At least in terms of weather, my crossing of the Arabian Sea was one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever made. The mild-mannered northeast monsoon had pushed my little boat and me, wing-and-wing, over the gentle swells, carrying us gradually westward. For 28 days, between Sri Lanka off the southeastern coast of India, and Djibouti nestled on the North African coast near the entrance to the Red Sea, we chased one beautiful sunset followed by one spectacular sunrise after another. I read, I cooked, and I cleaned, thoroughly enjoying the calm, postcard perfection as an interlude between the more difficult passages that lay both, in my wake and yet to come.
Despite all that serenity, every day I was reminded of the extremes that make up the cruising life. I relished those ideal conditions for all they were worth because I knew full well that when the pendulum swung the other direction, it could move far enough to bring about the worst of my fears. That idyllic crossing would have truly been the ultimate cruising dream if it hadn’t been for a nagging undercurrent of worry. And that concern regarding the dark side of paradise was the fear of hostile boats appearing out of nowhere, bearing cutthroat brigands prepared to overwhelm and destroy me.
Statistically, the odds of crossing paths with pirates are pretty slim, not ordinarily enough to sustain any real concern except in some completely avoidable pockets on the planet. However, one tragic story of piracy in the Straits of Malacca will have the same debilitating effect on the international cruising community as the film Jaws had on countless otherwise carefree wave hoppers around the world. As I crossed the Arabian Sea on those blissful days, the single most dramatic influence on my frame of mind was a cruising guide. In those days, it was the only source of information available for sailors in that area and I read it thoroughly. Because it was all that I had to instruct me on this distant region, I put every nuance of every description or piece of advice through a comprehensive analysis, and regarded it from every imaginable angle. I took those words apart and put them back together in a way that would fit my current mood and the surrounding conditions. And I obsessed over the pictures and charts, and especially over the unchanging words that described what was unknown to me in black and white. Of course I would clutch on to the promise of the good as gospel and then two minutes later I'd completely blow out of proportion any hint of the bad. And when the bad was described as more than a hint, I would be driven to distraction with anxiety.
On my way to Djibouti, I had to pass the island of Socotra, a rather largish chunk of land off the northeast tip of Somalia, which belongs to South Yemen. The most direct route would have been to hug the north coast of Socotra, but the cruising guide convinced me of the wisdom of a detour, even if it meant extra mileage and an extra day at sea. Alan Lucas, the author of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean Cruising Guide,
writes, "Having no useful port and being peopled by a mixture of folk who tend to make their own rules regardless of their government’s policy, the visiting yachtsman is warned away. Vessels have been grappled and towed into shore for looting in the past. Under no circumstances find yourself becalmed close in without means of steaming offshore."
In this book full of information, there are only two other references to Socotra. In the section summarizing the hospitality of the regions covered by the book, Lucas says, "…Socotra…must also be avoided." And, on the next page, under the "Pirates" heading, Socotra earns itself one last mention as Lucas corrects another yachting author’s misinformation about piracy in the Red Sea: "In fact, each act of piracy occurred outside the Red Sea, not within, and the name ‘Red Sea’ was for reference only. The incidents occurred at Socotra and Somalia and anyone venturing to those countries is either misinformed or not informed at all."
He closes all discussion with: "Somalia and Socotra need not be included in this chapter [on piracy] because they are not suggested as places of rest or recreation anywhere in this book." Period. You can’t get a much clearer warning than that. Socotra. It is a name that still gives me the willies whenever I hear it spoken or see it on a map.
Socotra, Socotra, Socotra. As we got closer to the island’s vicinity, Socotra and images of Socotran bandits haunted my dreams and poisoned my waking hours. When the faint purple outline of the island’s mountains appeared on the very distant horizon, every whitecap became an approaching boat and I steered even further off course. I don’t think I ever got closer than 30 miles offshore, but that still felt way too close. My engine was an unreliable means for steaming anywhere, and the level of my agitation fluctuated with the wind. When it eased enough for the mainsail to begin to flap, I felt ready to jump overboard with a pair of flippers. I was ready to do whatever it took to get away from that den of thieves as fast as possible.
I tend to practice avoidance, not confrontation, and before setting off to sail the oceans of the world, this philosophy was what guided my decisions in preparing myself to counter the piracy threat. A gun was never an option. They repulse me and I knew that having a gun and not being ready or equipped to use it would be worse than not having anything at all. Plus, I had a hard enough time keeping up with engine maintenance, and in that salty and corrosive atmosphere, there is no way I would have been sufficiently on top of things to have a gun work for me when it was needed. No. Firearms were for Charlton Heston, not me. Instead, I traveled with an empty hand grenade and a fake beard. Yup, off the island of Socotra, that was all I had. The theory behind these props was that, to a potential pirate, a grenade-toting, bearded person would be as effective a deterrent as a quivering girl wielding a nonfunctioning gun. All I had to do was stand on deck, hair and beard whipping about my face in the wind (because there is always wind in my imagination), pull the pin on the grenade and shout, "If you come any closer, I’m taking you all with me!" (In my imagination, everyone understands English.)
There I was, with the disquieting racket of the mainsail flapping against the shuddering spreaders and the slapping of the waves up under the transom of a boat that wasn’t moving very fast, watching each whitecap until it dissipated and each cloud shadow until it moved on. I would look at the beard and grenade in the cockpit beside me, and cry in despair wishing I had flame-throwers, bazookas, a navy escort, or Rambo on board. I would look at the beard and grenade beside me and laugh at my fears, semi-aware that I was riding a seesaw of emotions intensified by the uncluttered emptiness around me, an emptiness that remained constant. The faint smudge of the Socotran mountains in the distance never got any closer, and because of the close attention I was paying to the sea around my little universe, instead of menacing craft, I noticed other life-affirming things such as whales, dolphins, jellyfish, and numerous other sea creatures.
Finally, as all traces of Socotra disappeared in my wake, I began to realize, yet again, that pirate-related thoughts were part of the cruising package—they came and went along with a full gamut of other worries and wonders. Without the bad for contrast, how could I appreciate the good? Sunsets were replaced by long dark nights followed by sunrises. My anxiety over pirates today would be traded in for concern over reefs and shipping tomorrow. I could have had guns, state of the art navigational equipment, radar detectors, bright lights, and enormous battery banks to insulate myself from danger. But then I would have become dependent on that technology to protect me, and between learning how to use these defenses and maintaining and servicing them, I wouldn’t have had the time to just experience real life, the whole deal, fears and all. So, does anybody wanna buy a beard?
The Triumph of Good by Tania Aebi
The Perils of Piracy by Mark Matthews
Cruising Dangers, Part One, Security on Board by Liza Copeland
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