Yachts shun pirate waters after string of hijacks

By Katharine Houreld

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Scott Sternberg, friend and former student of Scott Adam, and his wife Lynn listen at a memorial service for Scott and Jean Adam, shot to death Feb. 22 by Somali pirates while sailing south of Oman, at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., Wednesday, March 2, 2011. Fuller Theological Seminary is where Scott Adam was a student, then an adjunct professor,after leaving a 30-year career as a Hollywood associate producer.

Reed Saxon, Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya — The first time John Rodriguez tried to sail around the world a hurricane sunk his boat. His second attempt failed because of a scourge bedeviling mariners in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden: pirates.

Rodriguez is among thousands of sailors who once steered their yachts across the warm Indian Ocean without a second thought, but are now rerouting, hiring replacement crews, packing their boats aboard cargo ships and contracting armed guards, or canceling their dream voyages altogether.

With Somali pirates seizing vessels and killing hostages in an area as vast as the continental United States, boatyards, restaurants and other establishments among the yachters' routes have seen business fall, with some of their customer base scared off.

Rodriguez, a 44-year-old Briton, sailed from his homeland to Florida with his wife and two children. But the family didn't push on through the Panama Canal. They knew their around-the-world route would eventually take them past waters infested by Somali pirates, who in 2009 kidnapped a British yachting couple, the Chandlers, near the Seychelles and held them for 388 days under often brutal conditions.

"We bought our charts the day before the Chandlers got taken," Rodriguez said. "Three months of angst followed while we tried to decide what to do ... it's an enormous effort to do a trip like that and you don't get the opportunity very often."

Somali pirates killed four American yachters last month and kidnapped a Danish family aboard their 43-foot sailboat last week. A South African couple taken off their sailboat in October are still being held.

The European Union Naval Force has done its best to warn yachters of the danger, said spokesman Wing Cmdr. Paddy O'Kennedy. But from their blog posts, it appeared the Danes felt safe enough because of the presence of warships on antipiracy patrol in the area.

"The latest attacks have certainly changed the game completely," said Paul Gelder, the editor of Yachting Monthly.

In posts on the magazine's web site forum Scuttlebutt, worried sailors discuss canceled or rerouted plans and trade frightening stories of witnessing attacks.

Yachts trying to sail from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal face tough choices. They can't sail in the other direction because the winds aren't right. Bigger yachts can go around the southern tip of Africa, but the Cape of Good Hope is notorious for storms and shipwrecks.

For those who live aboard their boats and want to get home, few choices remain: shell out big money to ship home their yacht or hire guards — or run the Somali gauntlet.

Over the past six months, Peters & May Ltd., a company that specializes in shipping boats and yachts, has seen a roughly 300 percent increase in inquiries from captains interested in shipping their vessels rather than risking going through pirate-infested waters, said managing director Angus Bruce Jones.

Another option is to use a company like Naval Guards, a private security outfit based in Britain whose guards escort vessels on speedboats. They sent their first of three boats to the region in September, and are now working at full capacity, said chief of operations Thomas Jakobsson.

On Wednesday, six Naval Guards employees fought off six pirates who had attacked and boarded the Capricorn, a yacht crewed by a Dutch couple, Jakobsson said.

But some yacht owners can't or won't pay for expensive shipping or guards. Instead, they might hire a crew to take the risk for them, said Mat Sandys-Winsch of Direct Yacht Deliveries. His company used to sail three or four yachts a year through the Indian Ocean to deliver to owners who would meet them in the Mediterranean. But since Christmas, the company has suspended sailing between India and the Suez Canal because of pirates.

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