ISAF advises to avoid Gulf of Aden but the evidence is that highest risk areas are elsewhere



Since it has no proper links with the cruising community – and vice versa – ISAF has raised eyebrows by deciding to issue strong advice to yachtsmen not to enter the Gulf of Aden because of the risks of piracy.

The warning is oddly timed because many hundreds of yachts are currently doing this safely in growing confidence that the zone is becoming safer than it has been for years. Meanwhile, the evidence is that areas of gravest threat are shifting towards Kenya and into the Indian Ocean as far south as the Seychelles and Madagascar.

These are areas that are not patrolled, as is the Gulf of Aden, by the coalition forces of the US Navy’s Combined Task Force 151 and the EU’s Op ATALANTA.

When I was researching a special feature on piracy in our June issue (out on May 14th, by the way) Peter Seymour, a founder of Blue Water Rallies and its specialist adviser on security and piracy, told me: “My impression is that the incidence of piracy against yachts [in the Gulf of Aden] has fallen dramatically in the last six months.”

Peter has safely taken seven round the world rallies through the Gulf of Aden in the last 14 years, including a group of 29 cruisers earlier this year, routeing for maximum protection through the centre buffer zone between the east-west and west-east Internationally Recommended Transit Corridors (IRTC). See the co-ordinates of the corridors here. 

That view is supported by other sailors who have cruised through this area. The Vasco da Gama rally also transited the Gulf of Aden without incident this year. Organiser Lo Brust has been through five times and his tactic is to sail within 10 miles of the coast of Oman and Yemen. You can read his advice here .

It is not just yacht rallies that have been safely transiting. There is a steady flow of independent cruisers. The trend is towards starting from Salalah in Oman and forming groups for safe passage; cruisers hook up at the western-style Oasis Club.

The port captain of Salalah confirms today that in the last three months 144 yachts have left for Aden and the Red Sea. As far as I can determine, there have been no incidents.

Another indicator of the relative risks is that it is possible to get yacht insurance through Lloyds underwriters to go through the Gulf of Aden.

ISAF’s sailing instruction style advice bothers me and I hope it’s not the first of more directives for cruisers. For while cruising sailors can make their own minds up, there is always a risk that its self-appointed authority could make life difficult in bureaucratic ways.

As I say, the risky areas appear to be shifting into the Indian Ocean, which they mention only in passing. There were four yacht hijackings last month around the Seychelles. It’s important to emphasise that these are not random opportunistic thefts by rogue fishermen but well-organised businesses hijacking for ransom.

Statistically, there are much greater danger areas nearer to home. Melodye and John Pompa run the Caribbean Safety and Security Net. They tell me that there were 90 reported attacks in the Eastern Caribbean and Venezuela on yachts in 2008, including six injuries and four deaths. Up to March this year there were 15 reported attacks and one death (that does not include the widely reported murder of superyacht skipper Drew Gollan ashore in Antigua).

Parts of Venezuela are now seriously dangerous and have a dire track record of armed attacks and assaults. But statistics show that attacks are a low-level threat through the Caribbean: there were 110 recorded on yachts in the Southern Windward islands between 2005 and 2008.

When evaluating the actual risks of cruising or passagemaking, I think the key thing is to ensure the information you have is the most up to date possible. I wouldn’t look to ISAF for that. Keep in touch with other cruisers as you go, check into the various nets (such as the Caribbean Safety net ) and email groups and keep abreast of the excellent cruising website Noonsite .

And if you are interested in finding out more about piracy, the reported statistics and threats in various parts of the world, and advice on security from a panel of cruising experts?.did I recommend buying our June issue?