Australian Yachting - September/October 2010

Experienced sailors and cruising instructors, John and Amanda Neal, explain the threats of modern day piracy and what the average cruiser can do to avoid trouble.

When you mention the word ‘pirate’ you generally think of Blackbeard and the pirates of old.  Stories of pirates that were riveting in our youth have been replaced with weekly news reports of modern day pirates driven by poverty and greed, operating from a range of poorly policed States, menacing, stealing and in some cases kidnapping and killing.

The sad reality is that modern day pirates do exist and to the unwary, they can pose a very real threat to life and liberty.  Today’s pirates may be fishermen during the day and opportunists at night, and regardless of how wealthy or middle-class you may be, the fact that you have a boat marks you as rich in their eyes.

So, what is one to do?  Stop cruising.  Stay home.  No, thankfully it hasn’t come to that.  There are numerous things you can do to continue cruising and to minimize the threat to you, your loved ones and your belongings.

What should you do?

Avoid countries and regions where piracy is rife (your insurance will generally exclude coverage there) and be cautious and educate yourself about areas with lower, but existing risks. Areas of highest risk include:

Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, particularly the coast of Somalia

Venezuela, particularly the offshore coastal islands popular with cruisers

Columbia, even though many cruisers rave about Cartagena

Rio Dulce, Guatemala



The following areas have occasionally experienced safety and security incidents involving cruisers:

St. Lucia, particularly the area around Rodney Bay, finishing port of the ARC




Puerto Rico

Ecuador, coastal mainland

PNG, Port Moresby and other urban areas

Boat Security

Never leave gear lying unattended on deck or in your dinghy. Secure hatches and portholes when sleeping when in questionable areas.

Install a safe, ideally large enough for your laptop computer.

Make sure your boat is lockable from the inside.

Have a second wallet with small amount of cash, an expired credit card and perhaps cheap watch to give aggressive intruders.

Always lock hatches and ports when leaving the vessel and leave lights and music on if going ashore in the evening.

Lock up all cameras, computers, wallets, jewelry when going ashore or at night.

Consider installing a motion alarm system.

ALWAYS lock your outboard to your dinghy and ALWAYS hoist your dinghy and motor out of the water on a bridle at night. Lock your dinghy when leaving it ashore.

Get to know your neighbors on boats anchored or moored near you.  

In questionable areas, it may be prudent to turn off your AIS transmitter while underway.

Personal Security

Do your homework utilizing the websites above, avoiding troubled areas.

Be modest in your appearance at all times, on deck and ashore. Leave fancy jewelry at home.

Women should be very cautious about running, or shopping in public markets, alone.

Carry only a laminated copy of your passport when ashore, leaving your original passport in the ship’s safe.

Don’t even consider purchasing firearms, but do purchase pepper spray. Bear spray sold in sporting goods stores is industrial sized, longer range version of pepper spray.

Use a taxi for provisioning in “iffy” areas having the driver wait or accompany you shopping.

Leave debit cards at home as they allow thieves to completely drain your account. Alternatively keep minimal money in the accounts linked to the card so you minimise any losses. Credit cards, although they have higher rates for cash advances also limit your risk.

Keep the security issue in perspective. In 35 years of cruising we have had one dinghy oar and a pair of thongs “borrowed”. We have consciously decided to avoid or skip countries and regions where we know problems exist.

If you’d want to keep track of troubled areas, the following sites are invaluable:  Noonsite’s Piracy page is updated frequently and covers the world.  The Caribbean Safety and Security Net meets daily at 1215 UTC on 8104.0 and their website lists incidents involving yachts.  Latitude 38 magazine’s site is updated[8521].pdf This is a guide from International Sailing Federation of how to cross the Gulf of Aden with the lowest possible level of risk. This is the Department of Foreign Affairs website which carries information on security conditions in countries around the world.

How to organise a convoy by Tom Sampson of Katanne

Back in January 2010 I decided to organise a convoy which would leave Salalah, Oman, in Mid February (hence the MF Convoy) It started off with just a few friends but by the time we left it had grown to 27 yachts. In order to be fair to everyone the position of each yacht was dictated from the date it asked to join the convoy so those asking first were at the front.

It soon became apparent that plans and procedures would be required if we were to keep 27 yachts in formation for 5 days and nights. The following notes are those I prepared for the convoy and they served us very well.. In fact the next convoy of 20 yachts which departed 2 weeks later used the same notes and followed the same procedures. Some of the skippers wanted to know if I had any qualifications or experience in running convoys. It gave confidence to some of them that I had a military background. Having now completed the passage there are some additional points worth making:

1. The leader of the convoy should not try to micro manage, he/she will have enough to do dealing with all the problems that will occur. There will be potential disputes which can, if not dealt with promptly, cause upset within the convoy. They must be part counsellor and mediator. My abiding rule was that no-one was going to be left behind and I took whatever measures were necessary to ensure that 27 yachts arrived at Aden together.

Boat speed should be determined by the speed of the slowest yacht but all should be able to make 5kts boat speed. We had 1.5 kts of current against us for the first 150nms but a good current later so we arrived as planned at 0900 on 23 February.

2. During the passage we had 3 yachts suffer engine problems; 1 yacht was towed until his problem was fixed which only took 1 hr and another yacht had to be towed for 250 nms until we reached Aden. I had assumed that a tow might be necessary and one of the larger yachts had already volunteered to tow before we departed.

On our last night we had 8 yachts get caught in fishing nets. On each occasion we went to loiter (engines in neutral) until the yacht had freed itself. The towing yacht moved slowly through the fleet and resumed his position when we went back to convoy speed. We also had a freighter coming from our stern that looked like he might run into the convoy so I asked all the yachts to put on their anchor lights. He very quickly turned away.

3. Group leaders were absolutely essential and did most of the work keeping the convoy together. I often spoke to them alone and they then disseminated the information to the rest of their group. They dealt with any minor problems within their group kept me advised of any potential problems that would affect the convoy as a whole.

4. Using code names for the yachts was also essential. It would have been very difficult to know instantly where any particular yacht was in the convoy without the code names. It also turned out that using exotic names (in our case birds of prey) created a bond within each group and even after the convoy had disbanded I occasionally heard the code names being used. The bonding of each group ensured that there was no enmity within that group and any minor indiscretions were easily forgiven.

5. One of the yachts had the foresight to leave his outboard on his dinghy which was on davits. We had to transfer fuel on one occasion between some yachts that were running short. It took only 15 minutes to complete the transfers.

6. There was a lot of communication between yachts; a number of frequencies were available (15 and 17 were used to) As leader I only listened to 67 but accepted that whilst much of the comms was not essential in the true sense, it was good for the morale of the convoy and also provided a deal of entertainment for those listening in!!

7. You should go to the MSCHOA website and download the information provide in the “LINKS” section. That will tell you about all the organisations that are involved with the Transit Corridor and the pirate alley area. In essence MSCHOA keep a register of all yachts and there is a yacht registration form which all the convoy yachts should complete and return to MSCHOA. UKMTO will follow the progress of the convoy and it is to them that you report the convoy position each day. MARLO are part of the US force and don’t actually do anything for the convoy.

That the convoy was a success was primarily due to the attitude adopted by everyone. They remembered that they had volunteered to join the convoy, that it was its size that made it an effective deterrent and that without each and every one of the yachts that deterrent force would be diminished. Given that yacht skippers of the circumnavigation ilk are self sufficient, opinionated and necessarily of an independent nature, it was remarkable that the convoy was so successful.

Its success was also due to the use of group leaders. Don’t underestimate their value and choose them carefully. As leader I was a volunteer, the group leader were press ganged into their position. Choosing the right group leaders is essential.

General notes

“The chances of an attack by pirates is extremely low. You are far more likely to be robbed or attacked in the Caribbean or off the coast of Venezuela than off the coast of Oman or Yemen.”

Murphy’s law will prevail. There will be false alarms – innocent fishermen may look and act like pirates but are often only curious.

The skipper of each yacht is responsible for its safety and for the safety of the crew. If the skipper believes that the actions of the convoy are endangering his boat or crew then he should take appropriate measures.

Convoy Formation

The convoy will organise in groups of six, each group being two rows of three. Separation distances will be determined once we are at sea. The leader of the convoy will maintain a “track “ course between each waypoint. The two yachts either side will form around on him. The yacht behind the lead will maintain formation on the lead and the yachts either side will form up and maintain separation from the boats ahead.

The following groups will form up likewise on their lead yacht who will determine the distance from the group ahead. At night the yachts in the centre of each row will display deck level navigation lights and all other yachts will display only deck level stern lights.

Those wishing to sail during the day and/or night should bear in mind that turning into wind to drop or reduce sail will cause havoc so it is suggested that only furling sails are deployed.


Communications should be kept to a minimum. Common sense will dictate when and if there is a need to use make a call. A schedule of the VHF frequency to be used each day is provided. Ch 67 will be used as the initial contact frequency in addition yachts should monitor Ch 16.

If any yacht believes a pirate attack might take place then he should make a call on 16 at high power.


The route planned is roughly 12 miles off the coast. The convoy lead will follow the route but all yachts should continue to monitor their position. Navigational waypoints are provided. Any unplanned course changes will be announced by the convoy lead. On ch16 “MF convoy go ... ( the freq of the day) “ MF convoy course change degrees/ port or starboard”.

If sailing condition are such that the convoy is having difficulty keeping the speed down to 5 kts then the convoy lead will announce the SOG of the convoy which will always be the SOG of the slowest yacht in the convoy Our position should be reported twice daily to the coalition force HQ by satellite telephone no; 971 50 557 32 15 and by email to

Night time

The convoy spacing can be increased at night. Separation distances will be determined once we are at sea but might typically be 200-300m. Deck level navigation lights should be switched on and if necessary the group leaders can display their anchor lights which will assist in maintaining the formation.

Bad Weather

The perceived view is that pirates don’t carry out attacks in bad weather. It is also unlikely that we could maintain formation safely in bad weather. Therefore the convoy should dissolve and each yacht should make his way to the destination independently of other yachts. If the weather subsequently improves then yachts wishing to join up with others should make for the rhumb line of the route planned for the convoy.


Breakdowns: If a yacht is unable to maintain 5 kts then the convoy will loiter until the cause is determined. This may require skippers or crew of other yachts to render assistance. During this time preparations will be made for towing the yacht. If this becomes necessary then once the tow in underway the speed of the convoy will be determined by the towing yacht.

Pirate attack: In the unlikely event of a pirate attack the convoy will adopt the attack formation. The yacht sending the emergency call on 16 will continue to act as the distress controller. It will be confusing if too many yachts make the distress call. There are so many scenarios that could occur if a yacht is boarded that decisions on what to do thereafter will be made at the time.

Routine maintenance. If any yachts have to switch off their engines to carry out essential routine maintenance then we will all loiter for 30 minutes at 0800 each day.

Attack formation

The size of the convoy and the deployment of the propeller antifouling lines by the last row of yachts are the only deterrents that the convoy have. The second row of each group moves to starboard and takes up position between the 2 boats ahead. The first row of each group should close on the group ahead. The lead group will reduce speed to 2 kts and maintain that speed until all the yachts are in close formation. We should expect to have separation of about 20- 30 metres between yachtsWe can carry out an exercise of the attack formation during our passage. If conditions permit then the exercise can begin at 1200 local time on 19 February initiated by the convoy leader on channel 67 with the words “Execute Excalibur”.

If you need any further information I can be contacted at which is my shore email so there might be some delay in replying.

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