September 13, 2013

Pirates in the South China Sea

Add caption

Our recent crossing from Borneo to the Malay peninsula is probably the last multi-day passage we’ll have for a while. Breezes funneling up from the Indian Ocean give us a nice angle to reach across, so hopes were high for a good sail. We've had precious little of those here in the land below the wind!

This is also a stretch of the South China Sea that has been a significant contributor to Indonesia’s current status as the highest piracy rate globally. Before anyone worries that we’re taking foolish risks, consider that not a single one of those attacks has been against a private cruising boat. Commercial ships are the target. We did not feel that we were compromising our safety by taking this route, but we did feel a heightened sense of awareness for our surroundings.

As it turns out, we had the only negative experiences in six months of passing through Indonesian waters.

The first came from a motley looking boat. It was a pretty typical Indonesian fishing boat: mis-matched paint, tired on every dimension, fishing gear hanging off the back, national flag snapping in the breeze. They were running a longline out the back, and staying relatively stationary when we spotted them ahead of us. As we approached, they moved to try and cut across our bow- despite having extensive gear behind the boat.

We were carried about sixty degrees over before getting enough oomph (thank you, Yanmar 4JH3TE) to get in front of them, and cut back over. At that point, they waved. Yeah, thanks a lot guys.

We’ve heard that this is a ploy used to try and extort money: having crossed a boats line or nets and ruining them (not to mention, completely fouling the sailboats prop and likely stopping progress), you are kind of at their mercy to make things right. Not cool. A second boat, nearly identical boat waited about a mile ahead- but we diverted to put distance between us and their effort to cut our way was relatively meager.

It was the second incident that was somewhat sobering, although it had less direct affect upon our boat and little crew. As we sailed south of the Anandas island group, we were approached by a relatively small, unmarked wooden boat. With a lone crew and no fishing gear, but a very large VHF antenna strapped on top, we assume this was a scout for a larger pirate vessel. Small Indonesian fishing boats do not use VHF, and they certainly don’t mount monster antennae on their little coach roof to boost the reach.

It zoomed up to us, checked us out, but didn't try to impair our progress. We continued reaching comfortably across the glassy seas. Claire and I smiled and waved, and eventually coaxed a friendly response. A few miles later, a virtually identical boat appeared for a repeat performance. Unnerving, unusual, but not threatening.

Would we go through here again? Sure. Does it make me think about how piracy could evolve in this area? Absolutely. There are very different dynamics in place than off the horn of Africa, but it's not hard to imagine how pirates could make the leap from merchant ship targeting to ransom-value small vessel targeting.

Thanks to Claire Suni for the photo.

9 comments:

  1. ohhh I have chills! Thank goodness you have all passed through safely! xxoo

    ReplyDelete
  2. Do you carry firearms while you sail? I am opposed to firearms but geesh.. issues like this would make you possibly consider?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We do not carry firearms, we have never considered it, and this experience in NO way changes our feelings on that count.

      Delete
  3. I can't imagine the burden of firearms while cruising. Every country has different regulations and a lot require you to leave them with Port Authorities while in country. So you would have the hassle without the benefit while in port. Attempting to not declare one would be far worse than contraband produce or meat and would most likely end up with, at the very least, a seized boat and maybe term in prison.

    This comes from someone has had firearms as a significant part of their life. If I'm ever lucky enough to cruise with family I will have to find other ways to manage/mitigate the threat.

    In the mean time, it's good to hear that you and your family are safe and happy.

    Fair Winds.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Scary! I've been reading your blog for a while, am envious of your life at sea, but have been wondering about pirates! Glad they left you alone!

    Wendy

    ReplyDelete
  5. We have friends go through there a few times a year on a cruising boat and they go through at night and go dark and watch radar for any objects and usually motor as they have had similar experiences in daylight and sometimes a bit more scary. So go dark and motor and you guys stay safe.
    L&N

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi L&N, it's a 3 day passage from Borneo so timing can be a little tricky. We did go through the shipping lanes at night, which is the area that you'd theoretically want to do in the dark, but we had 1,000 ft cargo ships within a couple of miles so you couldn't pay me to "go dark" out there.

      Can you provide more specific information about what happened with your friends that was "sometimes a bit more scary", or put me in touch with them? I would like to know in more precise terms what other experiences are in this region and avoid vague references to bad events.

      Delete
  6. Wow, this is more than a little depressing. I can see how this area could become the next 'Somalia' and that's just a damn shame. So glad you guys were alert and watchful, and thank goodness for that Yanmar. Makes me want a boat with plenty of freeboard and a big engine.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Were you guys near the oil platforms when your mystery boat checked you out? We had same thing and put it down to security roaming around platforms or smugglers waiting for pick ups etc. The Anambas group was wierd though, hardly any fishing boats and eerily deserted. Bec & Tim, Infinity V

    ReplyDelete