Cruisers, racers, circumnavigators: Take note. Even the teams sailing around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race aren’t taking any chances on the Arabian Sea or the northern Indian Ocean — not just the west end, but Africa to India from Madagascar north.
Instead of racing across those pirate-infested waters, the Volvo teams shipped their yachts across as cargo at the expense of race organizers — about $1 million in all. After arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, on the race’s first leg, the six Volvo Open 70s set off Dec. 11 on a “stealth leg” to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, making a wide arc around Somalia and the northern Indian Ocean to the Maldives off the southern tip of India.
About a mile off one of the islands, the 515-foot Happy Diamond, a yacht transport vessel operated by the Dutch line Sevenstar, lifted five of the 70-footers 40 feet out of the water and onto its deck, their rigs — with masts that stand 95 feet above the decks — intact. The sixth yacht had to put in at Madagascar for repairs and missed the pickup. Six days later, the Happy Diamond unloaded the multimillion-dollar raceboats in Sharjah, one of the northeastern Emirates, where they raced on their own bottoms to Abu Dhabi 90 miles away, the Volvo’s first Middle Eastern stopover.
On Jan. 14 the boats raced back out of Abu Dhabi to Sharjah, where again the Happy Diamond picked up the boats and carried them back to the Maldives, where they met up with the entry that had put in for repairs and restarted Leg 3 to Sanya, China. This concession to a threat of piracy was a first for the 39-year-old race (formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race), says Volvo communications director Jon Bramley. The Happy Diamond was fitted out to offer protection. “It had some weaponry,” Bramley says, and its decks had been hardened against pirate boardings. Coils of concertina wire were strung along the rails.
U.K.-based Dryad Maritime, Volvo’s security consultant, and the French navy, which undertakes anti-piracy patrols in the region, advised that the Volvo boats stay out of Somali waters — the pirates’ stronghold — and the eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean. “We made the decision last August that we had no option,” Bramley says. “It would be foolhardy to risk one of the boats being hijacked. That would be the end of the race.”
The Volvo organization swore its 200 employees to secrecy and did not divulge its plans until the day of the first yacht transfer to the ship in the Maldives, even then keeping the rendezvous point under wraps until the boats were on their way to Sanya. Piracy is a concern for around-the-world sailing, Bramley says. “Some people don’t take the advice they are given and they become a cropper [victims],” he says.
A little more than a year ago Somali pirates kidnapped seven Danish cruisers and held them hostage for six months. Jan Quist Johansen; his wife, Birgit Marie; their children, ages 12 to 16 at the time — sons Rune and Hjalte, and daughter Naja; and two other adults were seized Feb. 24, 2011, in an attack on ING, the Johansens’ 43-foot yacht. The cruisers were 600 miles off Somalia and making their way across the Arabian Sea toward the Gulf of Aden and Suez Canal to complete a circumnavigation.
The pirates freed them six months later for a reported $3 million ransom. Danish foreign minister Lene Espersen later told reporters that the Danish government does not, as a matter of principle, pay ransoms. The Times of London said the ransom was raised by family and friends of the hostages and air-dropped to the pirates.
The hostages had been held aboard the hijacked Greek freighter MS Dover, along with 20 other hostages. The hijacked freighter had been anchored near Gumbah in northeasternmost Somalia. The pirates threatened to kill the Danes if military forces tried to rescue them, a threat made all the more real after pirates killed four Americans aboard the 58-foot sloop Quest in February 2011 during hostage negotiations at sea between the Somalis and an FBI team based on a U.S. Navy ship.
In March, the pirates ratcheted up pressure on the Danish family. Their chief offered to drop his demand for $5 million if the parents let him marry Naja, an apparent ploy to frighten the parents and step up the pace of negotiations. Earlier in the month eight Somali soldiers from the breakaway state of Puntland were killed in an ambush while making their way to the pirates’ camp in a failed rescue operation.
On Sept. 8, three days after the Danes’ release, pirates boarded the 56-foot catamaran Tribal Kat off Yemen, killed its 55-year-old French skipper, Christian Colombo, threw him overboard and took his wife, Eveylene, hostage. Responding to their distress call, the German warship FGS Bayern found the cat adrift and abandoned off Yemen the day it was attacked. European warships and U.S. Navy maritime patrol aircraft searched for the sailboat’s crew. On Sept. 10, they spotted a skiff speeding toward the Somali coast, according to Naval Forces Somalia, which oversees anti-pirate operations.
Helicopters from the French warship FS Surcouf and the Spanish warship SPS Galicia tried to intercept the skiff and, noting “suspicious activity,” fired warning shots over its bow. The skiff continued to speed toward Somalia until helicopters disabled its engine with gunfire. A firefight ensued with an armed boarding team from the Galicia, and the boat capsized, according to Naval Forces Somalia. The boarding party immediately plucked Eveylene Colombo from the water — safe and unharmed, rescuers say — and seized seven suspected pirates who also had been dumped into the water. Colombo confirmed that her husband had been killed and thrown overboard in the initial attack.
Based on information on their now-discontinued blog, the Colombos had been cruising for two years. They visited the Greek islands and Crete, Turkey and Tunisia before transiting the Suez Canal and stopping in Aden. From Aden, their plan was to continue to Malaysia and Thailand.
Christian Colombo, an experienced sailor and French navy veteran, was well-known in France, having set a Class D world speed sailing record of 42.1 knots with teammate Gérard Navarin in June 1997 on the 34-foot rigid-sail hydrofoil Advanced Technologies.
Risk off West Africa
As authorities continue to warn cruisers away from the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Somali Basin and Indian Ocean north of Madagascar to the western Maldives, the London-based International Marine Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center was warning of piracy on Africa’s west coast as well. Pirates and armed robbers have attacked vessels around Lagos and on the Bonny River, and kidnapped crews along the length of the Nigerian coast, on rivers, in anchorages and from ports, with a number of crewmembers reported injured, according to the IMB. It also reports an increase in piracy and armed robbery involving tankers in Benin, where they force masters to move the ship to a place where they can ransack it for property and cargo.
“West Africa, especially the area off Nigeria, has been an area of risk for a number of years,” Cyrus Mody, an IMB piracy manager, writes in an e-mail to Soundings. “In 2011, the waters off Benin have also become risky. The vessels targeted are usually close to land, within 30 nautical miles. … On a few occasions we have seen incidents reported up to 80 nautical miles offshore. So far, all reports are attacks on merchant vessels and vessels associated with this industry. On a few occasions fishing vessels are reported, as well.”
Rather than hold hostages for ransom, pirates on this side of Africa typically target vessels to steal oil and cargo and rob the crew or ship of valuables, although there have been a few instances of pirates taking crewmembers ashore and demanding ransoms, he says. He says there has been a “degree of violence” associated with these incidents.
IMB recorded 439 pirate attacks and 45 vessel hijackings worldwide in 2011. Of those, 237 of the attacks and 28 of the hijackings were off Somalia. Pirates had taken 470 hostages off Somalia and killed 15 of them. As of January, Somali pirates still held nine vessels and 151 hostages.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.