Page last updated at 15:28 GMT, Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Sailing and the dangers of the deep blue sea

Trouble spots on the typical round-the-world sailing routes

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Five British yachtsmen held for a week in Iran after their boat drifted off course, have been released. Escaping to the open seas is no guarantee of leaving the world's troubles behind.

"The days pass happily with me wherever my ship sails...
To young men contemplating a voyage I would say go."

Sage words from Joshua Slocom, the first retiree to restore an old wooden boat and circumnavigate the globe on his own from 1895 to 1898. He penned a hugely influential account of this journey, Sailing Alone Around the World, fuelling countless fantasies of life on the high seas.

Yacht moored in Bahamas, 1986
What's the appeal ?

"We've been crossing oceans for fun for more than 100 years," says James Turner of Sailing Today magazine. "More people are doing it now because of the high quality of communications. It gives people a sense of security."

For many, long-distance sailing offers escape from everyday cares and the promise of adventure in far-off places.

But in a handful of cases, the adventures are a little too potent. On Wednesday, after a week in custody, Iran freed a five-man British crew who had strayed into their waters while taking a racing yacht from Bahrain to Dubai.

 Sam Usher, Olly Smith, Luke Porter, Oliver Young, four of the British sailors detained in Iran

During negotiations for their release, a court on the other side of the world handed down 25-year sentences to the Burmese killers of an East Sussex businessman murdered in Thailand on a round-the-world yachting trip.

And talks continue to secure the release of Paul and Rachel Chandler, kidnapped by Somali pirates in October. The pair, experienced sailors who have lived on their yacht for several years, were 400 miles off the troubled nation's coast when their attackers struck.

Suddenly, inclement weather and boring rations seem the least of a sailor's worries.

Seasoned travellers have long relied on Foreign Office advice to help them decide which countries are too dangerous to set foot in. But the office also keeps a list of no-go maritime zones. It warns against sailing anywhere near Yemen or Somalia, which stand sentry on either side of the Gulf of Aden - a stretch of water so prone to attacks it's dubbed "pirate alley".

Phillip Cable is co-director of Maritime Asset Security and Training

"We provide advice, security systems and guards for super-yachts in the Gulf of Aden. We do what we can minimise access - but you can't go putting razor wire on the clean lines of yachts - and make sure non-essential staff are below deck. Then our men, who are all ex-Royal Marine Commandos, patrol the decks. These waters are filled with little boats sizing up those passing through. It's like lions looking for the weakest animal in a pack."

But around-the-world sailors are caught between a rock and a hard place. The Gulf of Aden leads to the Suez Canal, the shortcut between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Going the long way around means trading the threat of pirates with the perilous buffeting of the Cape of Good Hope. The choice is that stark.

"You'd have to have part of your brain removed to do that," says Mr Turner of navigating one's way round the southern-most tip of Africa.

Not that the Suez route is plain sailing. As well as pirates, the Red Sea is notorious for its vicious headwinds and perilous shoals.

Once through the Suez, there's the Middle East and all its competing political tensions. The Foreign Office advises sailors to steer clear of the heavily militarised waters off Israel and Gaza.

There be pirates

So why do people risk everything to traverse the open seas, especially when it's quicker, easier and probably cheaper to go by air?

Not even a nasty run-in with pirates has put John Cossey, 77, of Cornwall, off long-distance sailing. The challenge and the sense of freedom are just too great, he says. "You get away from everything and everyone."

Pirate with gun after a rescue mission by French commandos in April 2009
A Somali pirate in custody after seizing a French yacht in April 2009

He and his wife Andrina, 72, were on the homeward leg of a 12-year round-the-world voyage in 2002 when armed robbers boarded their yacht. They were 30 miles off the east coast of Somalia when two boats pulled up alongside and 12 men clambered aboard to loot the vessel, taking valuable equipment and $1,000 in cash.

"Robberies at sea have got worse in the past 10 years but it wouldn't put me off going on another long-distance trip. There are risks whatever way you travel.

"It's an amazing experience. When you come into a port you are not treated as a tourist by locals, you are a sailor and they respect that. You are also part of an amazing community - every other long-distance sailor is your friend. It's the closest community in the world."

Dominant in that community are people who have taken early retirement or redundancy to travel the world, says Mr Turner.

Sunbathing on deck
A carefree existence?

"They still have their health, they've saved money and they have the time, so can spend a couple of years crossing the Atlantic. Some have been sailing for a long time. Others go to the London Boat Show on a whim, buy a yacht, and hire a skipper to take them in short hops down to Gibraltar and then, having learned the ropes, cross the Atlantic."

And this is the time of year when many such adventurers are lifting anchor. Just as backpackers have a round-the-world route that tends to start in Europe before taking in Asia, the Antipodes and the Americas, so the sailing fraternity has its global circuit - only the other way around.

From November to April, a stream of yachts cross from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean before the hurricane season starts up in May.

Those who cruise the tropical isles before returning to the UK via, perhaps, the Azores, face little risk from pirates these days.

But those pressing on are cautioned of recent piracy attacks off the coasts and on rivers of some South American countries. Earlier this year, two robbers shot the captain of a catamaran at anchor in Brazil.

Sir Peter Blake with his children, posing with the America's Cup
America's Cup winner Sir Peter Blake was shot by pirates

And in 2001, the champion sailor Sir Peter Blake died at the hands of Amazon pirates who boarded his yacht. He confronted the armed intruders brandishing a rifle, which malfunctioned. One of the pirates then shot him.

More pirate hot spots are in South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean.

"When I sailed the world in the 1970s, we were warned to keep 50 miles off the coast of Colombia," says Mr Turner. "But two other men decided they wanted to see it as it was beautiful. A boat pulled alongside filled with men with guns. So they brandished their own rifles and the boat disappeared.

"Sometimes a little bit of bravado works. But carrying arms is fraught. If you have a gun you have to have a licence for every country you visit. Customs and immigration is a big enough hassle without that as well."

And for bluewater sailors, the aim is to get away from the hassles of everyday life - including red tape.

Below is a selection of your comments.

When you consider the number of private yachts sailing around the world, the number of boats actually attacked is very small. You listen to local advice about where is safe to go and try and avoid known 'hot spots'. There are a number of risks involved in sailing around the world in a small boat. You either accept those risks, try and minimise them and go or stay at home.
Peter Bernfeld, in the Caribbean, retired on my boat

The chances of being pirated in open water are very slim; the real danger is being boarded whilst at anchor. I was on a boat that was attacked in this way at an anchorage on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico in 1985. It was a very nasty business. When sailing in the Third World, I would highly recommend maintaining an anchor watch day and night. Once the pirates have got on board, you've had it - you have to stop them from boarding in the first place. If you haven't got a shot gun, a flare pistol is the next best thing. It scares the hell out of people.
Nicholas Martin, London

You can tell the true "blue water sailors" just from the answers. For those that do not understand, you go prepared for what the sea and wind might do, you mistrust electronics, you trust in your own judgement and believe in and love your boat. You rely on no one and help all.
Mike, Dorset

I sailed the world and was involved in marine matters for over 50 years. In all that time I never heard much about piracy except for a little of it in the China Sea. Now I see ex-special forces men making fortunes from protecting rich people in a new, growing business for them and the pirates. Meantime, huge amounts of taxpayers' money is being spent in official military deployment of naval and air forces of numerous nations. What is the going rate for capturing and prosecuting one pirate today? In earlier times, we eradicated piracy without the aid of modern weapons or technology. Until there is political will to put a stop to this with force, it will grow and grow, because crime does pay. To save some money, lone sailors and would-be world sailing tourists should be barred from any area where pirates are active. If they disobey they should be left to look after themselves.
Jim Currie, Funchal, Portugal

The vast majority of recreational sailors, when they set off into the wide blue yonder, try very hard to be self sufficient and wouldn't call for help unless it was really necessary, and are generally very responsible people.
MartynG, Harpenden

It is one of my life passions to go sailing, and I intend to accomplish it even though I'm a student without funds at the moment. The feeling that you get from it is amazing, but I don't intend to go around the world - too risky.
Grace, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I am a life long sailor (albeit inland, right now) and in a few years expect to cut the dock lines and sail the oceans. I will pick my routes carefully and take all precautions. I hope to never need the assistance of the RNLI, US, Bahamian Defences, US or British Navy or US Coast Guard. However, if I do need help I expect it from good people and governments that understand that the oceans should not be ruled by thugs and pirates but by law-loving peoples of the world. That is why I support all through either my taxes or private donations. We all must stand up for lawful and peaceful navigation, commerce and adventure on the open seas. If, after my best efforts as a man and a skipper I am snuffed out by a band of thugs - so be it, adventure has it's costs. My hat is off to Coast Guard, Navy and Rescue teams and life boats around the world - you do God's work.
Tim L Bass, Arkansas, USA

I sailed to Cuba and had a lot of hassle from the authorities because I was carrying an old Naval revolver for protection. I offered to dump it overboard but was prevented from doing this by the authorities. Being armed is not an option any longer as the pirates usually have powerful automatic weapons. They know there are valuables aboard yachts and even the food and alcohol is excuse enough to board. I decided that weapons are useless as they know that sooner or later you are going to need sleep and that's when they board. Subsequently I videod myself dropping the revolver overboard once I had cast off from Cuba.
Mike Ascott, Liverpool

I share the point that "... carrying arms is fraught. If you have a gun you have to have a licence for every country you visit. Customs and immigration is a big enough hassle without that as well." It has also to be used only as a last rather than first resort.
Robert JM Barrett, London

You brandish a gun, they have bigger one or more of them. We have been cruising the Caribbean for 10 years now, the only thing we have is an electric wire coupled up to a cattle fence transformer. We have had no complaints so far.
Clive Egginton, Caribbean

Sailed on a charter between Panama and Colombia, quite a popular backpacker route. No issues, no drug boats or pirates seen, despite the warning from our captain that we would have to be ready to fight for the boat...
Graham, London, UK

I suspect over the centuries many sailors have "mysteriously" disappeared and it's only through modern technology that we're all made aware when even one goes missing. Bon voyage - better to live a shorter, fuller life than say "if only" at the end.
Sandy, Ontario, Canada

It's all very well these sailors having all the benefits of "getting away from it all". But as soon as they hit trouble they expect the government or the air sea rescue or whatever to charge to the rescue - paid for by everybody else. By all means have all the benefits of sailing away. But when you hit trouble, accept that you are on your own. If you want a safety net, stay home and pay your taxes.
Chris Green, Newport, Wales

Chris Green, so the next you go abroad for a holiday, you are on your own, right? No, I thought not. Why do you think we pay taxes? All British citizens have the right to consular access and help whether you are getting drunk out of your mind in Spain or sailing the world on a yacht minding your own business. I trust you will opt for the safety net and not abroad again?
Martin Smith, York

It isn't just the pirates and it really has nothing to do with whether they have paid taxes in their home country or not. Every day somewhere on the ocean a commercial vessel is diverted from its route to try and find some "Round The World" adventurer or some "Rowing Across the Pacific" dreamer or some "just bought a boat a set sail" non mariner. Instead of making money for their owners they are required by the law of the sea to respond to any mayday request and they do it quite willingly, but I can tell you from experience they do not consider these folks as kindred spirits. They look on them as naive for believing they can handle whatever Mother Nature cares to throw at them, and as dangerous for often putting their lives and livelihood at risk. Also if the USCG is called out to rescue a distressed non-American how does paying his home country taxes help pay for that and how should he/she/they respond when the rescuers die on their behalf?
Bob, Medford, NJ

Chris, I have to correct you on the payment of rescue services. The RNLI is not paid for out of the public purse. It is from voluntary contributions from the public, quite often watersports clubs.
Mark Dale, Ramsgate

Mark, the RNLI are not the only lifeboat organisation within the UK, in fact there are over 100 independent stations throughout the UK, all volunteers and all willing to go and save those in trouble.
Elspeth Hardie, Newport, South Wales

Many such victims are retired couples who have spent their life paying their taxes. Don't you think they deserve the support of the country they have supported all their life? Good on them, enjoy your adventure and I wish you all luck, and of course safety.
Neil Peggs, London

I think it's worth noting that anyone who has the money to pay for a boat has probably done their share of tax paying to get there in the first place. More importantly we can't let our own citizens be victimised by states which are not on good terms with our politics.
Duncan, London, UK

The British Virgin Islands are a place that come to mind for a sailboat charter, and can confirm no pirates were spotted.
Candace, New Jersey, US

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