Pirates in the South China Sea

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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.

11 Responses to Pirates in the South China Sea

  1. Rebecca Alexis September 13, 2013 at 11:50 pm #

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

  2. Anonymous September 14, 2013 at 3:01 am #

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

    • Behan Gifford September 14, 2013 at 6:28 am #

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

  3. Erik September 14, 2013 at 7:41 am #

    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.

  4. PediNP September 14, 2013 at 9:23 am #

    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

  5. Anonymous September 14, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    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

    • Behan Gifford September 14, 2013 at 10:07 am #

      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.

  6. LittleCunningPlan.com September 17, 2013 at 5:13 am #

    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.

  7. Anonymous September 18, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    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

  8. Neville Howarth September 6, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    Hi Bethan,

    My wife and I have just completed a 2 month cruise in the Anambas Islands in Indonesia on “Alba” our Hallberg Rassy 42F. We had fabulous time there and visited over 50 anchorages.

    There are over 200 islands in this small Archipelago, which is only 150 miles to the east of Singapore. To my amazement, there are very few cruisers that visit this beautiful place, mostly because of hearsay and incorrect information published on the Internet.

    I’m afraid that your comments about the small fishing boats with large antennae are totally incorrect. It is very common for small fishing boats in the Anambas islands to go out to sea for up to five days, where they fish in small groups for safety. Most of these 30 foot wooden boats have two crew and are fitted with quite sophisticated electronics including GPS, Fish Finders, VHF and SSB. They commonly have one or even two long whip antennae for their SSB and VHF radios. They are NOT pirates or scouts for pirates.

    To our knowledge there have been no reports of piracy attacks or boarding of cruising yachts in the Anambas area. I had many discussions with the local people and officials in the Anambas. The Tourist Office in Tarempa were shocked that cruisers think that the Anambas Islands are dangerous. I talked to the Navy and they constantly patrol the Anambas waters with outposts dotted around the islands. During our various visits to Tarempa Town, we saw about a dozen armed ships belonging to the coast guard, navy and police. I believe that these all patrol the area.

    If anyone wants to know more about the Amazing Anambas islands, then I’ve written some cruising notes on the area, which can be found at http://www.thehowarths.net/cruising-information/cruising-notes.

    • Behan September 6, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

      Hey guys, that is AWESOME about the Anambas! I’m so happy to know you had a great time. I don’t doubt that VHF antennaes could be making inroads into the fishing fleet, but in the six months we spent in Indonesia, it was highly unusual – especially the combo of wee boat + big antenna. I don’t think of anywhere else in Indo I saw that! And, fishing boats have fishing gear, which this little one didn’t. I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo, because you’d “get it” how this was an entirely different than usual vessel! Ya get to know them after some months. You *are* right, however, that there are “no reports of piracy attacks or boarding of cruising yachts in the Anambas area.” That’s one reason we were never really concerned. There ARE, however, reports of attacks/boarding of commercial vessels – that’s why the scout was unsurprising. Also, for the sake of clarity: I don’t think the Anambas are dangerous, and I’d love to spend time cruising there; and wish the paperwork had allowed us to stop when we passed the group.

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