My wife Carolyn and I first met Jean and Scott Adam of the Davidson 58 Quest in New Zealand. The year was 2006, and it was autumn in the southern hemisphere. The cruising fleet was gathering in the Bay of Islands for the northward sprint to Tonga and Fiji.
They were knowledgeable, personable, highly-experienced cruising folk. We hit it off immediately. They told us about their New Zealand cruising adventures and we answered some questions they had about the Indian Ocean.
Jean was a retired dentist from Newport Beach and sang in the St. Monica Church choir. Scott had been a successful businessman. They were both members of the Marina Del Ray yacht club. They really enjoyed living aboard and cruising offshore, and were avidly looking forward to circumnavigating.
They were totally lit-up on life.
Their faces glowed with the joy of it.
Yes, they were deeply religious and enjoyed giving away Bibles as they cruised the Pacific but they didn't make a big deal of it. (Actually, we heard about the Bibles from someone else, not them.)
They were very upbeat, very positive, very can-do people. In addition, they were intelligent, cautious people. Not timid. But cautious.
We experienced a bit of instant camaraderie – they said they felt like they knew us from reading our stories in Cruising World for so many years.
Mostly what we talked about was how much they loved their well-found, superbly maintained vessel. They'd had her custom-built for them in New Zealand for their upcoming 10 to 12 year circumnavigation.
They were just about the last people I'd expect to get into trouble – any kind of trouble.
"We just sailed the South Island as part of our final shakedown cruise," said Jean to us on the dinghy dock of the Opua Cruising Club just moments after stepping off Quest, "and she really did great. No problems at all!"
"When we informed our designer," chimed in her husband Scott, "he said the South Island was an ideal area to test out all our new gear – and that we shouldn't encounter anything worse than that during our whole circumnavigation."
Unfortunately, their designer was wrong. Last week Jean, Scott and two additional American crew members, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle, were captured by Somali pirates 250 nautical from Oman.
Nineteen pirates came aboard. Details are sketchy as we go to press. Naval intelligence sources in the area suspect their small craft was launched from a mother ship lurking nearby. Quest was originally headed for Salalah, Oman, from India. The pirates now forced them to change course for Somalia.
There were media reports they managed to get off a brief MAYDAY while being attacked. It is unclear if the MAYDAY was transmitted via the marine SSB radio, Iridium, or the Inmarsat communication equipment they carried on board.
By the following day, Quest was spotted by drones and the US Naval Warship Sterett began shadowing them. President Obama was notified and gave his permission for the possible use of deadly force should it be needed to save the hostages' lives.
Under a lot of pressure the pirates, many just barefoot teenagers and high on Khat, evidently started arguing among themselves.
Alas, most of their problem-solving skills come out of the barrel of a gun.
The area where Quest was captured is relatively far from Somalia and generally considered well north of the pirates' operating area – but the pirates are now using sophisticated captured vessels and ranging further afield every day.
Jean and Scott planned on joining a waiting yacht convoy in Oman to cross the dreaded Gulf of Aden, and then head up the Red Sea to transit into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal in May or June.
They never made it. It all went horribly wrong – as wrong as can be.
In brief: the US navy was calmly negotiating with the pirates. Everything was going smoothly. The US navy had absolutely no intention of storming or attacking the Quest, feeling that it would put the hostages at greater risk.
There was no reason to think the hostages were in any immediate danger – as the hostages were the only thing keeping the pirates from being arrested and/or killed.
Unexpectedly, at around 8am on Monday morning March 21 2011 some pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade directly at the Sterett. No one is sure why. Luckily, it missed. Almost immediately gunfire erupted from inside the yacht and a small group of pirates came topsides and put their hands up
The US navy, hearing gunfire, immediately attacked the Quest via inflatable boats in hopes of saving the hostages. One pirate was shot dead and another was knifed to death as the American commandos stormed aboard. All four hostages had already been shot by the pirates. Some were still alive and conscious, but expired before further medical help could arrive.
Strangely, there were two dead pirates aboard which the American assault group did not kill. It is assumed they were killed by their fellow pirates – but exactly when and why isn't clear.
This is the second experienced cruising couple we know personally who have been pirated in this troubled area.
Our German friends Sabine Merz and Jurgen Kantner of the steel sloop Rockall were held for 58 days and threatened repeatedly with death – before an 'undisclosed sum' was paid by an unknown donor and they were released into the custody of German officials.
I, like many cruising yachtsmen, prefer to think that the chances of being captured by pirates is about the same as getting struck my lightening – it could happen but probably won't. But, alas, this rosy, optimistic view is getting impossible to maintain as our cruising friends are being picked off one-by-one in the Gulf of Aden.
Carolyn and I transited this area aboard our 38-foot sloop Wild Card in 2010 (as chronicled in our book RED SEA RUN: Two Sailors in the Sea of Trouble) without being attacked by pirates. In fact, that transit season, not one single yacht was captured by Somali pirates.
Clearly, this has changed. Besides the four dead aboard Quest, the crew of a South African boat named Choizil have been captured recently. (The South Africans, Bruno Pelizzari and Deborah Calitz, are still being held at an undisclosed location in Somalia, four months after their vessel was hijacked.)
Not long ago British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler were held for nearly 400 days after their yacht Lynn Rival was hijacked near the Seychelles in October 2009. In addition, French yacht-owner Florent Lemacon was killed in April 2009 when French commandos tried to liberate him and four other people from their hijacked yacht Tanit off Somalia. (They managed to rescue his wife and three year-old child, along with two crew.)
Part of the problem is the size of the area the pirates are now operating in. A few years ago, the pirates operated in small open vessels primarily just off their coast at 'targets of opportunity', usually small foreign fishing vessels. Now they are using captured vessels as mother ships, and operating in the lower Red Sea as well as the entire western half of the Indian Ocean.
It is estimated that between 660 and 700 sailors are being held hostage in Somalia, most of them aboard their anchored ships.
Estimates of the number of ships being held is between 29 and 40 vessels. But this is complicated by the fact that the pirates occasionally just grab the crew of a yacht and cast it adrift – this is what they did with the Chandlers.
Basically, there is very little downside to being a Somali pirate. If you haven't captured a vessel, all you have to do is slip your weapons over the side if approached – and nothing will happen to you. If you have captured a vessel, you have hostages as human shields.
Either way, you're untouchable – except during the actual attack.
Many ships that regularly transit the area now have 'safe rooms' into which the crew hastily withdraws. The rooms are fitted with radios so that and they can call for help. This works well in the narrow waters between Somalia and Yemen, as the airborne rescuers usually arrive before the pirates are able to breech the safe room. (The navy claims they need 18-22 minutes in the Gulf of Aden to get a helicopter to the scene of a major attack on a large ship.)
The biggest danger to Somali pirates, in fact, isn't all the warships patrolling the area – but rather being killed by their own people upon landing ashore – as the local land-based thugs attempt to 'kidnap the kidnapped' from the sea pirates on a regular basis.
Of course, yachts aren't the preferred target of the pirates. They'd much rather capture an oil tanker or large containership. But, hey, in lieu of that – they take what they can get. It's the luck of the draw. It is considered very bad form to come back empty handed. The 'big people' who finance the pirates don't like it. Thus, the pirates snag a yacht when getting low on food and supplies – so they have something to show for their efforts.
A recent US study found that maritime piracy costs the global economy between six and twelve billion dollars a year.
Last week two supertankers were seized off Somalia. One of the ransoms recently paid was $9.5m according to informed sources at the scene.
The saddest thing is reading Jean and Scott's upbeat, confident website. It makes no mention of pirates. They had a dream and were living it. They were sea gypsies. They loved their freedom. They loved being offshore.
Now they are dead.
Just before they shoved off from India, a stateside friend asked them what they should do if – what happened, happened. "Pray for us," said Jean.
We did. We do.
Cap'n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon by American Paradise Publishing, Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies, The Collected Fat, All At Sea Yarns and Red Sea Run. For details of Fatty's books and more, visit fattygoodlander.com