Indian Ocean Voyage Part I – Joining the Boat

Thursday 25 April = Kicking Our Heels in Port
Hot. Hot. Hot. Its 9:45pm, there’s hardly a breath of air, there’s hardly air to breath it’s so humid. The generators are running on both the naval ships moored across the harbour as they have been since I arrived on Tuesday evening. My friends Pat and Tony (Puttock) on their boat Full Flight arrived a week or so ago together with the 14 other boats taking part in the Vasco De Gama Rally. The fleet left Turkey in September last year and having come down through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. They had just traversed the coast of Yemen, motoring through “Pirate Alley”, some 500 (nm) in a frustrating but safe convoy. Now I’ve come to join as crew for the voyage from Salalah, Oman to Mumbai, India, some 1000 nautical miles (nm) across the northern Indian Ocean, more precisely the Arabian Sea.

Stepping off the plane at the airport late on Tuesday night I was met by a wall of heat much hotter and more humid than Bahrain with its gentle sea breezes. Down in the port the fleet is sheltered by a rocky rise topped with the coastguard station and some palm trees, coconuts here rather than the date palms of the Gulf. During the night and until the sea breeze kicks our corner of Port Raysut is uncomfortably warm. In the forecabin with the hatch open, mosquito net in place, fans going in the saloon, I lie a sticky melting mess on a sheet. Perhaps I can view it as acclimatisation for the Bahraini summer. The heat and humidity has made my hair go curly!

The Port Cafe
An excellent curry supper in the Port Cafe tonight cost 6.950 Riayals for the 5 of us, this could become a bit of a habit. Earlier this afternoon Pat, Tony & I drove into the mountains. Here in Oman its arid but unlike Bahrain there are trees and plants growing wild. Dhofar becomes a tropical paradise when the monsoon arrives in April or May. A herd of camels were being moved along or across the road by a couple of young men. The adult females had their udders covered to prevent their offspring drinking the milk. In the morning Pat and I had washed the boat tent that provides shade in the cockpit during the day by treading it in the shower tray of the ablution block. The canvas was covered in red dust from the deserts of Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen and most recently Oman. When we’d finished the ablution block was cleaner than when we arrived and much of the dust was gone from the canvas.

On Wednesday we lunched at the Oasis Club just up the hill from the port gates and in the evening had a trip into town to find the fruit and veg market which is by the bus station. The latter seems to be an empty plot of land where buses stop rather than a formal building. 23rd July Street, the main shopping area in Salalah. I love the late evening shopping – all the lights from the shops, all the activity, brightly coloured clothing and children’s’ toys hang around every inch of the shop fronts making walking on the narrow pavement slightly hazardous if you are over five foot six. As well as stocking up on fruit and veg I bought some beads in a haberdashery store – silk Chinese knots and some 10mm round glass ones covered in tiny coloured glass spheres rather like cake decorations.

On a more serious note we heard there were several pirate raids on Tuesday night, more than usual activity and some “successful” attacks. A Turkish freighter with 21 crew was taken by the Somali’s not far from our planned route, some 30 miles off the Omani coast north of Salalah. Everyone is worried. The convoy here was a bad experience – nets around props, engine problems and the shear concentration needed to keep yachts varying in size from 38 to 50 odd feet on station in their groups in the convoy hour after hour plus the stress of knowing that you cannot defend yourself against the pirates as Chandlers on Lynn Rival found last year.  The rally fleet is a mixture of boats from pure sailing yachts to heavier motor sailors. The crews are mostly couples, Stormdodger has two children on board and the two singlehanded boats have acquired crew in an earlier port. There’s a good community spirit with people very willing share their skills and help others out. Some of the crews headed off backpacking when they arrived in Oman so I’ve not met them yet.

With this spate of pirate attacks the fleet feel trapped. Most people need visas for India, passports and application forms were sent off to the Indian Embassy in Muscat soon after their arrival and until they are back we can’t go anywhere anyway. We wait for the coastguard to meet with the rally organiser Lo on Saturday and meanwhile discuss our options every time we meet up with the other crews. Tony thinks day sailing eastwards along the Omani coast until we are two or three hundred miles further north. Then head off to Mumbai would work as it would keep us close under the coast and be less fraught than motoring amongst the fishing nets and pot buoys at night and give us a good angle to the forecast wind for the actual crossing. So difficult decisions have to be made over the next few days…. each skipper has to decide whether to look after themselves and head of directly to Mumbai or to go with the group for safety – loyalty and peace of mind versus frustration of moving at the pace of the slowest.

Thursday 1 April – The Routine of Life Afloat
A whole week has gone by its still hot and humid and the days are blending into one another. We get up around 7am, read our books over a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit. Do a few tasks before it gets too hot – today we sorted out the grib files downloaded yesterday to ensure the content is what we will need (these provide the weather forecast and will be downloaded via sat phone at sea), arranged the printing of the boat insurance certificate (needed by the port authorities when we check out) and sorted out clothes to be washed. Then it was time for breakfast – cereal & fruit or fried egg sandwiches or toast and peanut butter.

Yesterday there was some excitement during the morning when our stern line which was tied to a rock ashore wore through and Full Flight deftly slipped between her neighbours to swing to her anchor in the middle of the basin. A few minutes later and we’d motored her back on station and two lines port and starboard now hold the boat in her place between “Divanty”, a 52 foot Nauticat and “Easy And Free” a 40 foot Beneteau First.

Out And About
In the afternoon the crews of Full Flight and Divanty squashed into our hire car for a drive along the coast eastwards. Arid mountains on the left, sand dunes and blue seas on the right once we’d left the lengthy sprawl of housing and banana plantations that is Salalah. We reached Mirbat a small fishing town some 70 kms away. Many of the buildings in the centre were crumbling and the roads unsurfaced – it appeared an abandoned place. However there is a newish quay with many fishing dhows alongside and the beach is covered in the long narrow skiff-style craft favoured by fishermen and pirates alike in this part of the world with a fortunes worth of large outboards (pirates apparently have two outboards per boat whereas fishermen only have one!). After watching some young lads unloading the catch by picking the large catfish-like fish out of the net they were hauling up onto the quayside from a GPR skiff we found some teas in the cafe at the root of the quay and then drove back to the boats.

The Royal Navy In Town
Today we were invited onboard HMS Chatham for a briefing on the pirate situation – 14:30 sharp. Maps showed that most of the attacks and hence the focus of the multi-national naval patrols are in the Somali Basin many miles south of us. It’s a huge area to patrol stretching from 60 degrees east westwards to the Africa coast, from Yemen down to Tanzania. Like looking for needles in haystacks for the 70 strong naval fleet supplied by every nation who has an interest in protecting shipping using the routes to and from the Suez Canal – oil, electronic goods, food , clothing – most of what we consume in the west passes through these waters. The pirates can’t go back to Somalia unless they have something to show for their time at sea so often they are desperate, sometimes running short of food and water or fuel.

It’s good to know that HMS Chatham has been keeping a guarding eye on the rally fleet since it exited Suez – they monitor all the VHF channels. After seeing pictures of the pirate’s version of the fishing skiff and hearing advice on what to do if we suspect an approaching boat we retired to the officers’ mess for a few drinks. And then accompanied by our new navy friends we ate in the port cafe.

Finally We Can Go , Maybe
We now believe we may be leaving on Monday assuming the passports and visas arrive back on Sunday and we get port clearance. Mohammed the agent is not so interested in expediting things for us since we found the cost of hire cars and diesel to be cheaper when arranged directly in town and anyway there are other, richer ships in town like a Saga Cruise liner needing his services.

Over the next few days there is water to fetch from the tap ashore, diesel to purchase, dinghies which have been in the water for almost a month to clean off (barnacles and weed grow fast in water well lit waters) and boat bottoms to scrub to ensure a fast passage. Some boats have last minute repairs to make too. Whilst Easy and Free has to remove a crow’s nest of twigs and barbed wire complete with two pale blue eggs from atop their mast. Finally we return our hire car with some logistics issues as our passports are with the port authorities for checking out and our port passes have expired meaning we can’t leave the port but the hire car man doesn’t have the right paperwork to come in… Tony & Ant meet him at the gate and Ant gets permission to drive the car out through the gates and walks back in. One last supper for most of the boat crews at the port cafe, hopefully our clearances and sailing permit will be ready tomorrow. We’d like to leave at 7am but in the event its early afternoon before the boats leave their moorings one by one and after calling port control for permission to leave head up the Omani coast to the islands over 24 hours away.