There be pirates in these ‘ere waters

53 degrees 0.5’ N, 001 degree 4.4’ W 

We were in high spirits when we set off. Having just three crew meant we had to do longer watches and I had the dreaded middle of the night shift which ate into my sunbathing time, dammit! The first night out it was quite choppy and the anti-malarials I was taking made me feel seasick so for the first time since crossing the Atlantic on Hull and Humber I threw up. Five times in one watch. I was not a happy bunny but since I’d decided to make a career out of yachting I didn’t accept any offers of help. “I’ve just got to learn to deal with it,” I muttered from the depths of the bucket I was hugging on my lap.

Moe and Tyrone kept in touch with other yachts crossing the Indian Ocean on a twice-daily radio net and it was through that that we discovered the American yacht Quest had been taken by pirates. Tyrone was very angry because he had been assured by various maritime security agencies that they would inform us if there were any pirates in the area and we’d heard nothing from them. I wrote an opinion piece for The Independent and the Daily Express that we were able to email from the middle of the Indian Ocean via the SSB radio. Read it here.

We were jumpy, particularly at night, because we didn’t know if the pirates were near us and every time we saw a dot on the radar we’d panic. A coalition forces plane passed overhead and we asked them on the VHF whether, from their excellent vantage point, they could see any boats that might be harbouring pirates. They said no, which at least meant we were safe for a bit.

At this point we were four days out from reaching the safety of Oman. Periodically we heard snippets of the aftermath. “Obama has made a statement,” Moe informed me. Great – but what actual difference would words make out here on the ocean? Then one morning: “Quest are dead.” Moe had heard it on the net that morning. It took a few days for the details to come through. A friend of a friend in Ireland emailed us the BBC news reports. They were pretty jumbled but it seemed the American forces had decided to play hardball and the pirates had shot the four hostages. It was frightening but also slightly surreal. We hadn’t known any of the crew on Quest so I still had a bit of an “It won’t happen to me” mentality. All we could do was focus on getting to Salalah and try to maintain a sense of humour.

It was great to get there and know we were safe. At that point I was still planning to continue with Gillaroo to Aden – I’d booked a flight back to the UK from there – and Moe was also considering staying on until Egypt. We explored the compound, enjoyed the facilities at the “ablutions block” and got chatting to other yachties. There were 30-40 boats there. More than 20 were from the Blue Water rally – the same rally that the murdered Quest crew had been part of. There is an ex-pats club just outside the port compound that became our home away from home for the week we were in Salalah. We headed there for a meal and a few drinks to celebrate being safe on dry land and to meet another boat, Crazy Bear, we were going to go with in convoy to Aden.

We arrived in Salalah on a Friday. On the Sunday a memorial service was being held at the Hilton hotel for Scott and Jean Adam, the couple who owned Quest, and their crew Bob Riggle and Phyllis Macay. I was expecting a little gathering but it was more of a full-on funeral, with hymns, prayers from an American priest based in Muscat, the Omani capital, and eulogies. We learned that this was the second time Bob and Phyllis had done the Blue Water rally. She had crewed for him in the previous two-year circumnavigation and had enjoyed it so much she’d returned for this one, hopping from boat to boat, partying and babysitting. She looked so full of life in the photographs, always with a wide beaming smile. Bob, clearly devoted to Phyllis, had left his boat in France and flown out to crew the rally just to be close to her. They had joined Quest only a few weeks before. They were no different from Moe and me – just people who loved the sea and the cruising life, travelling around the world by hitching rides with boat owners who were kind enough to take them onboard. It changed my perspective on the pirates – it could happen to me.

After the service Tyrone went to a briefing with the other skippers given by a man from Marlo – the American Marine Liaison Organisation (one of the groups that had promised to keep us informed of pirate activity before we left Sri Lanka).

Moe and I went to work on our tans by the pool and to talk it through. By now she was thinking about leaving but I was torn. If I left Gillaroo as well, Tyrone would be on his own and he couldn’t sail in convoy to Aden single-handedly. Nor could he go back across the ocean to Sri Lanka or India because there might be pirates out there.

While we were discussing the dilemma, people from the rally boats came over to beg the two of us not to continue. Some of them had been approached by boats near Oman they suspected were pirates but had scared them off by moving into a tight formation. Sarah, from the boat Mystery, came over to talk to us and told us the man from Marlo had confirmed that a Danish boat, Ing, with three children among its seven crew, had been taken. We had heard rumours but this was confirmation. Ing had been moored in our spot in Sri Lanka and had left Galle the day before we arrived there. That was the proverbial straw. It not only could happen to me, it actually might happen to me.

I rang my dad in a panic to tell him I wanted to come home. He offered to come to Oman to meet me. I said him I’d probably be fine once I’d calmed down and that the fear and emotion were heightened because all we’d talked about all day and for the previous two days was pirates. (I learned when I got home that his first thought when I rang him and mumbled through my tears that there’d been a pirate attack was that my boat had been taken!)

Telling Tyrone was horrid, because I felt like I was abandoning him, but luckily he managed to get new crew, Geoff, an ex-Royal Marine who had been on one of the Blue Water rally boats and wanted to continue. The rally boats all decided to stay in Salalah and to arrange to have their yachts shipped to Turkey. The last I heard the shipping company had gone bust and they were stuck there.

That night in the bar there was the crew of a British Navy ship who had been working in the area. A few of the officers got very angry with us for even daring to venture into these waters in the first place. I tried to explain that the situation when we left Sri Lanka was totally different from the one we found ourselves in 10 days later. They weren’t having any of it. But their vessel wasn’t there to fight pirates, it was surveying the area and they had six Royal Marines on board to protect them.

After the decision to fly home was made, I had a great time in Oman. I’m not sure I like the place all that much. In shops, men would refuse to speak to Moe or me, addressing the guys instead. One girl was almost sexually assaulted by a police officer. We made friends with young crew from some of the rally boats. Austin asked me: “What’s Salalah town like?” “Beige,” I replied. It’s all rock and dust with a few concrete houses thrown up in the desert. Even the silver cars are turned light brown by the sandy dust that covers them. But we had a great time not buying frankincense in the souk, partying with a Saudi sailor in Bin Laden’s cave (how was I to know he was living it up in Abbottabad?), visiting the camel races and trying various glutinous Omani foods. Note – have you ever heard of an Omani restaurant in the UK? Their food does not export well. Meat-and-wheat, anyone? (like a savoury porridge). Many restaurants in Oman sell Lebanese food.

I was fascinated by the severe headdresses the women wore, piled high on the back of their heads, and by their even more severe eyebrows – they actually tattoo on a monobrow. I kid you not. Come to think of it, have you ever seen an Omani beauty salon in the UK? Their aesthetic does not export well.
Austin and Tyrone getting shaves, threading and facials was so funny my face hurt all day from laughing, we drove into the desert to see camels racing around a track with rag dolls for riders astride their humps, crashed the pool and the private beach at the Crowne Plaza and had a “who has the biggest guns?” competition with the Royal Marines. Guess who won?

When Tyrone and Geoff left for Aden it was so sad and frightening. There was a council of war, with assigned code names and everything, for the boats leaving in the convoy. Tyrone switched off the tracker so we didn’t know where they were for weeks. In the end they didn’t stop in Aden because they were getting waves up to 2m high and thought the sea state was a good pirate deterrent and continued on to Sudan so it was kind of a good thing that I wasn’t on board otherwise they would have had to break away from the convoy for me to catch my flight.

Despite the rather regretful ending to my whole adventure, sailing around Asia is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It took me a good while to adjust to UK life when I got back – not only the cold (three jumpers helps) but also the expense, the rudeness,the traffic, the commercialism of it all. It has been wonderful to have a few weeks to catch up with family and friends and hear their news but really very little has changed here. A few more marriages, babies, new jobs or homes but that’s all. In a way that’s good, because it means I can pick up my friendships where they left off. But it also makes me realise how much has changed in my life. For one, I’m tanned and blonde! I’m more chilled, happier and much more keen to party like it’s 1999. I also no longer, after a decade, fill in my profession as “journalist” on forms. Now I am “unemployed”, soon to be “sailor”.

So I want to say a big thank you to Claire, Lizzie, John, Ron, Greg, Debs, Nic, Luke from West Virginia, Tyrone, Chris, Hugo, Aaron, Guy, Pablo, Libertad, Ben, Vicky, Isabel, Nelly, Moe (esp for the photos), Tom, Matthew, Tony, Helen, Austin, Shaun, Richard, Larry, Gemma, Sarah, Richard, Pete, Allden, Ian and Ian, Cristo, Elise and everyone else I met on my journey for making it such a blast.
And also RIP to John, Phyllis, Bob, Scott and Jean, brave sailors all.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain