After nine years of drift-ing peacefully between friendly South Pacific isles, enjoying warm receptions along safe shorelines, and — besides the occasional outburst from Mother Nature — quiet, uneventful passages, we’ve crossed the equator and returned to the Northern Hemisphere to face one of our toughest cruising decisions in 40,000 nautical miles of world voyaging.
Since my wife, Catherine, and I left New York in 2007, it has been for the most part carefree sailing. Sure, we’ve made a few difficult decisions along the way, which is to be expected, like how to deploy two anchors to weather a tropical storm, deciding how best to sail “uphill” for more than 2,000 miles from New Zealand back to Tahiti, or weighing the pros and cons of riding near gale-force winds at Norfolk Island. But none of these compare to the significance and uncertainty of our most recent dilemma.
Last year, after 18 months exploring Australia, we entered Southeast Asia and sailed Dream Time, our 38-foot Cabo Rico, north up the busy western coast of Malaysia along the Strait of Malacca, a congested and notorious waterway boasting the world’s highest concentration of piracy attacks. Tens of thousands of tugs, tankers, and containerships hauling 30 percent of global trade — 5 trillion dollars’ worth of goods — squeeze through the region each year. But thankfully, for cruisers at least, pirates only swing their grappling hooks toward commercial vessels, leaving tiny recreational crafts to pass unmolested.
But for cruisers continuing west keen to enter the Mediterranean, options become a little complicated. Unfortunately, the traditional and more direct route through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea has become a tumultuous passage where local rebels, war, unfriendly shorelines, and Somali pirates — who have no qualms targeting sailboats — make it far from a relaxing cruising experience and more of a get-through-as-quickly-as-possible yacht delivery. In recent years, the majority of world cruisers have avoided this region altogether, while the South African route will have mariners navigate a staggering 10,000-nautical-mile detour to enter the Mediterranean Sea via the North Atlantic, a voyage many won’t even consider. So, the few mariners who decide to head north up the Red Sea into the Mediterranean find themselves faced with what is perhaps one of their biggest world cruising decisions: whether to ship or sail.
The Horn of Africa
Traditional sailing routes from Asia to the Mediterranean carry mariners across the Indian Ocean, around the Horn of Africa and into the Gulf of Aden before passing through the Bab el-Mandeb, or Gate of Tears — the narrow southern entrance to the Red Sea — and north to the Suez Canal.
It is a passage I completed in 1994 when sailing from Sydney to Italy, and while piracy around the Horn of Africa was a concern, the threat of attack against a sailboat was such a remote possibility it fell within an acceptable risk range — one similar to striking a semi-submerged cargo container, for example, or colliding with a snoozing humpback whale at night — and so we sailed past Somalia and through the Gulf of Aden without incident.
But over the last 15 years, Somalia has experienced civil war, famine, illegal fishing and the illegal dumping of industrial waste along its coastline, disrupting local industries and driving some fishermen to seek compensation elsewhere. And what began as attacks by Somali fishermen against illegal trawling in an attempt to protect their waters and livelihoods escalated to organized criminal activity and the rapid increase of piracy in the region, where in 2010 heavily armed flotillas of Somali pirates hijacked 49 vessels, making an estimated $238 million in ransom payments.
Since 2010, however, security has improved around the Horn of Africa with the Combined Maritime Forces, or CMF, a naval coalition of 33 countries patrolling these troubled waters. Along with efforts to address the root cause of piracy, attacks around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden have been in steady decline.
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