(The originally-planned course and the
last-minute detour towards Salalah, Oman)
WARNING: THIS COURSE IS NO LONGER SAFE FROM PIRATE
"You will soon tire of the Maldives, there is nothing to do there", the
BWR guys told us.
"A week doing nothing in a coral atoll?? My dream!" was the reaction of many of
us, so most of the Rally fleet headed for the island of Uligan, the only
official entry port in the northernmost atoll of the Maldives.
The place turned out to be quite as expected: an atoll with a small village,
coral, lots of fish, sunshine, kind people, wonderful!
The anchorage near the island of Uligan
But the real surprise, especially after the disappointment of Sri Lanka, has
been the people, beginning with the 5 young officers that came aboard to
politely and efficiently dispose of the entry formalities, and continuing with
the people ashore.
They are strictly Muslim, so women stay aside and dress very conservatively (but
they return big smiles if greeted), but everybody is very gentle and helpful.
An enterprising local young man has managed to get the authorisation from the
shipping-agent in Male to act as their sub-agent, and kept apologising for having to
charge us 20 dollars to handle our permit to stay, explaining that he has to pay
a royalty to the main agent in Male (who, incidentally, charges 200 dollars for
the same service!).
A group of local youngsters has organised for us a trip around the nearby
islands, on board of 2 fishing boats reconverted for the day, and so we had an
opportunity to visit a couple of larger villages: very simple, but orderly and
clean, and we were always smiled-at wherever we went.
Fishermen at work in the little island of
This stopover has turned out being a pleasant surprise, and a most welcome
opportunity to relax before heading towards the Gulf of Aden and its pirates;
the atmosphere will soon become tense again!
IMPORTANT NOTE: although the situation at the time of our passage was
already becoming dangerous also for yachts, now it is SERIOUSLY
DETERIORATED and the route we followed IS NO
LONGER SAFE! For further info,
We are about to leave, bound for the Gulf of Aden and its pirates!
For security reasons, we will not provide accurate position data until safely in
SO FAR SO GOOD...
All good so far, we are enjoying one of the best sailings of the whole voyage,
with a nice breeze on the beam and no waves, which allow us to reach a good
speed, also with the help of a favourable current.
Only problem, the fishing boats that lay huge (up to 5 miles long!) floating
nets, little or not lighted at all: already two Rally yachts have been trapped
in them, and getting free has taken quite some time, with no help whatsoever
from the fishermen (perhaps they are irregulars?).
Pirates, here we come!
We are all a bit puzzled: we are hundreds of miles from the nearest shore and
the wind is very variable, both in direction and speed, strengthening at dawn
like if it was a breeze: somebody guesses that maybe it's due to the extreme
weather conditions of the Himalayas, but these are thousands of miles away. Who
In the meantime, we enjoy it: the wind is more or less always between a close
and a broad reach, 10 to 15 knots, and this is where Shaula really performs,
keeping the pace of boats that used to let us behind.
When we sail, we are always cautious not to disturb the fishermen at work: after
all, they are at sea to earn a living, while we are just having fun.
Sometimes though, they behave as if there is nobody else around.
We had a scare one night near Borneo, when we came very close to a fishing boat
which was showing a green and a red light ON THE SAME SIDE: they were heading in
the opposite direction of where we thought they were going, and nearly collided!
And now, from Sri Lanka to the Arabic sea, a new sport: fishing boats drifting
in the wind, dragging floating nets which are SEVERAL MILES long and strictly
We did hit a couple of them when leaving Sri Lanka, before we understood the
trick (the boat is on the leeward side of the net, so we can pass safely on
their leeward side), and at least 3 other Rally yachts got trapped in a net in
the middle of the night, believing they were far enough from the fishing boat
which did no effort whatsoever either to warn them of the net or to help them
This is an area where a lot of ships go through, I wonder what happens if one of
them happens to meet one of those 5-mile-long nets!
Then you read the Navtex, and find 3 messages concerning fishing boats which
went missing in the last few days...
They are obviously poor folks, but an offshore fishing boat is expensive, as it
is a net, much more than the cost of a spotlight or a solar-powered LED light. I
really do not understand.
In the previous Rallies, the yachts sailed from the Maldives towards a secret
meeting point off Socotra (an island which is the arab-equivalent of what
Tortuga was in the Caribbean: a place where the pirate is a well-respected job,
passed from father to son....); due to the light winds, it happened that the
yachts ran out of fuel even before beginning the passage along the Gulf of Aden
towards Djibouti. One year they even had to get a fuel drum from a passing ship!!
This time, with a last-minute decision, it has been decided to add a stopover in
Salalah, Oman, which is deemed to be a "safe" Country: we did not even have the
nautical charts for this area, anyway the arrival to the huge commercial harbour
of Mina Raysut, few miles from Salalah, has been straightforward.
The yachts moored in a small inlet within the
huge commercial port
Commercial harbour, therefore not equipped to accomodate yachts, but modern and
well organised; we all rented a car and started out on refueling and
reprovisioning trips (we had to get fuel in jerrycans from a road fuel station,
but at least the price is one forth than back home!).
A strictly-muslim country, no surprise that the few women around wear
pitch-black burqas (but the shops sell a lot of elegant, colorful dresses,
evidently worn only at home), while men are dressed in many different ways, the
most common being a white, spotless jalabja.
Everybody is friendly and cheerful, and willing to help; they must not see many
tourists though, sometimes we feel like we are the event of the day.
A tiny mosque near prophet Job's tomb
Dramatic change of landscape compared to the countries visited so far, with
large expanses of sand surrounded by low, rocky hills excavated by monsoon rains
into a very dramatic scenery. We have gone up the hills to Job's tomb (yes, the
biblical prophet, who is revered also by muslims) along a well-kept road in the
middle of nowhere. Pity we did not reach the real desert, because it begins only
more than 200 km more to the north.
....and many, many dromedaries, which munch the scarce bushes along the roads;
for once, the road-signs warning about "wildlife crossing" are not for nothing:
in the evening, herds of dromedaries cross all roads, even the highway
connecting Salalah with the port area, and all cars stop and wait patiently.
It's been an interesting and altogether pleasant stop, despite the scarcity of
things to do and see.
The Gulf of Aden, a 650-mile stretch of sea
between the coasts of Somalia and Yemen, has been since many years the location
of occasional attacks to passing yachts; in the last years though, the pirates'
attention has turned towards the more lucrative ships, and danger to yachts
appeared to be limited to chance encounters. Nevertheless, the Rally
organization, in strict coordination with the military forces patrolling the
area, organised our transit to take place in groups of 6 yachts, sailing in very
close formation and constantly monitored by radio. As instructed by
the military, we were going to sail along the separation corridor in the middle
of the two lanes which ships are requested to follow (something that normally
would be strictly forbidden!), a narrow strip one mile wide. To avoid faster
yachts overtaking the slower ones, the slower boats were going to leave last:
one group every 6 hours, so our group no.5 was the last to leave, 24 hours after
the first. Tense nerves on board, also in view of having to sail for more
than 4 days at only 2-300 meters from the other yachts, keeping constant
distance and speed while at the same time checking around for intruders, while
big ships were speeding-by only few hundred meters away.
SOMEWHERE IN THE GULF OF ADEN...
Yesterday, we had a busy day; it was the birthday of one of our group's skippers,
so we started the day joking, but a radio call came from the M/V SALDANA, which
was being followed by several speed-boats. As soon as one of the patrolling
warships answered the call, Saldana's captain reported that the speed boats had
slowed down, grouping near their mother-vessel.
This practice of fishing vessels towing 2 or 3 speedboats is quite normal in
this area, so it's very difficult to distinguish a legitimate fisherman from a
pirate, until an attack takes place.
Our group started getting nervous and decided to tighten our formation; it takes
some attention when motorsailing at only 2-300 meters of distance to keep
formation and avoid hitting one another!
A new call from Saldana reports that the speedboats are approaching again: no
weapons in sight, but there is no logical explanation to their behaviour and the
captain is very worried.
The ship is less than 60 miles behind us, coming our same way, so we keep watch
very nervously and just then, when the ship reports that the speedboats have
stopped once again as soon as the navy helicopter has arrived, a call comes from
Magnolia, a nearby sailboat that we were slowly overtaking, saying that a fast
motorboat is approaching them!
We close formation even more, and watch with some concern as Magnolia changes
course and steers towards us, obviously seeking protection in the company: damn,
is he leading the pirates towards us??!!
The speedboat is still far away, chasing Magnolia that's trying to reach us,
when a frigate appears over the horizon (just by accident, but their arrival
could not have been more timely!) and a big, nasty looking Black Hawk helicopter
arrives at full speed: innocent or not, the motorboat steers away and is soon
After half an hour, the chopper is back to check that all is ok, the crew takes
some photos and they fly away.
Next morning at dawn, another call from M/V Saldana, saying that pirates are
boarding the ship and shooting!! Now they are 60 miles ahead of us, it looks
like they have been followed all the night by the pirates that then attacked at
Sadly, we do not hear anything else on radio, the warships do not seem to answer,
but yesterday's helicopter arrives at full speed to check on us.
How did it fare with poor Saldana??
WE ARE THE FIERY PIRATES, ARRRH!!!
Yesterday, it was a very tense day: a couple of hours after the emergency call,
the Captain of "Saldana" answered a call from the Coalition Forces, confirming
that the ship had been hijacked by the pirates, who demanded the warships to
stay away. Presumably they were already sailing towards someplace in Somalia.
It had been a surprise attack, taking advantage of the first lights of dawn, and
the ship's crew did not notice the attackers until it was too late as they were
boarding the ship: the warships patrolling the area would have not been able to
do anything, even if they were nearby!
The merchant ships in the corridor have visibly decreased in number (maybe they
are being forced to group into convoys?) and are running at full speed, some of
them with their fire hoses spraying high-pressure water near their topsides to
make an attack less easy.
Sailing in close formation in the Gulf of Aden
We have no other choice than proceed although we feel rather lonely, and the
fact that no Coalition ship has answered our calls for several hours does not
help at all!
This morning at dawn, same routine: a tanker which is few miles from us calls
for help saying that several speedboats are heading towards them at full speed.
This time a warship is nearby and promises to send an helicopter within few
minutes, and in the meantime tells the tanker to reverse course: with some
concern, we see the shadow of a nearby ship turn around, they are really very
....And what if the pirates, having failed the attack to the ship, choose to
attack us? We follow the events, then the tanker's captain calls again: "I see
them, there are six of them, now they have slowed down but are still coming
towards us and are in position..." and then he gives the coordinates of...OUR
The idiot has seen us, who were certainly not going at 12 knots and definetely
not towards them, took us for pirate skiffs, got scared and called for help!....
The helicopter arrives, saying to the worried captain that he believed us to be
a group of sailboats (they know our position) and the incident is soon closed;
we can breathe and make a few jokes about it.
We have decided that if the pirates get anywhere near, WE WILL ATTACK THEM!!!
SAVED BY A BARGE!!
Yesterday morning, Djibouti was already in sight and we were motoring in flat
A tongue-in-cheek e-mail from Rally Control raises some smiles: "if you carry a
supertanker with you, you will have to take care of the customs clearance
yourselves!!", but we are still in Somali waters and not at all safe yet; also
in the previous Rally there was a suspicious episode in these same waters.
Far on our bows, two dhows cross slowly our course heading south; we keep an eye
on them, and we see them stopping, then one of the two starts coming slowly
It looks pretty much like they are trying to come at us from two directions; we
can see that both boats are full of people and even if they seem to mind their
own business, they are also getting closer.
We close formation but cannot increase speed as one of our boats has chosen the
wrong moment to have an engine-cooling problem, and when the two dhows begin
heading towards us we call for help: the call is received by a French warship,
which heads our way promising to reach us in 20 minutes: a bit too late, but
probably they cheated for some reason, because the ship's shape almost
immediately appears over the horizon. The two dhows immediately head away and
speed towards the Somali coast.
The ship arrives at full speed and we can see that in reality it's...a BARGE!!!
We can see no weapons aboard, we wonder what they could have done if we were
actually under attack, but then again, it worked!!.
Last miles spent relaxing, we enter Gibuti harbour cheered by the other boats
already at anchor: we made it!!
We left Djibouti a couple of days ago, after about one week spent in this former
Djibouti, the market square
We have been able to restore our stock of hard-to-find foods, but for quite a
price: everything here is very expensive and the locals seem bent on relieving
us of our currency, even to the point of coming aboard at night and steal money
and other items from the boats, while the occupants sleep.
At least 3 boats have been robbed, and they have boarded also Shaula, although
in our case they did not take the risk of coming inside, with me sleeping in the
saloon, and did not take anything; rather disturbing, nonetheless!!
Pity for this country which is really spectacular, sitting just on top of the
Rift fault that one day will cut Africa in two, with salt lakes of which one is
the third lowest point on earth (150 meters below sea level), a so-called "primary"
forest that is told to resemble the first forests on the planet, volcanic
grounds and hill jutting out of the plains.
(left) the spectacular Rift fail that one day
will cut Africa in two and (right) the depression of Lake Assal
The "primary forest" of Day
Also the people, once outside the town, is mostly kind and welcoming; they
obviously live a very simple but dignified life, the only real shantytowns being
near the main town.
Along the road from Djibouti to the northern town of Tadjoura, we see small
groups of people walking along: they are illegal immigrants, coming from
Ethiopia and bound for Yemen and the Saudi Arabia: a terrible voyage under the
scorching sun, still nobody cares or stops them.
Now the Red Sea is waiting for us: more than 1000 miles to the next destination,
and probably a good part of them will be against the dominant winds that often
blow at gale force. It will be tough!
QAT AND CARAVANS...
A couple of things I forgot to mention about Djibouti:
In these places it is quite common to see people chewing the leaves of a small
branch: it's the QAT, or KHAT, whose leaves have a mild allucinogen effect, a
bit like coke leaves.
They may be bland, but by evening one risks to be a bit dizzy, to say the least,
a bit like being drunk; the habit is very common among men, and not unseen among
women as well.
A whole country of drug addicts??
Some people think that events of small-scale piracy by fishermen may be due to the
effects of QAT, and this is not entirely impossible; for sure, the guys that a
couple of years ago tried to attack an US warship must have been on a big-time high!!
Caravans: here there are still caravans of dromedaries, we saw many of them
along the road: they carry either salt (collected from the shores of lake Assal)
or coal, and are bound for Ethiopia. A bag is worth 1000 Francs, about 6 dollars,
and a camel carries 8, for a total worth of less than 50 dollars.
(Looking at the photos I took at the time, I realised that
each camel actually carries only 4 bags, therefore each load's value is only 25
A different style of caravans on the A1, the road going SW from Djibouti towards
Addis Ababa: following the self-proclaimed Eritrean independence, Ethiopia has
no longer any access to the sea (the real reason for the extended conflict
between Ethiopia and Eritrea) and Djibouti has become the main port for Ethiopia.
Transport is mainly by road, and all sorts of trucks can be seen rolling along
this poorly-kept road, often not even paved; you can see relatively modern
trucks, but also old FIAT ones that were new back in the '60's!!
Accidents are not infrequent, and along the road you see overturned containers (duly
scavenged of all their contents), trucks being repaired in the middle of the
road, and sometimes also vehicle remainders which have been reused as parts of
huts along the road.
The top: a "tukul" closed by car's doors!!