Sailing: Fear of piracy made me grateful for magic of Lord of the Rings

Part 8: Pindar's skipper Emma Richards has an anxious time after receiving strange radio messages during the Around Alone round-the-world
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The Independent Online

Sunday 27 October, West of Guinea, 23.00

Seriously weird day, which started, in the pitch black of night, with a human whistle coming from the VHF radio just before 1am. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was crystal clear so I knew whoever was transmitting was nearby. I checked from the deck and could see one very faint light on the distant horizon. I went back to the radar. It was now showing another blip, within a mile. I went back on deck. No lights. I thought it must be an unlit fishing vessel. Then more noises, whistles, expletives.

At that point I wished I hadn't read the latest Nav Area report, which sailors receive daily to update them on potential hazards. It started: "This broadcast warns ships in passage in West Africa, South America, Central America and the Caribbean waters regarding piracy and armed robbery." Specific recent attacks included seven pirates armed with knives and machetes boarding a cargo ship in Guyana (16 October); two pirates with knives boarding a container ship in Peru (11 October); and six pirates in a speed boat, four armed with guns and long knives boarding a cargo ship off Brazil (29 September).

Another section – "Piracy-prone areas and warnings" – listed West Africa, and specifically Dakar, to my east. I hope this puts in context why my imagination started running riot. I phoned Robin, the Pindar team manager, and he said it didn't sound too great but to try not to worry. Then the voice on the VHF starting crooning. I called Robin back but the voice had stopped. Time for action.

I radioed whoever was out there, identifying myself and hoping to establish them as fishermen. Silence in return. I was desperately trying to put it out of my head that I was alone. I put a talking book, Lord of the Rings, on the stereo to give the impression Pindar was fully crewed. I turned off my navigation lights and sailed slowly – little wind – in the opposite direction to the blip. I heard nothing more.

With some distance behind me, I can credit they were fishermen, maybe drunk – it's the weekend after all – using their radio as a karaoke machine. But as a tired sailor, acutely aware of being very much alone and with no way of defending myself, except perhaps with rocket flares, it did spook me considerably. Lack of wind, or any manoeuvrability, made it worse. Roll on the Southern Atlantic trades. And no more reading Nav Area reports for me.

Tuesday 29 October, c.300 miles west of Liberia, 17.00

Moved back into second place ahead of Thierry Dubois. I need to keep working for ever single mile. And keep getting my head down for some restorative naps. Oh for a king-size bed, where I can "starfish" instead of squash in a narrow bunk.

Wednesday 30 October, five degrees from equator, 14.15

It's like a sauna down below. Too hot to do anything, too hot to sleep. At least I've had a bit of contact with a friendly face. Yesterday a tugboat passed in front of me, asked if I needed anything. Unfortunately I had to decline, despite knowing he had definitely have a fridge and freezer and a cold drink. He asked where I was going. Cape Town, I said. At least you're not one of those madmen doing "crazy s**t" single-handed racing down south, he said. Err, well, I'm in this race actually...

Thursday 31 October, crossing the Equator, 13.18

A day of three highs. 1, I'm out of the doldrums. 2, I've just crossed the Equator. I'd hoped to watch myself cross the line on the computer but I was on deck and just missed it. Still, I opened a miniature of Cruzan Estate light rum given to me by a supporter back in New York and had a sip standing on the bow. I tipped the rest to Neptune. Hope he likes it. It burnt my throat! 3, I've been told that the race leader, Bernard Stamm, has communicated that he admires the way I'm attacking his lead. From someone of his calibre, that's a compliment.

Friday 1 November, South Atlantic, 10.20

I've made another five miles on Thierry. I'm still getting messages with recipes for flying fish. Still no other ingredients. It's also been pointed out by the shore crew, vis a vis my earlier king-size bed wish, that I'm the only competitor in the fleet that can't do a true starfish.

www.aroundalone.com

www.pindar.com

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