SOMALI PIRACY: Cruising Family Held Hostage

The Johansen family aboard ING

As if the murder of four American cruisers last week wasn’t enough to shine a big spotlight on the Indian Ocean’s Somali piracy problem, the big crisis this week is that the Somalis have grabbed a Danish family of five, including three kids (ages 12 to 16), who were en route to the Red Sea aboard their 43-foot boat ING. Jan Quist Johansen, his wife Birgit Marie, their two boys Rune and Hjalte, and their daughter Naja, together with two other adult crew members, were reportedly captured last Thursday. As of today it is believed that ING is anchored near the northern Somali village of Hafun and that the hostages are all ashore.

Funny how Somali piracy seemed only a back-burner issue when it was a simply a case of 30 commercial vessels and 660 merchant mariners being held prisoner. Now that some recreational sailors have been dramatically victimized, pundits are talking darkly of a “9/11 moment” and are insisting that something must be done to solve this horrible problem.

What seems ironic about this is that these people really shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The Sunderland family earned themselves a big dose of public criticism when they sent daughter Abby off to cross the Southern Ocean in the middle of winter, and it seems to me the Johansens have behaved just as irresponsibly. Not only were they sailing on their own, with their children and without the support of a convoy, through the most pirate-infested waters in the world, they were regularly posting their position for all to see on their blog at the SailBlogs website:

ING track across Indian Ocean
ING’s track across the Indian Ocean/Courtesy of SailBlogs

Amazingly, they’re not only cruisers in the Indian Ocean stupid enough to be doing this:

Yachts tracks in Indian ocean
Yacht positions in Indian Ocean/Courtesy of SailBlogs

Meanwhile, Dutch cruisers Rene and Edith Tiemessen (who are sailing with a 2-year-old child aboard) have been complaining publicly about how military vessels patrolling the area have refused to provide an escort for the TTT (Thailand to Turkey) Convoy they’ve organized. Rene Tiemessen has asserted he has no reasonable alternative to crossing the Indian Ocean with his family under sail, and that voyaging around South Africa would be just as dangerous.

As a cruiser myself I find all this a bit embarrassing. Being able to roam the world’s oceans in a private yacht is not some God-given right, but an immense privilege. Those who behave otherwise are doing our sport and lifestyle a grave disservice.

There are in fact very reasonable alternatives to transiting the Red Sea under sail to reach Europe and the Med. Yes, squeezing around the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic can be challenging, but it is perfectly feasible and is now clearly safer than getting anywhere near the Horn of Africa. During the eight years the Suez Canal was closed (1967-75) bluewater sailors always used the Good Hope route to get around Africa. These days many still use it, including all those participating in the World ARC rally run by the World Cruising Club. Conditions can be rough, but there are many places along the South African coast to wait on weather and the country itself is very beautiful and well worth exploring.

Another alternative is to put your boat on a yacht-transport ship. If you’re looking to get thru Pirate Alley direct to the Med this season, Dockwise Yacht Transport has a ship sailing from Phuket, Thailand, for Genoa, Italy, in May.

Or you can sell your yacht, fly to the Med, and buy or charter another one when you get there.

Not that I’m telling you not to sail past the Horn of Africa. As Aleister Crowley once put it: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. If you do decide to sail past Somalia, however, you’d be very wise to do so in a well-organized convoy and you should not expect the navies of the Western world to babysit you en route.

Aleister Crowley
Crowley meditates on the imponderable question: Red Sea or Cape of Good Hope???

It’s also a good idea not to publicize your whereabouts online. Somalia may be a “failed state,” but I am quite sure they, too, have Internet access.


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4 Responses
  1. I am currenlty in this situation, in the Maldives. I strongly disagree with your statements about options on routes, and choices in this part of the world. There are some yachts that have elected to take the long way around, but most will miss Europe entirely because of this. It is a 10,000 mile passage. At Least 100 days sailing. Advertising yacht positions is irresponsible. I thought your site was to promote yachting/sailing. Seems like you are an armchair admiral to me.

  2. Charlie

    In response to Matt below: Thanks very much for your comment. But I don’t understand what you disagree with. Do you seriously believe the Red Sea route is safer than Good Hope? I certainly agree with you the Red Sea is more convenient if you want to reach Europe, all other things being equal. But things obviously aren’t so equal right now.

    As for advertising yacht positions: the skippers on the subject boats are the ones doing the advertising. I’m advising against it. I appreciate that you have a tough decision to make now. If you elect the Red Sea route, go in a convoy and don’t publish your position online. That’s all I’m saying here.

  3. Ed Hart

    I sailed around the Cape of good Hope and it is very doable
    you may have a few rough days, so? Plus side, Cape Town is a great port.

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