Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Passage Journal: Salalah, Oman to Aden, Yemen

February 21 - 26, 2008
by KT

Trip Summary:  617 nM, 122 hours, Average 5 knots

Salalah (Oman) to Aden (Yemen) is the area of highest reported concentration of piracy attacks on yachts.  It is really the only area in the world where Chris and I have traveled that we actually looked to the news for information (in other places we have found news to be extremely focused towards violence and unsettlement).   "Pirate attacks" might sound daunting, but the reality is that not even 1% of the yachts who travel through this area are hit.   As I told our family, there was a higher chance of us dying in a motor scooter accident in Phuket than being hit by pirates.   In addition no incidents had yet been reported for our year.   We therefore were not worried about pirates, but still felt there was no need to tempt fate and did everything "by the book".

One thing that is recommended is to travel with a convoy.   Originally I had mixed thoughts about a convoy.   If I was a pirate, armed with MK-whatevers, and saw four or five small, slow yachts traveling together, it wouldn't stop me from approaching.   And if, upon approach, none of those yachts produced a weapon and started firing at me, well than I would be enjoying one-stop-shopping, four for the price of one!  What I found ironic however is that, by all accounts that I have read, traveling in a convoy does in fact deter the pirates; I've read where pirates (weapon bearing men) would scatter off when the other boats circled back.   It doesn't make sense to me, but there it was in written proof, so Chris and I decided a convoy was the way to go.   We hooked up with three other boats for the run to Aden.

We did take the time to hide all the goods (leaving various bits of money, and broken or old electronics out).   We also checked-in with the coalition armed forces, who now provide some patrolling, follow your route via daily check-ins, and offer to try to assist in the case of a pirate attack.  We opted against any types of weapons; all accounts we had read seemed to show that only those with weapons were ever harmed, those without were merely robbed.   And we decided to run about 40 nautical miles offshore.

February 21, 2008

The morning of our departure was a bit of a debacle.   First the wind picked up enough to cause a few boats to drag and they had to re-anchor.   Then one of the tug boats came through asking about 10 of us to move as a ship was coming in that needed to dock behind us.   In Oman you have to check out within a couple of hours of your departure, no 24 hour leeway, therefore we hadn't yet cleared out which meant we didn't have the option of just leaving, we had to re-anchor - not the easiest task with the higher winds, too-small of anchorage, and poor holding ground.  We managed, and Chris was finally able to go ashore to check-out while I kept an eye on Billabong.

A little before 11am we were ready to go, when one of the boats in our convoy called to say they had an engine problem and would need about an hour to fix it.  I figured I might as well get lunch ready so that I wouldn't have to do it "at sea".  Just as I was toasting bread for sandwiches (about 30 minutes after the delay call) they called to say they were ready.  I quickly pulled the bread off the pan and we lifted anchor.  Moments after we got the anchor up, another boat in our convoy called with windlass (the electronic piece of gear that hauls up the anchor & chain) problems -- another delay. We didn't bother re-anchoring, but rather just did slow loops around the anchorage.  About 20 minutes later they were ready to go, and finally all four of us were off.

We had to motor against 20-25+ knots out of the channel and out through the breakwater before we could finally turn, putting the winds behind us and making things a lot more comfortable.  After we got settled sailing Chris asked what was up with the sandwiches on the counter.  "Oh," I said "that's our lunch".  I went down to grab them and noticed that it was awfully warm in the galley.  That's when I discovered I had left the burner on this entire time ...  more than two hours!!!

Our convoy goal was to stay within .5 to 1 nautical mile of each other.  Our first night out we failed miserably.  At first it didn't seem too bad, especially motoring, but as the night wore on and the winds came and went we couldn't seem to keep together.  I believe our biggest problem was that the fast boat was in front, so the only way they knew they were going too fast was by constantly checking radar or by us calling them.  At one point we were over 2.5 miles behind.  It wasn't too big of a deal, the real pirate alley was still a few nights away, but we thought it was not a good sign that we were already failing at this convoy thing!

February 22, 2008

With the rising sun came a horrendous sand & wind storm.  I can honestly say that these were the worst seas poor Billabong (and crew) have ever been through.  They were big, steep, and extremely close together.  A lot of them literally broke across Billabong.  There was so much sand in the area that within minutes everything was turning dingy brown, and visibility was so low we couldn't make out any of the other boats.

The convoy quickly fell apart (I mean if we couldn't stay together in mild conditions how could we in this crap???).  Stardust couldn't point, so we changed course to try and stay closer to them.  Djarrka couldn't seem to slow down enough, and Ascension couldn't pound through the waves, so they were pointing off and reefing.  We reefed to get as comfortable a ride as possible and tried to head off enough to not have the waves break on us.  Chris donned on foul weather gear and took station in the cockpit, while I sat on the floor next to the navigation station, periodically throwing up.  We tried as much as possible to keep the group together, but it was nearly impossible.  The upside is that there was no way any pirate would be out in that crap anyway, so we didn't have to worry about them!

Of course during this entire time Chris and I were both stressed about the forward compartment. He'd done a temporary fix to try and keep water from getting under the hatch (the best he could do with the supplies we had access to), and of course put in a new bilge pump.  This time he wired the bilge pump such that an alarm and red light would go off inside the boat if it was triggered.  In addition he put a switch inside the boat (forward) that allowed us to manually switch on the bilge pump without going on deck.  With waves breaking over Billabong the force of the water on deck was tremendous, and we just didn't know how the hatch would hold.  Then "beeeeeeeep" went the high pitched alarm, which meant that the bilge pump was going off.  Okay, it's good that the pump was working, but not so good that there was water.  What would we do if we ruined the borrowed water maker???  And God forbid, what if water got under the bed again? Every time a really huge wave would break over Billabong I would go forward and manually run the pump, just in case.  The trick was to hopefully get out any water, but not to run it so much that we burnt out the bilge pump. Once, I was forward running the switch when Chris yelled down "HOLD ON!".  I braced myself and looked back towards to the cockpit to make sure I could see Chris.  What I saw was a huge flood of water flowing from the roof of our cabin onto the cushions, table, and floor.  Everything was soaked. Enough water had hit the dorade vents with enough force that it had forced its way through the vents and into the cabin - well that was a new one for us.  I did a quick clean up (just what I could manage given the conditions), and then Chris threw on his harness and struggled forward to cap the vents.  He also tried to take a peek at the forward hatch but it was just too rough.  I couldn't stand watching him on deck with the huge waves lumbering towards us, even with his harness on.  I was quite relieved when he was safely back in the cockpit.

It took about eight hours before things settled enough that we could try and get the convoy back together.  The seas were still big though which made radar useless (for spotting each other), and the visibility was still pretty low.  Somehow, magically, by dinner time the seas had calmed, and the convoy was back within visual sight of each other!!!

We changed our convoy "formation", such that the slow boat (that's Billabong) was leading, and therefore setting the speed, which seemed to help us keep together a bit.

February 23, 2008

Things were much, much better.  The wind would occasionally pick up, but nothing like the day before.  A brown haze still hung in the area -- we couldn't even spot a huge tanker that was barely 4 miles away! And dust still filled ever nook and cranny both on boat and person.  I had trouble relaxing as every time a little burst of wind would come through I'd find myself bracing, waiting for the storm that was sure to follow.

And finally good news, Chris was able to check the forward compartment and there was no water! Hooray!!! Apparently what was causing the bilge pump to go off was the tiny bit of water left in the compartment from when Chris was testing the new bilge pump.  With the dramatic motion caused by the waves, this little bit of water would go racing under the bilge pump, lifting the lever and causing the alarm to go off.  The water maker was safe, the temporary hatch fix still working, and the bilge pump still going.  Phew!

February 24, 2008

We hit the "pirate alley" around sunset and decided to run with anchor lights.  Originally we had planned on no lights, but it was too difficult with the close proximity of the boats.  All our anchor lights were pretty dim, so we figured it was good enough.

We got through the area without a single worry.  We were almost to Aden and ready to be done with the convoy.

February 25, 2008

It was good sailing during the day.  The wind picked up as the day carried on, and by night the seas had a pretty good swell going.  The wind was directly behind us, so we had to run wing-on-wing. The difficult thing was that we were trying to keep our speed up in order to not cause everyone an extra night out, so we had our full main up, which meant we could absolutely not afford to accidentally jibe.  Simon (the auto pilot) was having trouble steering down the big seas without going off course, so we had to continuously adjust and monitor things, practically hand steering, to ensure we did not jibe.

This was also the busiest shipping night I've ever been through.  Ship after ship came through our path and we'd have to shift starboard then port.  It was exhausting, and with the difficulties keeping Simon on course it was frustrating.  Our AIS (Automated Information System - which reports pertinent information for the large ships) was invaluable that night.

Finally around 4am we told everyone that we had to reef (and slow down), it was just getting too dangerous.  Things were so much better for Simon after the main was reefed, and now we no longer had to stress about an accidental jibe bringing down our rigging.  At this point the slower speed didn't matter because we were close enough to Aden to know we were going to make it without an extra night out.

February 26, 2008

To finally arrive in Aden felt like a huge burden off our backs.  Not only had we gotten through some ugly seas, but we were finally through the worst pirate area and could be around people without talking about and analyzing it.  But mostly it was the end of the convoy that made us happy.  I watch these birds zoom inches from the water, in tight formation.  The lead bird angles left and like synchronized swimmers the other birds effortlessly follow.  It looks so easy ...  I can't help wonder why our convoy was such a nightmare, why couldn't we be more like those birds? And it wasn't just Billabong who felt this.  At dinner on the night of arrival we all talked about how frustrating it was and how annoyed we'd get with each other (luckily we all had good humor about it afterwards and are still all friends).  Here's where we figure the SNAFU began:

Steering.  All four boats used a different method of auto navigation.  Wind vanes, Auto Nav to a waypoint with no crosstrack error, auto pilot based on heading, and so on.  Every method of auto navigation has some degree of error (more accurately, you will go off course a certain number of degrees on either side before the auto navigation corrects it, so your overall course is correct but a sailboat never travels in a perfectly straight line).  Normally, alone, you don't care about this back and forth, or getting slightly off course ...  you just periodically correct things so that you stay mostly on target, but if trying to stay within a certain range of three other boats you don't have the luxury of error and this becomes a very tiresome task!

Speed.  It sucks to be the slow boat (which Billabong was).  Of course, I'm sure if you talk to the other boats they'll say it sucked to be the fast boat - always having to slow down.  Prior to departing we had told everyone our motoring speed sucked and we were lucky to do 5 knots (and were doing even less because we needed new bottom paint).  We told them even sailing we rarely get over 6/6.5 unless the wind is really piping (in which case the seas bump up and we don't want to be going over 6.5 anyway).  We told them that if we had to use our pole then it meant reefing our jib because our pole was too short, so we couldn't get as much speed as a normal boat our size.  They were all okay with that.  But once out there we felt like a hindrance, everyone kept saying it was no problem, but then they'd also start asking "do you have ALL your sail out", "what RPMs are you running at", how much more speed would you get if you weren't reefed", and so on.  It seemed that some also felt the need to announce things like "well I just can't put up any less sail", or "I'm reefing AGAIN", and "I guess I have to go to even lower RPMs" ...  every comment just made Chris and I cringe.

Course.  Before departing we agreed that one person (Chris) would put together a route and then it would be passed around so that we all had the same waypoints.  About two hours into the trip we realized that we weren't all steering the same heading, which we should've been given we were all trying to go to the same point.  Turns out one of the boats had changed, just so slightly, the waypoints in the process of entering them into their auto navigation! Well, obviously that wasn't going to work.  Also some boats treated the route and waypoints as though they were the one and only way to get to Aden, like a highway that had to be followed.  If someone suggested a different heading to make the sail easier (either more comfortable angle to the waves, or better wing angle for the sails), someone else would come back with something like, "but that's not the course to the waypoint", and then a ten minute discussion would follow.  It's not like it mattered, the waypoint was a reference, as long as we all shifted our heading together it wouldn't make a difference! Argh!

In the end it just comes to down to the fact that we all have different sailing styles, different ways of navigating, and different speeds we are happy with, and we couldn't seem to get the four boats to gel.  Between sand storms, occasional high winds, shipping traffic, and multiple nights at sea, we were all sleep deprived and slightly irritable.  The good news is that we all easily got over our frustrations once in port.  We did joke at one point that the pirates didn't bother us because they overhead all our bickering on the VHF and just figured we'd be too much of a handful!!!

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