Hired Guns
- and the Shipping of Yachts

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(This story has also been posted in the Blog section, on February 12, 2011)

- If you are serious about sailing across the Arabian Sea, you should hire a group of armed security guards. I received this message by e-mail from the commander of one of the Coalition warships. Could it be more plainly expressed; ordinary sailing yachts cannot expect any assistance from the Coalition Forces, who are patrolling the area by 30 warships from a dozen of nations of NATO, EU and others.

Landlubbers, imagine calling the police on 911 for protection from robbers on your door step and they advise you to employ your own armed security guards instead. We are not irresponsibly cruising here in this area because of a whim; many of us are on our way home on a long journey, which in our case has lasted for more than a decade.

The thought of using armed security guards had in fact already been discussed among the cruisers here at Uligan in the Maldives. There are companies hiring such security forces, carrying AK-47 assault guns, to commercial ships. Apparently most of these warriors are Yemenis, who are staying on board from Aden to Sri Lanka, often in groups of 3-6. When the ship has reached the vicinity of Sri Lanka or India these guards are free to be transferred to an other ship going back in the other direction. Should they not get a contract on another ship, these armed guards will have to go ashore, where they cannot bring their guns, which would have to be thrown overboard. Consequently these guys are being offered at discounted prices, even to sailing vessels, and sometimes for free. One of the cruisers in Uligan had received such a free offer, the only conditions being that the guards had to be picked up at sea and given accommodation and food onboard on the way back to Yemen. In the end, none of us accepted the offer, although I know that some crews were seriously contemplating the idea for days.

We have spent more than two weeks at Uligan, experiencing one of the most interesting situations during the whole of our cruising life. It has been a veritable study of human behaviour in a tricky situation. As I wrote earlier, we all changed our minds several times a day. Most of the cruisers were, at least initially, almost obsessed with the idea to get to the Med; at any costs. Many yachts departed in smaller or larger groups on the more or less rhumb line to Salalah in Oman (and are still under way as I write). Others started to sail north along the west coast of India intending to sail (read motor sail) as far north as Karachi in Pakistan, then cross over to Muscat in Oman and further down SW along the coast to Salalah. A few decided to head south planning to go round the Cape of God Hope towards the end of the year and sail up north through the Atlantic. Aboard Scorpio, we finally made a different decision; we will enjoy the Maldives for a month or two and then set course back to Thailand. We are going to finish our big refit of the yacht undertaking the two major projects we didn’t start last year: getting a new teak deck and the refitting of the masts and rig. Neither of the projects are really urgent within a few years yet, but laying a new deck is much cheaper in Thailand than in Europe and in order to properly do that, I will have to pull out the masts to build a cover for the yacht, so we might as well do the (in a couple of years) required service on them as well.

The risk of encountering pirates on the direct route is obviously microscopic; we are talking about an area larger than Europe. However, if that would happen, the consequences would be dire; even if you don’t get killed, the rest of your life may be ruined. I find it difficult to understand how someone could stay healthy and sane after a year or more of captivity in a Somali village. And even if all goes well without incidents, which is likely, we are talking about a trip of almost two weeks; sitting on pins and needles and getting scared shitless every time another boat is sighted. That’s not what we are out here for.

These risk calculations have apparently been occupying the minds of some other cruisers here in the Uligan anchorage as well. A couple of days ago, my list of alternative solutions (see previous story) to our dilemma received an addition: What about shipping the yachts to the Mediterranean on a cargo ship? Yes, a couple of shipping companies have quickly realised this business opportunity and have now reviewed some routes and itineraries and offer space for yachts on their decks. Six yachts here in Uligan have already accepted the offer and they will be picked up around mid March in Male, Capital of the Maldives, roughly 200 nm to the south of here. These vessels will be transported to Marmaris in Turkey for a charge that in Scorpio’s case would be equal to two new teak decks.

In my opinion, however, we are out here because we wanted to sail our boats and I think that the safest route back to the Med (excluding the round-Africa option), at least for the time being, is along the coast of India and via Pakistan, the Emirates and Oman. This is the route that we will take next time, at the end of the year, if there’s nothing new on the piracy front, but right now we think it’s getting too late in the season and we are not very well prepared for that route. In addition we want to go on our traditional summer visit to Finland and have to find a secure place to leave Scorpio on the hard. One alternative would have been to stay a year in Cochin in India or sail to the Emirates already this spring but, as already mentioned, we haven’t done much research regarding the circumstances along that route. But we already know the relevant players in Phuket, whom we will be dealing with regarding the refit and haul-out; and this was the deciding factor for our decision.

Today we received our Cruising Permit for the Maldives, which will cost around 1,000 USD, depending on the duration of our stay, and tomorrow we will set sail south. First we have to visit the Capital to extend our visas, but our cruising pace during the next month or so will be very relaxed; short day trips, wonderful anchorages and a lot of snorkelling. What a difference compared to many of our cruising friends, presently on their way to the Red Sea.

On the other hand, we still have to negotiate the Arabian Sea at the end of the year, Insallah. First, however, starting a month to six weeks from now, we have to work our way back to Thailand; all the bloody 1,600 nautical miles (like the distance from New York to Virgin Islands. We are hoping that the NE monsoon will collapse on schedule, as it is supposed to do at the end of March.

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