Squeaking Through the Piracy Red Zone: Sailing the Gulf of Aden

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The Dubai Marina. Photo by Flickr/lensnmatter
The Dubai Marina. Photo by Flickr/lensnmatter Piracy Red Zone

A tinge of nervous anticipation filled the back seat of the taxi on the way to the Dubai Port. Inside the terminal building, we checked-in for our journey through sections of the Middle East on the Azamara Quest luxury liner.

As we headed to the gangway to board the 600 passenger ship, an official looking crew member, dressed in crisp navy whites with blue and gold shoulder epaulets, handed us “The Letter.”

That entire morning, we had explored the “old” section of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The winding alleys and covered market souks aroused a desire to meander to the point of getting lost; getting blinded by the bling-bling of gold jewelry, getting mesmerized by the pungent aromas of exotic spices and getting dreamy from whiffs of flowery smells spilling from open burlap sacks outside the stalls. Saffron from Iran tempted, frankincense and myrrh from Oman lured, while women shoppers, hidden under black burkas, provided a shadowy backdrop.

All those images faded as I opened the envelope. I grasped my husband’s arm tightly, as I read the Captain’s words. He wrote: “As you may be aware, pirate activity has occurred in the Gulf of Aden during the past few years. Between May 3 and May 8, we will be traveling in the area where this pirate activity has taken place. During the passage, we will have lookouts and armed security in place around the ship. In the unlikely event that we should encounter pirates, I will give orders over the intercom. We will conduct a drill for guests and crew to provide training.

“Oh my God, Ernie. Forget the regular lifeboat instructions, we’re having piracy practice,” I whined. “We’ve conveniently ignored the fact that this area of the world is more than exotic; it’s dangerous.”

Images from the film “Captain Phillips” dominated my mind when the emaciated and fidgety Somalian pirate, Abduwali Muse, commandeered the U.S. flagged Maersk container ship, Alabama. Recalling his look of desperation, his bravado beefed up by the AK47 he waved at Tom Hanks, portraying the skipper and the words, “Well, I’m the captain, now” that spilled from his cracked lips, sent my paranoia spinning.

Cruising on the Azamara Quest in Gulf of Aden, an area prone to piracy. Photo by Flickr/Roderick Eime Piracy Red Zone
The Azamara Quest. Photo by Flickr/Roderick Eime

Movie-goers had witnessed the nervous demands of men whose lives meant little, and who practiced maritime hi-jacking in the narrow passage connecting the Arabian and Red Seas. Episodes of violent kidnappings of both ships and crew had resulted in tragedy when the desperados’ ransom demands had not been met. But this was no movie.

We docked for two days to explore Salalah, Oman, the last city located on the Arabian Sea before navigation through troubled waters and the same port from which the Alabama had sailed. I hoped that would be the only similarity.

Headed straight into the Gulf of Aden, between the unstable nations of Yemen on our right, and Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea wedged together on the Horn of Africa, my nerves rattled as the ship’s engines rolled. Standing on Deck 9, staring into the unfriendly territory ahead, I realized that for the next five days, we’d be passing through the Red Zone of Pirate Activity. I wondered why my husband and I called these crazy, non-traditional expeditions vacations.

Minutes before the ship moved from the dock, I observed six, hunky males with brute physiques board the vessel. The captain announced that our security squad, our PPT, Private Protection Team of ex-military British Special Forces, had joined the crew and would be on duty to discourage any pirate attacks. He informed us that the team’s “luggage” would be delivered by gunboat once the ship had entered international waters.

Our defenders had the fire power to handle any threat. When the sturdy metal suitcases arrived, containing an arsenal of deterrence − automatic weapons, hand guns, and long-range Acoustic Devices, whose high decibel tones could break eardrums miles away − my lurking fears calmed. I not only felt safe, but…on vacation.

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