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Navigating Dangerous Waters

We were sailing through waters notorious for pirates and, up until this moment, all the fishing vessels we had come across had shown no interest in us at all.  Then, for some reason, this 60-ft trawler, with half a dozen men on board, including three on the bow, came towards us and almost alongside our boat.

Their intentions were probably completely innocent. It’s not unknown for fishermen who have been out at sea for days, sometimes weeks, to ask passing boats for some food, a packet of biscuits, crisps or even a beer. Needless to say, we didn’t hang around. Skipper turned on both engines, gave the guys a cheery wave, then put the throttles down and we charged forward.

The fishing vessel paused, turned and then came up on us from the side – on a collision course. Whether their intention was to ram us was not something we planned to wait around to find out, so we steamed ahead, passing in front of their bow.  By now, we were both really scared.

They paused and turned, then noticed behind us were four of the other boats we were sailing with. Their attention diverted, the fishing vessel began heading straight through our boats. We slowed down, to allow our mini-fleet to converge, prepared our rocket flares and stood ready to call the Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16.

My intentions here are to not over dramatize the situation, merely to tell it as it happened. Aside from a few strange maneuvers, at no stage did the vessel make any direct threat and, having headed through our fleet, they backed off and left us alone.

But, it was unnerving and we heaved a huge sigh of relief once we were all clear of them. We were also very thankful to have not been sailing alone. The decision to sail through these waters with a handful of other boats was a wise one.

Now in safe waters, the group sails into the sunset

Sailing as part of a group of boats on this passage was prudent


Pirates Of The Caribbean

We were sailing from Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, down to Providencia, a Colombian island 140 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. For most of the trip, we knew we needed to keep a watchful eye out for opportunists.

However, there is one area in question, known as the Gorda Banks, which is particularly dubious. Notorious for drug runs and pirate attacks, it’s not a place to hang around. And when I say, pirates, I’m not talking about Johnny Depp in a tall ship; these guys are more often fisherman, not making their catch quota and looking for opportunities to board boats; stealing phones, computers, cash and anything else they can sell, eat or drink.

While sailing this side of the pond we’ve always kept a close eye on an informative website, CSSN (Caribbean Safety and Security Net), which details attacks, incidents and thefts from all over the Caribbean. It has certainly not held back with the type of attacks around the Gorda Banks, which have often been violent and involving armed gangs. But the attacks to-date mainly seem to have been on lone boats. So, safety in numbers, in this area is certainly prudent.

The Coast Guard flies above Two Drifters

The Coast Guard flies above Two Drifters


The Coast Guard helicopter is a welcome sight

The Coast Guard helicopter is a welcome sight


Before leaving the Bay Islands, Skipper filed a float plan with the Colombian Coast Guard. This meant that they could keep track of all six boats via our AIS (Automatic Identification System). We were immensely relieved to see a coastguard helicopter fly over us, shortly after the above incident; it also went and circled the fishing vessels in the area, including the vessel which had got too close to us.

Was it a co-incidence that the helicopter flew over us then or had they also been able to hear our concerned conversation on the VHF radio? We will never know, but it made us feel a lot more secure that night that having been clocked by the Coast Guard, the fishing vessel wasn’t going to follow and make a move on us.

Up Close And Personal

We were a carefully co-ordinated group of six boats making the transit. At a meeting prior to leaving, we decided to use nicknames for each boat to hopefully confuse VHF radio chatter should anyone be listening in on our conversations.

Before departure we also agreed to sail within a half nautical mile radius of each other; closing ranks tighter with any potential threats. However, what we did not discuss was how close was ‘too close’ to each other which, in retrospect, was probably as dangerous as any piracy issue.

At times on our passage, wind shifts, squalls reducing visibility, or simple night blindness caused by the lights of other boats so close by, combined with the stress of the journey and a tendency for the group to bunch too close together, lead to some very near misses.

Heading into a squall

Heading into a squall


Should we travel in a group again, we will ensure there’s not only an agreed distance to keep within, but also a safe, sensible and respectable distance apart that boats should be from each other, especially at night.

We are now safely in Providencia. Skipper’s successful attempt at making ginger beer en-route has nicely coincided with the end of my month of no-alcohol. So it’s Dark and Stormy cocktails on board for tonight’s sunset!

The safe adventures of Two Drifters continues…

******

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