sources only touch the surface. This low key email forwarded to us by a reader of the horrors of multiple piracy attacks on a recent passage through the danger zone by Sailing Yacht Dolphin is all the more telling for its graphic simplicity.

Some of the events in this story have been already reported, but we have reproduced the email in full:

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 his 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 Britsh 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 Takayama'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 erring 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 th