Running Pirate Alley

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map-pirate-alley
Map of the Gulf of Aden – Yemen/Oman Coast
aka Pirate Alley

Tues 5 Jan 10

0630hrs: Rise and shine. Fenders out. Dinghy lifted up onto the foredeck, placed upright on a bed of fenders and lashed down securely. The empty fuel bladder is placed inside the dinghy ready to take on fuel.31

Right: Local catamaran “Eldermer” anchored in Aden Harbour. Never saw anybody on this boat.

0730hrs: Motor over to the ABC Bunkering Company to fuel up. Wait while one of the workers uses a workboat to bang and clang against a steel hulk barge, pushing it out of the way for us to get alongside the pump. It’s necessary to order and pay for the fuel before getting it, so Roger steps ashore and goes to the office while Andy and I finish securing Jenzminc. Lots of standing around waiting while Roger travels back and forth between various clerks in different buildings. Lots of mucking about but at least they’re all very polite and friendly.

Roger returns and we’re able to take on fuel for seven jerry containers and 200 litres into the fuel bladder, plus top up the main tank with 210 litres. That makes 560 litres of fuel taken onboard.

1000hrs: Fuelling completed and we’re on our way. Call the Harbour Master at the Aden Port Control Office to report our departure on VHF radio Channel 16. They wish us a good voyage.

32 33
fuelling dock dock worker filling the fuel bladder stored in the dinghy

1030hrs: Clear of Aden Harbour, still in the main channel.

35 34
leaving Aden’s Inner Harbour local fishermen

1145hrs: Clear sunny day. Blue-green sea, bumpy. Wind easterly at 12 knots. Heading NE at just over 6 knots. Small pod of dolphins come by to visit. Open up our previously identified hiding places and put our most valuable items away as a precaution against piracy. “Bait” wallets with old credit cards and a little bit of money are left “hidden” where they can be fairly easily found. 590 miles to go. Both sails put up.

1630hrs: Heading NE to follow the coast at 7.3 knots. Winds easterly at less than 10 knots. Sea is that grey colour again. Coast at 10 miles appears as blue mountain ranges, dimly seen through the haze behind thin flat coastal strips and the occasional small town.

36Left: Last view of Aden

2300hrs: Andy finally goes down for a sleep in the saloon so he can be handy if we suddenly need him up on deck.

Weds 6 Jan 10

0615hrs: Uneventful night. Not many fishermen – at least going by the absence of any kind of light. Making good time. Seas slight for the most part but a little bumpy sometimes. Wind is up to around 15 knots. Half moon around midnight makes for pleasant sailing. There’s two of us on watch at a time to keep a sharp lookout. The VHF radio Channel 16 is completely silent. Not a squawk. No radio traffic means no shipping and probably no help if we need it. Check it a couple of times anyway just to make sure it’s actually still working.

With the dawn come the fishermen with their nets. Have to watch carefully and hand steer to avoid running over their nets they’ve already set out. Occupants of at least one of the little boats are just young lads. We’re running close enough to the coast to see the sun glint off cars as they travel along. Mountain ranges are giving way to low, flat coastal country with low ranges further inland.

0700hrs: Lots of birds of different types. Several flocks of little white bellied ones skimming over the waves with their wings pumping a thousand miles an hour. Andy has had two and a half hours sleep in the last 24 hours and talks about going to bed, but starts cleaning up the cockpit instead.

0900hrs: Town of Al Mabrak abeam to port. The sea is a minefield of fishing nets mostly unattended. Some have a small flag marking one end and there’s usually two floats marking the other end, but not always. Couple of times we run into a dead end where the net has been laid in a large “U” pattern and we find ourselves surrounded by floats.  We then have to turn around, retrace our route to find the end of the net and get around it.  Wind still easterly but less than 10 knots. Seas slight. Making good time around 6 kits.

1000hrs: Log at 145 miles. Distance Made Good for the 24 hours is 120 miles. It could have been more but it took time to get out of Aden Harbour and bypass all these nets, sometimes having to go way out to sea to get around clusters of them. Deeper water here at five miles off the coast but at least there’s no nets. Slight seas. Wind coming from the ENE which happens to be our desired heading.

1400hrs: Lots of nets again as we draw closer towards land. 180 miles from Aden. Low ranges have given way to isolated hills with just sand. It has a strange beauty of its own with light coloured sand, almost off-white but it’s just desert. Township of Al Irqah coming up. 145 miles to Al Mukallah marking the central point of Pirate Alley. Course 070 degrees True on a broad reach hitting around seven knots. Fair seas, not smooth but not choppy though there’s plenty of whitehorses.

1730hrs: Sun sinking in a big red ball into a haze. Log reading 195 miles. Wind and seas eased. Wind at less than 10 knots with only a few whitehorses around. Quite pleasant. Little bit cool.

Thurs 7 Jan 10

0100hrs: Pass a large oil drilling platform abutting an unmarked island on the chart. There are two of those big fires commonly seen at oil rigs. It seems to take forever before its astern and sinks below the horizon. Even then it leaves a high orange loom lighting the sky.

0200hrs: Pass our waypoint at Al Sikah Island. This island is charted but unlit, its high shadow sitting out there rising out of the sea like some big prehistoric animal.

0330hrs: Come around a headland and the island of Barraqah is about one mile off our port side. Rises in a sheer bluff out of the water shining whitely like a huge iceberg in the moonlight. Can see the Southern Cross constellation for the first time including the Pointers. Latitude 14 degrees 35 minutes North.

0800hrs: 25 miles from Al Mukalla. The coast is jagged mountains again but no change to anything else. Following the coast between five and 10 miles off. There’s been no phone signal since Aden but we suddenly get one. Andy and Roger phone home while they can to use up the credits on the Yemen simm card. By the time I’d woken up after my last watch the signal had dropped out again. The boys had refilled the main tank with about 150 litres of diesel from the fuel bladder. Took about 20 minutes to drain into the tank but there weren’t any problems.

1100hrs: Al Mukallah sighted about 10 miles off the port bow. A fishing trawler with outriggers comes past dragging its net behind. This is the biggest fishing boat we’ve seen so far.

1230hrs: Motor off. Under full sail up to seven knots with the wind abeam on the starboard side. Al Mukallah abeam to port. Lovely sailing. Andy manages to download a weather grib file from SailMail and tells us we have nothing to worry about. Prophetic words. Coast still rugged mountains.

Right: A small town with dust storm overhead37

1730hrs: Dusk. Motor back on. Off watch and half asleep when Roger suddenly calls me to take the radio. Part of our response plan in the event of pirates is for me to issue a Mayday on the VHF and HF radio so I rush topside. Visions of balaclava’s and turban heads storming alongside fill my mind. A Yemen Patrol Boat is sitting about 20 metres off our stern. They directs us to change to Channel 12 where the make the usual enquires; last port of call, next port, name of yacht, details of crew etc. He then asks if there’s anything we need. Thank them kindly for their check on us. Nice to know these blokes are in the area. They pull away with a cheerio wave and head towards a large ship nearby.

Fri 8 Jan 10

Midnight: Quiet and calm. No moon yet. No shipping. Boring. Flat sea. Motoring.

0400hrs: Wind gradually comes around the bow to the port side. Andy still on watch. Roger has been on watch for the last hour. Wind suddenly starts blowing hard from the north at 30 plus knots on the port beam. Double reef the mainsail and pull in the headsail and we’re soon scooting along at seven plus knots but the sea is rough. This lasts for a couple of hours and leaves very disturbed seas.

0700hrs: Seas still very disturbed probably because the sea bottom has been shelving up from around 120 metres to about 50 metres. Wind has dropped off and now coming from the NE at around 20 knots. Our speed is up to just under eight knots. At least the waves have a bit more form to them now instead of the washing machine stuff we’ve just been through.

0830hrs: Wind gusting back up to 30 knots on the port beam again. Still got the two reefs in the mainsail and headsail pulled in. Big dust storms can be seen along the coast. Whitehorses everywhere in the sea. Speed around seven knots.. A large bird settles onto the water trying to take a quick rest but a much smaller bird darts by and plucks it on the head.

0900hrs: You wouldn’t know we were in the same ocean. Wind has dropped below five knots and the seas have flattened with no whitehorses. Clouds of dust drift along the coast ahead and behind us but not directly abeam. Must be in some kind of wind shadow from the shore.

0915hrs: Back into it again with 20 plus knots from the NE swinging to north. If the wind drops below 20 knots we consider it a bonus. This one lasts an hour before it drops enough to be confident in rolling out the headsail a bit. Dust storms continue all along this coast. Some are isolated like mini tornadoes rising high into the sky. Others are spread out for some hundreds of metres. 86 miles past Al Mukallah.

1130hrs: Calmer conditions. Sail sighted to seaward at about four miles heading west. No contact made.

1530hrs: Motor stops. Andy finds a loose clamp which may have been allowing air to be sucked into the system. Hopes that’s all it was. On our way 15 minutes later.

38Left: Dust storms along the coast

1600hrs: Motor stops again. Andy finds a small speck of crud in one of the fuel lines and clears it out. Back underway and motoring 30 minutes later.

1800hrs: Almost fully dark and working our way around a headland named Asses Ears. To us from a distance it looks more like a crocodile’s head. Conditions uncomfortable with 15-18 knot winds coming from the starboard side throughout the afternoon making it quite bumpy. Looks like its going to be a long night. Andy has had only one hour of sleep since midnight last night.

1900hrs: Conditions easing to 10-15 knots. Have worked clear of the Asses Ears headland and out into open water beyond.

Sat 9Jan 10

0300hrs: Turn the corner at Ras Fartak after midnight and start heading north, still following the coast at 10 miles due to the pirate threat. Situation becomes really boisterous. Winds swings from northerly to come around abeam from the west at up to 30 knots, making for very hard and rocking sailing. Impossible for anyone off watch to get any sleep with all the shaking and bumping. Usual sailing rig of two reefs in mainsail and headsail pulled in. Speed around seven and a half knots. Lots of spray coming over the boat with waves breaking over the bow. Spumes flood across the deck and under the dodger thoroughly wetting everything. Andy sits on the windward side determined not to leave anyone alone to deal with these seas alone. Time to get into our wet weather gear again.

0500hrs: Light enough to see a little. Turn the boat easterly a bit. Boat starts corkscrewing about in the following seas, but it’s much more comfortable sailing than before. Motor off. No change to the sails and still getting around seven knots using only the mainsail with two reefs.

0600hrs: Change course directly for Salalah bringing the wind and seas more astern. Still sailing at around seven and a half knots.

0715hrs: Turn the motor on and speed jumps to nine knots but it’s still highly bumpy and corkscrewing along. 43 miles to the Yemen and Oman border and 100 miles to Salalah to go.

0730hrs: Throttle the motor down. Move up to the bow and empty water out of the dinghy. Replace two fenders under the dinghy which had come adrift. Ropes had come loose due to deflation of the pontoons so tighten them up again.

0800hrs: Wind and sea abating. Wind coming around to the north. Heading around 060 degrees True.

1600hrs: Crossed into Oman 15 minutes ago and out of Pirate Alley. 42 miles to Salalah. Sea is flat with a slight wind. Motoring. A fisherman in a 20 ft dinghy holds up a large fish offering to sell it. 15 minutes later a huge pod of dolphins appear off the port side. Scores of them are leaping around out of the water feeding on a school of fish they’d rounded up. There’s a clear line in the water marking where they’ve penned the fish.

1630hrs: Pass a shark lazing on the surface right beside the boat with its dorsal fin sticking out of the water about 30 cm or so. Quite large. Disappears and resurfaces about 100 metres behind in our wake.

1700hrs: Pass a couple of good sized whales about 50 metres off the port side both spouting away. Probably a mother and calf given how close they are travelling together.

1830hrs: 24 miles to go. Orange lights of Salalah ahead emerging from behind a headland.

1930hrs: Lights of Salalah stretch out along the coast off the starboard bow. Breakwater ahead. We have to go around it to enter into the port. Pull out a star chart given to me by my wife Delma as a Christmas present. Identify the Pilaedes cluster sitting right above the mast and the topmost star of the Southern Cross as Crux, which won’t appear over the southern horizon until the early hours tomorrow.

2130hrs: Approaching the outer side of Salalah Harbour and breakwater working our way past several ships anchored offshore. It’s a blaze of orange lights inside the harbour. Can count something like 18 or so huge cranes all lit up along one of the terminals. Constant sounds of heavy machinery.

2200hrs: Call Salalah Port Control on VHF Channel 12 for permission to enter the harbour. They take all our details as usual. Tell us to proceed into the harbour and they’ll direct us from there.

2230hrs: Enter the harbour but it’s a bit confusing with the blaze of lights in there. Hard to make out the red and green flashing channel markers. Call the Port Control who tell us to watch for a pilot boat returning from outside the harbour and then follow it to where we will have to anchor up. Spot the boat, follow it and arrive at the mooring area. There’s another yacht anchored with a long stern line run to a rock seawall. We’re told to anchor up but to keep the area open so that a nearby Navy boat can get clear. Dinghy over the side. Andy drops the anchor and reverses to the seawall. Rope taken ashore and stern tied to a large rock.

2400hrs: Anchored in Salalah Harbour. We’ve completed the 605 miles in just over four and a half days. Local time is 2400hrs midnight – GMT plus four hours. Motor off. The boys enjoy a well deserved celebratory drink in the cockpit and I’m just happy to get to bed.

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