The Nation of the Sea Mourns

One of the most iconic long-distance sailors and pioneer of the cruising life, Bernard Moitessier, once said: “I am a citizen of the most beautiful nation on earth. A nation whose laws are harsh yet simple, a nation that never cheats, which is immense and without borders, where life is lived in the present. In this limitless nation, this nation of wind, light and peace, there is no other ruler besides the sea.”

I think a thread of Moitessier’s thoughts about living a life as a citizen of the sea is woven into all of those who have been bitten by the cruising bug. And as such, the cruising community populates the nation of the sea. This week that nation mourns for the tragic loss of four fellow cruisers. By now you’ve probably heard about the sailing vessel Quest, Jean and Scott Adam (owners) and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle (guests aboard Quest). These four Americans had their lives needlessly taken from them after being held hostage on their sailboat by pirates.

I’m definitely not a very political person. In the nearly four years and over 100 posts that I’ve been blogging I’ve never felt compelled to share a story with so many political details. But something inside of me is deeply and disturbingly stirred by the fate of Jean, Scott, Phyllis and Bob. Maybe it has something to do with my own cruising dreams and fears. Maybe it’s the thread that connects some of myself to Moitessier and the ill-fated crew of the Quest. No matter the reason, I want to try and summarize what I know of their story here, but to do so means venturing into uncharted blogging waters for me. I know most of you have heard the basics of this tragedy already, but the emerging details and the missing facts are interesting at the very least.

Jean and Scott Adam, from California, were in their sixth year of their global circumnavigation aboard their 58-foot sailboat, Quest. Like many dreamers and cruisers, they relished the places they visited and the people they met along the way. Their website (now unavailable) reveals that part of their “quest” was to “allow the power of the Word to transform lives.” They did so partly by distributing Bibles to places they traveled all over the globe. They had been sailing as part of a fleet of cruising vessels (Blue Water Rally) since leaving Thailand. The Gulf of Aden and an alarmingly growing part of the Indian Ocean is well known among the cruising community as a dangerous area because of pirate activity. Sailing as part of a rally provides safety. Macay and Riggle, from Washington State, are veteran circumnavigators who joined the Adam’s as crew for part of the rally.

For an unknown reason, Quest broke off from the rally fleet on February 15, 2011 after departing the port of Mumbai, India to cross the Indian Ocean en route to the Red Sea. Sometime on February 19, 2001, pirates hijacked Quest in the Indian Ocean approximately 190 nautical miles southeast of Masirah Island, Oman. The United States Navy began to closely monitor Quest and dedicated four warships to its’ recovery: the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf, and the guided-missile destroyers USS Sterett and USS Bulkeley. According to US Central Command, at approximately 1am on February 22, 2011, “while negotiations were ongoing to secure the release of four American hostages, U.S. forces responded to gunfire aboard the pirated vessel (S/V) Quest. As they responded to gunfire, reaching and boarding the Quest, the forces discovered all four hostages had been shot by their captors. Despite immediate steps to provide life-saving care, all four hostages ultimately died of their wounds.”

Apparently, the pirates had sent two of their own over to the USS Sterett the day before to meet with FBI negotiators. Shortly before 1am on February 22, a rocket propelled grenade was launched at the Sterett but ultimately missed its’ target. Immediately thereafter, gunfire was heard onboard Quest and US Special Forces (SEALS?) were sent in small boats to Quest. Upon the Special Forces reaching Quest, 13 pirates came on deck and walked to the bow of the sailboat and surrendered with their hands in the air. The crew of Quest was found mortally wounded in the cockpit while two additional pirates were also found dead aboard Quest. Yet another two pirates were killed (one by gunshot, the other by knife wound) when the Special Forces men cleared the Quest. The 13 pirates who surrendered were detained along with the two pirates already aboard the USS Sterett. Thus far, there’s no word on if the two pirates found dead were killed during infighting among the pirates, killed by the crew of the Quest or some other possible means such as sniper fire from the US Navy. The Navy is only reporting that they were found dead onboard and denies that they were killed by US forces. The US Navy was intent on not letting the pirated Quest make it to port in Somalia where negotiations would become much more difficult. Reports by the Associated Press and interviews with pirates by Reuters indicate the pirates were attempting to take the Quest near Hobyo in Somalia.

This Reuters' article quotes two Somali pirates who spoke with Reuters by phone as saying “Our colleagues called us this morning, that they were being attacked by a U.S. warship. We ordered our comrades to kill the four Americans before they got killed.” Another Somali pirate leader speaking from the pirate stronghold in the Puntland region of northern Somalia was also quoted as saying “I lost the money I invested and my comrades. No forgiveness for the Americans. Revenge. Our business will go on.” He later added that he had invested $110,000 in weapons, food and salaries for the Quest hijacking. [As an aside, does anyone else find it striking that the pirates and some of their leaders are seemingly available for interviews and comments, yet they are still allowed to carry on with their disgusting pirate-ways?]

Unfortunately we’ll likely never know the true story of what happened during the several days of the hijacking or the final minutes before the hostages were executed. Could this have been a botched rescue by the Navy? Could the pirates have begun fighting with each other over the terms of a negotiation? Perhaps the U.S. Navy told them that they would not be allowed to reach land and this caused panic among the pirates. Maybe they were told there would be no ransom paid? Why did the pirates unexpectedly launch a rocket-propelled grenade at the USS Sterett? Why did some pirates immediately surrender to the bow of the Quest while two others remained defiantly below deck until being killed? Did the fact that the crew of the Quest was Christian Americans with bibles onboard play a role in their ultimate fate?

Many questions remain and only a few have been answered.

What will happen to the pirates who hijacked Quest?
At this point they are being held aboard a U.S. warship awaiting “justice”. According to U.S. Justice Department spokesmen Dean Boyd the United States “is committed to working with our international partners to ensure that the perpetrators of this heinous crime are brought to justice.” To me that sounds like lawyers, appeals, more lawyers, long sentences and the burden of keeping these thugs in prison at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. A U.S. prison may very well be an upgrade in living conditions for these pirates.  I find spending taxpayer money to defend the rights of pirates who hijacked a U.S. flagged vessel, fired upon a U.S. warship and murdered four Americans very hard to swallow.

Where did the pirates come from?
Pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean generally originate from ports in Somalia. After the collapse of government and the ensuing civil warm in Somalia in 1991, piracy has been on the rise in waters surrounding the eastern horn of Africa. Somali piracy got its’ roots from illegal fishing by foreign boats in Somalian waters and the collapse of local fishing fleets. Local Somali fishermen took to piracy as a response to the loss of their livelihood from fishing. Today the Somali pirate problem continues to escalate and spread its way across the Indian Ocean. The pirates have become increasingly bold from the recent huge ransoms being paid. The pirate bosses stay safe on land in Somalia, free from government authority and recruit young Somali men (some teenagers) to carry out their crimes.

How does Somali piracy work?
The Somali pirates most often prey on commercial and merchant vessels such as container ships with valuable cargo onboard. The cargo and expensive ships are then held for ransom. The ransoms being paid to free these ships has recently been reaching into the millions of dollars. The 2009 hijacking of the commercial container ship Maersk Alabama made national headlines when Captain Richard Phillips was held hostage on a lifeboat until US Navy snipers killed his captors and rescued him. Interestingly, the one surviving pirate who was taken into custody was sentenced to 33 years in prison by a New York court just 2 days before the Quest was hijacked. Internet rumors speculate that the Somali pirates were eager to take an American vessel as revenge for the prison sentence.

Occasionally small private vessels like the Quest have also been hijacked and their crews held hostage for ransom. The most recent story prior to Quest that made global headlines was that of a British sailing couple who were held hostage by Somali pirates for 388 days before being released this past November. When a private vessel is captured, it is taken to one of the many known pirate ports along the Somalia coast and the hostages are held on land.

The pirates have recently been using previously captured large ships as “mother ships” to extend their pirating further from the Somali coast. The mother ships then send smaller vessels to carry out the hijacking after a target has been spotted. Reports estimate that Somali pirates are currently holding at least 40 ships and more than 660 hostages.

What can be done about piracy?
Clearly the motive behind the piracy in the Indian Ocean is collecting ransom money for people, ships or goods being held hostage. If ransoms were not paid, piracy would largely go extinct. If the government in Somalia actually existed, it would be reasonable for the international community to sanction them to clean up the pirating that seems to be centralized in their ports and cities. Blockading known pirating ports such as Hobyo, Harardhere and Labad along the Somali coast is also an option, though blockading is considered an act of war. There are also some who believe the insurance industry is actually profiting from pirating by charging exorbitant premiums to merchant vessels traveling through the area. I’ve also heard others quip that the United States would clean up Somalia if there were something of value there, such as oil.

The United States, the European Union and NATO all have counter piracy task forces working together and there are currently 34 warships from 15 different countries patrolling the area. However, since the pirates have expanded their territory through the use of mother ships for hijacking, it seems no level of policing on the sea will be enough to end all piracy in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps the best solution is to get rid of the land-based pirate leaders who finance, plan and order the hijackings. If only the pirates at sea are captured or killed, the leaders will simply recruit more to do their dirty work. In many ways the situation is very similar to terrorism, though without the political motives.

How can cruisers avoid this area?
Cruising sailors should think long and hard about their intended route around the world. The only real options are: 1) risking the piracy of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden to cruise north of Africa into the Mediterranean Sea, 2) risking the extremely long and potentially very stormy passage around South Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, 3) sail back across the Pacific and fight the opposing currents and weather, or 4) pay to have your sailboat transported aboard a cargo ship across the Indian Ocean and into the Mediterranean Sea. Those options don’t make for an easy choice.

I have a goal to do a major cruise someday. I’ve never felt that the cruise has to include a circumnavigation to live up to my lofty expectations. I’m not the kind of sailor who makes decisions based on setting records or checking boxes off on some list. In fact, part of why I sail is to escape such societal values. I do know that if I were doing my world cruise today I’d probably skip the Indian Ocean all together. I think I’d make a u-turn in the Pacific at Australia and ride the Kuroshio and North Pacific Currents back to California.

My heart and prayers go out to the cruisers who lost their lives, to their families and to their friends. In my relatively limited cruising experience, I can safely say that Scott and Jean Adam probably lived more richly, experienced greater splendors and learned more deeply about who they are during their six-year adventure than most people could hope for in a lifetime.

Somehow it seems fitting to end this post with another quote from Moitessier: “My real log is written in the sea and sky; the sails talking with the rain and the stars amid the sounds of the sea, the silences full of secret things between my boat and me.”


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