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 Maldives & Djibuti




(The originally-planned course and the last-minute detour towards Salalah, Oman)



"You will soon tire of the Maldives, there is nothing to do there", the BWR guys told us.

"A week doing nothing in a coral atoll?? My dream!" was the reaction of many of us, so most of the Rally fleet headed for the island of Uligan, the only official entry port in the northernmost atoll of the Maldives.

The place turned out to be quite as expected: an atoll with a small village, coral, lots of fish, sunshine, kind people, wonderful!


The anchorage near the island of Uligan

But the real surprise, especially after the disappointment of Sri Lanka, has been the people, beginning with the 5 young officers that came aboard to politely and efficiently dispose of the entry formalities, and continuing with the people ashore.

They are strictly Muslim, so women stay aside and dress very conservatively (but they return big smiles if greeted), but everybody is very gentle and helpful.

An enterprising local young man has managed to get the authorisation from the shipping-agent in Male to act as their sub-agent, and kept apologising for having to charge us 20 dollars to handle our permit to stay, explaining that he has to pay a royalty to the main agent in Male (who, incidentally, charges 200 dollars for the same service!).

A group of local youngsters has organised for us a trip around the nearby islands, on board of 2 fishing boats reconverted for the day, and so we had an opportunity to visit a couple of larger villages: very simple, but orderly and clean, and we were always smiled-at wherever we went.









Fishermen at work in the little island of Mulhadhoo

This stopover has turned out being a pleasant surprise, and a most welcome opportunity to relax before heading towards the Gulf of Aden and its pirates; the atmosphere will soon become tense again!

IMPORTANT NOTE: although the situation at the time of our passage was already becoming dangerous also for yachts, now it is SERIOUSLY DETERIORATED and the route we followed IS NO LONGER SAFE!   For further info, read THIS PAGE.



We are about to leave, bound for the Gulf of Aden and its pirates!

For security reasons, we will not provide accurate position data until safely in Djibouti.



All good so far, we are enjoying one of the best sailings of the whole voyage, with a nice breeze on the beam and no waves, which allow us to reach a good speed, also with the help of a favourable current.

Only problem, the fishing boats that lay huge (up to 5 miles long!) floating nets, little or not lighted at all: already two Rally yachts have been trapped in them, and getting free has taken quite some time, with no help whatsoever from the fishermen (perhaps they are irregulars?).

Pirates, here we come!



We are all a bit puzzled: we are hundreds of miles from the nearest shore and the wind is very variable, both in direction and speed, strengthening at dawn like if it was a breeze: somebody guesses that maybe it's due to the extreme weather conditions of the Himalayas, but these are thousands of miles away. Who knows??

In the meantime, we enjoy it: the wind is more or less always between a close and a broad reach, 10 to 15 knots, and this is where Shaula really performs, keeping the pace of boats that used to let us behind.



When we sail, we are always cautious not to disturb the fishermen at work: after all, they are at sea to earn a living, while we are just having fun.

Sometimes though, they behave as if there is nobody else around.

We had a scare one night near Borneo, when we came very close to a fishing boat which was showing a green and a red light ON THE SAME SIDE: they were heading in the opposite direction of where we thought they were going, and nearly collided!

And now, from Sri Lanka to the Arabic sea, a new sport: fishing boats drifting in the wind, dragging floating nets which are SEVERAL MILES long and strictly not marked!
We did hit a couple of them when leaving Sri Lanka, before we understood the trick (the boat is on the leeward side of the net, so we can pass safely on their leeward side), and at least 3 other Rally yachts got trapped in a net in the middle of the night, believing they were far enough from the fishing boat which did no effort whatsoever either to warn them of the net or to help them getting free...
This is an area where a lot of ships go through, I wonder what happens if one of them happens to meet one of those 5-mile-long nets!

Then you read the Navtex, and find 3 messages concerning fishing boats which went missing in the last few days...

They are obviously poor folks, but an offshore fishing boat is expensive, as it is a net, much more than the cost of a spotlight or a solar-powered LED light. I really do not understand.



In the previous Rallies, the yachts sailed from the Maldives towards a secret meeting point off Socotra (an island which is the arab-equivalent of what Tortuga was in the Caribbean: a place where the pirate is a well-respected job, passed from father to son....); due to the light winds, it happened that the yachts ran out of fuel even before beginning the passage along the Gulf of Aden towards Djibouti. One year they even had to get a fuel drum from a passing ship!!

This time, with a last-minute decision, it has been decided to add a stopover in Salalah, Oman, which is deemed to be a "safe" Country: we did not even have the nautical charts for this area, anyway the arrival to the huge commercial harbour of Mina Raysut, few miles from Salalah, has been straightforward.

The yachts moored in a small inlet within the huge commercial port

Commercial harbour, therefore not equipped to accomodate yachts, but modern and well organised; we all rented a car and started out on refueling and reprovisioning trips (we had to get fuel in jerrycans from a road fuel station, but at least the price is one forth than back home!).

A strictly-muslim country, no surprise that the few women around wear pitch-black burqas (but the shops sell a lot of elegant, colorful dresses, evidently worn only at home), while men are dressed in many different ways, the most common being a white, spotless jalabja.
Everybody is friendly and cheerful, and willing to help; they must not see many tourists though, sometimes we feel like we are the event of the day.

A tiny mosque near prophet Job's tomb

Dramatic change of landscape compared to the countries visited so far, with large expanses of sand surrounded by low, rocky hills excavated by monsoon rains into a very dramatic scenery. We have gone up the hills to Job's tomb (yes, the biblical prophet, who is revered also by muslims) along a well-kept road in the middle of nowhere. Pity we did not reach the real desert, because it begins only more than 200 km more to the north.









....and many, many dromedaries, which munch the scarce bushes along the roads; for once, the road-signs warning about "wildlife crossing" are not for nothing: in the evening, herds of dromedaries cross all roads, even the highway connecting Salalah with the port area, and all cars stop and wait patiently.

It's been an interesting and altogether pleasant stop, despite the scarcity of things to do and see.


The Gulf of Aden, a 650-mile stretch of sea between the coasts of Somalia and Yemen, has been since many years the location of occasional attacks to passing yachts; in the last years though, the pirates' attention has turned towards the more lucrative ships, and danger to yachts appeared to be limited to chance encounters.   Nevertheless, the Rally organization, in strict coordination with the military forces patrolling the area, organised our transit to take place in groups of 6 yachts, sailing in very close formation and constantly monitored by radio.   As instructed by the military, we were going to sail along the separation corridor in the middle of the two lanes which ships are requested to follow (something that normally would be strictly forbidden!), a narrow strip one mile wide. To avoid faster yachts overtaking the slower ones, the slower boats were going to leave last: one group every 6 hours, so our group no.5 was the last to leave, 24 hours after the first.  Tense nerves on board, also in view of having to sail for more than 4 days at only 2-300 meters from the other yachts, keeping constant distance and speed while at the same time checking around for intruders, while big ships were speeding-by only few hundred meters away.



Yesterday, we had a busy day; it was the birthday of one of our group's skippers, so we started the day joking, but a radio call came from the M/V SALDANA, which was being followed by several speed-boats. As soon as one of the patrolling warships answered the call, Saldana's captain reported that the speed boats had slowed down, grouping near their mother-vessel.

This practice of fishing vessels towing 2 or 3 speedboats is quite normal in this area, so it's very difficult to distinguish a legitimate fisherman from a pirate, until an attack takes place.

Our group started getting nervous and decided to tighten our formation; it takes some attention when motorsailing at only 2-300 meters of distance to keep formation and avoid hitting one another!

A new call from Saldana reports that the speedboats are approaching again: no weapons in sight, but there is no logical explanation to their behaviour and the captain is very worried.
The ship is less than 60 miles behind us, coming our same way, so we keep watch very nervously and just then, when the ship reports that the speedboats have stopped once again as soon as the navy helicopter has arrived, a call comes from Magnolia, a nearby sailboat that we were slowly overtaking, saying that a fast motorboat is approaching them!

We close formation even more, and watch with some concern as Magnolia changes course and steers towards us, obviously seeking protection in the company: damn, is he leading the pirates towards us??!!

The speedboat is still far away, chasing Magnolia that's trying to reach us, when a frigate appears over the horizon (just by accident, but their arrival could not have been more timely!) and a big, nasty looking Black Hawk helicopter arrives at full speed: innocent or not, the motorboat steers away and is soon gone.

After half an hour, the chopper is back to check that all is ok, the crew takes some photos and they fly away.

Next morning at dawn, another call from M/V Saldana, saying that pirates are boarding the ship and shooting!! Now they are 60 miles ahead of us, it looks like they have been followed all the night by the pirates that then attacked at first light!!

Sadly, we do not hear anything else on radio, the warships do not seem to answer, but yesterday's helicopter arrives at full speed to check on us.

How did it fare with poor Saldana??



Yesterday, it was a very tense day: a couple of hours after the emergency call, the Captain of "Saldana" answered a call from the Coalition Forces, confirming that the ship had been hijacked by the pirates, who demanded the warships to stay away. Presumably they were already sailing towards someplace in Somalia.

It had been a surprise attack, taking advantage of the first lights of dawn, and the ship's crew did not notice the attackers until it was too late as they were boarding the ship: the warships patrolling the area would have not been able to do anything, even if they were nearby!

The merchant ships in the corridor have visibly decreased in number (maybe they are being forced to group into convoys?) and are running at full speed, some of them with their fire hoses spraying high-pressure water near their topsides to make an attack less easy.

Sailing in close formation in the Gulf of Aden

We have no other choice than proceed although we feel rather lonely, and the fact that no Coalition ship has answered our calls for several hours does not help at all!

This morning at dawn, same routine: a tanker which is few miles from us calls for help saying that several speedboats are heading towards them at full speed.
This time a warship is nearby and promises to send an helicopter within few minutes, and in the meantime tells the tanker to reverse course: with some concern, we see the shadow of a nearby ship turn around, they are really very near!!
....And what if the pirates, having failed the attack to the ship, choose to attack us? We follow the events, then the tanker's captain calls again: "I see them, there are six of them, now they have slowed down but are still coming towards us and are in position..." and then he gives the coordinates of...OUR POSITON!!!

The idiot has seen us, who were certainly not going at 12 knots and definetely not towards them, took us for pirate skiffs, got scared and called for help!....

The helicopter arrives, saying to the worried captain that he believed us to be a group of sailboats (they know our position) and the incident is soon closed; we can breathe and make a few jokes about it.

We have decided that if the pirates get anywhere near, WE WILL ATTACK THEM!!! ARRRRH!!!...



Yesterday morning, Djibouti was already in sight and we were motoring in flat calm.

A tongue-in-cheek e-mail from Rally Control raises some smiles: "if you carry a supertanker with you, you will have to take care of the customs clearance yourselves!!", but we are still in Somali waters and not at all safe yet; also in the previous Rally there was a suspicious episode in these same waters.

Far on our bows, two dhows cross slowly our course heading south; we keep an eye on them, and we see them stopping, then one of the two starts coming slowly towards us.
It looks pretty much like they are trying to come at us from two directions; we can see that both boats are full of people and even if they seem to mind their own business, they are also getting closer.

We close formation but cannot increase speed as one of our boats has chosen the wrong moment to have an engine-cooling problem, and when the two dhows begin heading towards us we call for help: the call is received by a French warship, which heads our way promising to reach us in 20 minutes: a bit too late, but probably they cheated for some reason, because the ship's shape almost immediately appears over the horizon. The two dhows immediately head away and speed towards the Somali coast.

The ship arrives at full speed and we can see that in reality it's...a BARGE!!! We can see no weapons aboard, we wonder what they could have done if we were actually under attack, but then again, it worked!!.

Last miles spent relaxing, we enter Gibuti harbour cheered by the other boats already at anchor: we made it!!



We left Djibouti a couple of days ago, after about one week spent in this former French colony.

Djibouti, the market square

We have been able to restore our stock of hard-to-find foods, but for quite a price: everything here is very expensive and the locals seem bent on relieving us of our currency, even to the point of coming aboard at night and steal money and other items from the boats, while the occupants sleep.

At least 3 boats have been robbed, and they have boarded also Shaula, although in our case they did not take the risk of coming inside, with me sleeping in the saloon, and did not take anything; rather disturbing, nonetheless!!

Pity for this country which is really spectacular, sitting just on top of the Rift fault that one day will cut Africa in two, with salt lakes of which one is the third lowest point on earth (150 meters below sea level), a so-called "primary" forest that is told to resemble the first forests on the planet, volcanic grounds and hill jutting out of the plains.










(left) the spectacular Rift fail that one day will cut Africa in two and (right) the depression of Lake Assal

The "primary forest" of Day

Also the people, once outside the town, is mostly kind and welcoming; they obviously live a very simple but dignified life, the only real shantytowns being near the main town.

Along the road from Djibouti to the northern town of Tadjoura, we see small groups of people walking along: they are illegal immigrants, coming from Ethiopia and bound for Yemen and the Saudi Arabia: a terrible voyage under the scorching sun, still nobody cares or stops them.

Now the Red Sea is waiting for us: more than 1000 miles to the next destination, and probably a good part of them will be against the dominant winds that often blow at gale force. It will be tough!



A couple of things I forgot to mention about Djibouti:

In these places it is quite common to see people chewing the leaves of a small branch: it's the QAT, or KHAT, whose leaves have a mild allucinogen effect, a bit like coke leaves.
They may be bland, but by evening one risks to be a bit dizzy, to say the least, a bit like being drunk; the habit is very common among men, and not unseen among women as well.
A whole country of drug addicts??

Some people think that events of small-scale piracy by fishermen may be due to the effects of QAT, and this is not entirely impossible; for sure, the guys that a couple of years ago tried to attack an US warship must have been on a big-time high!!

Caravans: here there are still caravans of dromedaries, we saw many of them along the road: they carry either salt (collected from the shores of lake Assal) or coal, and are bound for Ethiopia. A bag is worth 1000 Francs, about 6 dollars, and a camel carries 8, for a total worth of less than 50 dollars.   (Looking at the photos I took at the time, I realised that each camel actually carries only 4 bags, therefore each load's value is only 25 Dollars)

A different style of caravans on the A1, the road going SW from Djibouti towards Addis Ababa: following the self-proclaimed Eritrean independence, Ethiopia has no longer any access to the sea (the real reason for the extended conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea) and Djibouti has become the main port for Ethiopia. Transport is mainly by road, and all sorts of trucks can be seen rolling along this poorly-kept road, often not even paved; you can see relatively modern trucks, but also old FIAT ones that were new back in the '60's!!

Accidents are not infrequent, and along the road you see overturned containers (duly scavenged of all their contents), trucks being repaired in the middle of the road, and sometimes also vehicle remainders which have been reused as parts of huts along the road.
The top: a "tukul" closed by car's doors!!




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Last Update: 21/09/2014

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