The title that accompanies this writing is almost completely inappropriate to its content, but at the same time it still refers to exactly what you came here to read about.
The magic here lies in the fact that the Red Sea is a reference point to a part of the world with which we associate war, drought, coups, starvation, and – of most significance for our means here – piracy. Indeed the words Red Sea are all but synonymous with piracy, and for the longest time I was under the impression that to even cast eyes over that patch of the chart was a perilous undertaking in itself, let alone to sail ones boat there.
But – and here’s the thing – the Red Sea has next to nothing to do with piracy, it is just next to something that does: the Gulf of Aden. Before we get to that, the reader should know that the Red Sea is a beautiful stretch of water, along which the striking turquoises of the reef rubs shoulders with the yellows of the desert, overlooked by a raw and mountainous interior that is – taken together – quite breath-taking. And whilst it is lined by countries with terrible troubles, the folks that inhabit them are wonderful and welcoming, as we have found to almost always be the case throughout our circumnavigation, belying so many of our preconceptions. “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Nowhere else in the world had Aldous Huxley been so poignant.
For example, the time we were most at risk of becoming hostages – a danger that many would associate with transiting the Red Sea – was when the sayadeen invited us aboard for coffee, and we could barely get away for the chains of friendliness that they wrapped around us. Sayadeen means fishermen in Arabic, as one of the three men hunched around the hearth explained to us. Blue Eye had been sitting out one of the strong northerly blows in the secluded haven of Marsa Inkeifal, when men had arrived in their skiff smiling and waving, led by Captain Assan. They had called us over after James had finished kitesurfing in the bay, and we crouched around the fire in the bow of their boat, huddling out of the wind and dust, warming our hands on the small ceramic cups of ginger-scented coffee. It was one of those moments that a traveller dreams of: the sun setting over the hazy mountains, the frankincense roasting on the coals, the warm glow of meeting new people from a new land.
Conversation was amusing: not so much in its content, as in its struggles. Captain Assan spoke some English, and we acquired a little Arabic over the course of the many coffees perpetually brewing on the embers before us. But when it came to discussing finer points, like the weather forecast for the coming days, a want of vocabulary condemned communication to charades. Through wild and violent gesticulations, and hysterical gushing noises from perilously inflated cheeks, James and I bid to convey that the northerly blow was going to continue with fervour for the coming days. Hunched shoulders indicated that the sayadeen had understood, and that they were quite glum about the matter. But once we had successfully depicted the calm weather that was to follow, they beamed smiles of relief. This was great news, Captain Assan explained, they would catch many more fish when the wind eased.
We would likely not have accepted such an invitation aboard a fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden. Had a skiff come close to us in that area – an area dubbed ‘pirate alley’ – we would probably have called a mayday and hurled tins of peas at them in the meantime. (Any tins would suffice actually; there’s nothing particularly lethal about peas so far as I know.) Although the Red Sea might be safe, one still has to transit the Gulf of Aden to get to it: the 500-mile stretch of water between civil war-torn Yemen and the pirate-breeding ground of Somalia. Indeed our one and only thought was to get through it as quickly as possible. We had even spent days stubbornly bobbing about in the middle of the windless Arabian Sea, determined to save fuel so we could motor through the Gulf of Aden should we need to. It would not do to be bobbing about just off the Somalian coast, after all.
So what really wants answering – now all pedanticism is out of the way – is why go through the Gulf of Aden. Why purposefully go somewhere called ‘pirate alley’ in a little, defenceless boat? When the official advice from the authorities is to not sail within even a thousand miles of Somalia? When the consequences are so grave, and the benefit really only a matter of having realised your preferred route?
I shuddered a bit as I wrote that, freaked out by the frankness of my own phrasing of it all. Then I remembered that every single yacht pottered through again this year without incident, bringing the total successful transits of sailboats through the Gulf of Aden up to 70 in the last five years, without so much as a how-do-you-do from a pirate. And therein lies the short answer to the question of why: because we didn’t let fears trump the facts. (After all, in the wrong conditions the equation can read: Fear – Facts = Trump, and I think we can all agree this is a bad outcome.)
The facts are this. Since at least 2016 – the year James and I set off on our jaunt around the world – mariners have been at higher risk in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia (where hundreds of sailors, including us, cruise yearly) than they have been in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Since the peak of Somali piracy from 2007 to 2011, an international effort to make these seas safe again has been remarkably effective. The figures speak for themselves: in 2011 there were 176 attacks, in 2013 there were just seven attacks, and in 2015 there were precisely zero. Admittedly the threat has not been entirely eradicated (ten attacks have taken place since 2015), but a glance at a piracy map will show you that very few seas of the world can claim complete security anyway, and the likelihood is that the oceans can never guarantee that. Much like terrorism isn’t liable to go away, piracy will almost certainly always exist too: the rewards of it will be enticing for as long as there are people with limited options and misguided influences, and the opportunities for an attack are simply too numerous in an area too vast. But given that the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea have been quietly gathering a decent track record in this respect, we decided it was safe enough for us.
Nonetheless, it was not a decision we took lightly. How reassuring would cold, hard statistics be when we were actually in and amongst it? To Red Sea or not to Red Sea was a question we pondered for no less than two years, yo-yoing between yes and no, between fears and facts, before we finally found the nerve to commit to it.
Although an attack is highly unlikely, history showed us that the attacks that do occur tend to be very serious ones. As such, many conversations inevitably meandered their way towards the topic of arming ourselves for the passage. Given the closest I’ve come to armed combat was my half-wit of a friend firing an air rifle at me that he didn’t realise was loaded (fortunately he’s as coordinated as he is clever), I didn’t feel like I would be particularly handy in a shootout. James agreed, and didn’t back himself hugely either, and in any case we rather felt that if we needed a gun to get through, then we shouldn’t be going through at all. In the event of an attack, we settled, a few rocket flares followed by a bombardment of the aforementioned tinned peas would at least buy us some time before the cavalry arrived.
And this cavalry is what made it all possible. There was a warship at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden, a hugely comforting sight as we finally began our probe through pirate alley. And as we delved deeper into the belly of the Gulf over the following days we would see several more armed navy boats, and hear them broadcasting their presence over the radio continually. If this wasn’t reassuring enough, then the military plane that flew spectacularly low over our mast on the second day of our transit certainly was, and there was seldom a moment in which a ship or tanker didn’t accompany the skyline.
I can write all this with a degree of smugness (to what degree the reader must decide), that we took the decision to sail through the Gulf of Aden, and that it all went smoothly and safely. But I readily recognise that, despite all this information, an attack is still more than plausible, and that one rides their luck to an extent when travelling in desperate vicinities of the world. And indeed, in the time since we completed our Red Sea passage this was confirmed by a tale of the strangest details. It consisted of a stark-naked Englishman, some Somalian fishermen, and a cricket bat (no prizes for guessing who owned the cricket bat). The story came from the source itself and a pinch of salt might be required, but the crux of the matter is that the exposed protagonist fought off no less than three Somalians, who had boarded his catamaran whilst he sailed up the coastline. That being the same coastline that sailors are advised not to come within a thousand miles of. Now, to get to the Gulf of Aden one is forced to neglect this advice, but it can still be argued that the uncovered fellow – who was down below servicing the engine when the men embarked – should have minimised his time in such proximity by tacking much further out into the Arabian Sea.
Anyway there he was, naked as the day he was born, when a sound caused him to peer up from under his sweat-drenched brow, only to find his uninvited company looming over him. Gathering himself and his weapon without a moment’s hesitation, it was with Bothamesque power and precision that he flailed all he had at them, and the cricket bat as well. The intruders, soon realising they’d bitten off more than they could chew as blows reined down upon them, alighted with haste and escaped to the horizon like cricket balls racing to the boundary. Or at least as the sailor who lived to tell the tale tells it.
It is excellent news that he did live: if nothing else it makes for a very amusing anecdote. I tell it not only for that humour factor, but also to highlight the fact that it is probable that these men did not leave the Somalian coastline as pirates; they were fishermen who became pirates when they boarded a boat that oozed a wealth incomprehensible to them. This is not to apologise for the men, but to recognise that the attack was hardly a coordinated one – the real Somali pirates ran a formidable operation in their day. Rather it was an opportunistic attack made possible by the combination of a dire situation in Somalia, and some terrible choices on behalf of the unwitting men. The latter was the clincher really; after all, the sayadeen that we met hailed from another of the world’s most afflicted country’s in the form of Sudan, but it was coffee not piracy that was on their minds.
We always felt that an opportunistic attack was the main danger for us. Thankfully it never transpired, and between the international coalition efforts to keep the seas safe, and the work and progress being made in places like Somalia, one can be optimistic that they continue not to transpire, at least not regularly. It is worth remembering a quote I have used before, but shall use again now, to recognise that things are not all as bad as they might seem:
“Here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.” –Hans Rosling, Factfulness