Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dark shipping

It's been an eventful 24 hours. At times stressful, certainly tiring, but ultimately enjoyable and has seen our little convoy at its best; reassuring, supportive and generally watching out for each other.

Yesterday evening there was much debate about our route. As we approached the security corridor much more focus was given to our intended course and its implications. Our original plan had been to aim for the north-east end of the corridor then run parallel with it keeping a couple of miles north. However recent reports suggested that Chinese shipping had their own lane 5 miles to the north of the corridor and the prospect of being sandwiched between the Chinese fleet, the shipping in the corridor and patrolling warships didn't appeal. So after weighing many options we decided to head for the Yemen coast keeping 10 miles off as we sail towards Aden. We'd received positive reports from friends already in Aden who had sailed this route without incident. With the decision made we set our spinnakers for the new bearing and pressed on into the night.

Antares has an AIS receiver which provides information about nearby shipping and can sound an alarm if a ship enters within a defined area around your boat. Just before midnight Jasper was alerted to a boat 10 miles off heading in our direction. However nothing was visible on the horizon even though it was a clear night - odd. So Jasper called the ship, and rather than answering they stopped transmitting their AIS signal. We could locate the ship on the radar, but it was running dark - not showing navigation lights. This happened a couple more times throughout the night; very unnerving to be heading towards a busy shipping lane with boats deliberately keeping their navigation lights switched-off.

One time Jasper managed to talk to the crew on a "dark" ship. They seemed anxious and initially unwilling to talk, but eventually Jasper managed to persuade them that we were harmless yachts and the radio operator confirmed that they'd spotted us, but thought we looked like pirates and had tried to warn the coalition forces! It seems everyone is suspicious or even frightened of everyone else out here.
Half way through the night the wind died, on went the engines and my first problem surfaced. I couldn't persuade the electronic autopilot to steer a straight course. Recently the pilot had become more temperamental, but I thought I could work around its idiosyncrasies. Not last night, the course swang violently from side-to-side, in circles, anything other than a straight line. Not a disaster, I would have to hand-steer, but for how long? I wouldn't be able to sleep until the wind returned and I could use the wind-vane.

While tired, worried and keeping a look-out for dark and lit ships the second problem hit me. The engine stopped. I radioed the other yachts, who immediately stopped while I investigated. I'd run the tank dry. Again not an immediate disaster, as I had two spare 20l. cans, but not enough to reach our destination with the current forecast and doubly frustrating as I thought I had enough. Somewhere my sums had gone very wrong. After decanting the spare fuel and bleeding the fuel system we were off again.

As the sun rose, we cleared the last of the shipping. I was a mile behind the other yachts when Risho Maru called to ask if I'd seen the fast craft heading towards me. I hadn't but immediately remembered reading about how pirates use disguised fishing boats with powerful engines, which fitted the description of the rapidly approaching boat. The other yachts had already stopped and started back towards me, my rev counter reached new highs as I motored towards the others. Quickly though the threat disappeared as the fast boat started running on a parallel course then turned around and quickly disappeared over the horizon. Phew, but was it a real threat or just us becoming suspicious and frightened of everyone else?

As we ended up within hailing distance of each other, Ian suggested we stop for a swim. A brilliant idea that relieved the tension of the night.With the other boats around I borrowed a couple more cans of diesel and Ian offered to "lend" me his crew Hugh, so that I could get some rest. I willingly took him up on his offer.With Hugh onboard we set off again motoring into a flat sea. While Hugh helmed, I worked on the autopilot problem. The rudder angle feedback wasn't working so the controller would run the motor and wouldn't register any helm movement. Very confusing to its small brain. Eventually I traced the problem - two gears only intermittently engaging. After a few false starts I once more had a working autopilot.

It feels like the worst is behind us, even though we've only just entered "pirate alley" - we've certainly experienced more, in the last few days, than I was anticipating over the whole trip to Aden . We're planning to head for Al Mukalla on Saturday for a rest and refuel before pressing on to Aden.

As I write this we've just enough wind to sail, which after a small sail vs motor debate, came down in favour of giving us and our engines some rest. It's very relaxing to be sailing across a calm sea, in near silence with the reassuring mast-head lights of our little convoy all around. I'm even steering using the wind-vane...

Position @ 12:30 (GMT+5), 25/02/2009: N14deg 48' E052deg35'


Brian Mac said...

Turn down the tension - you're stressing me! It sounds great / scary / fun / challenging. Ben would like a souvenir eye patch and parrot if you do meet up with your Somali friends! I hope not...

We'll be flying over you to NZ in a few weeks, just for short break then out for good later in the year. You might make it to London in time for leaving do!

Mr Morphou said...

Take care Nick - we're keeping a close eye on you from our own pirate island - Julian, Amanda, Isobel, Oscar, Flora