I am sitting at the helm of the sailing yacht Gillaroo in the middle of the Indian Ocean, about four days away from Oman, and I am shaking with fear. When I got up for my shift on watch this morning we had had an email from a friend in the UK, telling us about the Somali pirate hijacking of the American yacht Quest two days ago.
The owners, an older couple, and their two crew members were taken less than 200 miles from where we are now. I feel incredibly vulnerable.
For the past five months I have been sailing around South East Asia on the Irish-flagged 48ft catamaran Gillaroo. Before we left Galle in Sri Lanka on 12 February there were rumours among the yachting community that pirate attacks this year would strike further east than ever before. One captain stated boldly that "this will be the first year that not all cruising boats get through to the Red Sea".
For Gillaroo it was a concern but one to be pushed to the back of our minds. Our catamaran is nearly on the home straight, having set sail west to navigate in 2008 on a three-year trip that took in the Canaries, Caribbean, Panama canal, South Pacific islands, New Zealand and Asia. From Sri Lanka there are only two ways back to Europe: around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Gulf of Aden.
On board Dublin-registered Gillaroo is the captain, Tyrone Currie, a boat-builder from Northern Ireland, and two volunteer crew – Moe Kafer, a UK-based Canadian photographer who joined two days before we left Sri Lanka, and myself. A Spanish couple pulled out just before we set off because they were worried about pirates. We pooh-poohed their fears then. Now, helpless and 600 miles from safety, I wonder if theirs was the right decision.
Right now there are about 90 cruising boats heading north-west from Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives to the Red Sea via Oman and Yemen. The north-east monsoon brings with it a short weather window with good winds to make the passage.
We were not unaware of the risks. Two cargo ships were hijacked by Somali pirates on 8 and 9 February. We contacted the various authorities tasked with patrolling the waters and monitoring the area – the combined European naval forces (EU NAVFOR), the UK Maritime Trade Organisation (UKMTO) and the Maritime Security Centre, Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) – and registered our details with them. We were promised that they would track our position and email to warn us of any pirate activity in the vicinity so we could alter our course if need be. They have failed to do so. Their priority is to the food ships going to and from Africa, not to the 200-plus husbands and wives, friends and children sailing towards home in the same waters in slow boats with no weapons to protect themselves.
There is a patrolled "transit corridor" running through the Gulf of Aden, from Oman to Yemen, along which boats are advised to travel in small groups, or convoys, in order to minimise the risk of attack. The corridor was established in an area where pirate activity was previously highest. Pirates would set off from the coast of Somalia in small open boats, or skiffs. The size of their vessels restricted their range, therefore most attacks were relatively close to shore. Wildly high on qat, a chewable narcotic leaf, there is allegedly little reasoning with them. The saving grace is that they tend not to shoot their hostages. Instead they hold them for, in some cases, more than a year, as with the British sailing couple Paul and Rachel Chandler, until their ransom is paid.
But lately their technique has changed and it is this that has enabled them to strike further away from Somalia's coast, rendering the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean dangerous. Now they deploy mother ships – much bigger vessels that can travel faster and therefore further. Sometimes these mother ships are boats that have themselves been hijacked. From these they can launch their smaller skiffs to approach their targets.
There are scant precautions we can take. Twice a day, over the shortband radio, we talk to other boats we know who are crossing the Indian Ocean. We all give our positions in code – our distance from and bearing to a specific location we all have the co-ordinates of. There is a feeling of relief when we hear one of our friends has made it to Oman safely. We use no lights at night; if a sail needs changing, we do it in the dark. What seemed like a fairly benign ocean for the past week has now taken on a menacing quality.
We don't know what to do or what will happen. If the pirates with the Quest's crew head straight back to the Somali coast, they will cross our path. The equally frightening scenario is they may hang around in the area.
All around me is clear horizon with not even a cargo ship to break its line. What lies beyond that horizon is anyone's guess – a clear path of blue water to Oman or a mother ship of Somalian pirates with guns waiting? I have four days to wonder.