x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Ocean race uses caution in efforts to avoid pirates

While pirates would not likely have been a problem on South Afrida-Abu Dhabi leg, race officials erred on the side of caution.

ABU DHABI // Organisers of the Volvo Ocean Race acknowledge they might have been overly cautious in their efforts to avoid pirates along the race route.

"The truth is, right now, at the time we left Cape Town, it would have been safe to sail," said Knut Frostad, the chief executive of the race.

"But you don't know that. Hindsight is a beautiful thing."

The round-the-world race leaves Abu Dhabi for China today, the third leg of 10 in the race.

Erring on the side of caution, the five 21-metre carbon fibre yachts will be loaded onto a container ship in Sharjah and refloated at a secret port beyond the Indian Ocean's pirate-infested waters.

Once the boats arrive in China, race officials will assess how altering the routes might have affected on the race results.

Mr Frostad said that logistics concerns forced Volvo to make the decision about route safety far in advance of the race, which began in Spain in November.

When the yachts left South Africa, they were loaded onto an armed container ship at a secret location and shipped to Sharjah.

Advisors from European navies and piracy experts were consulted before a decision was made that it was safe to make Abu Dhabi a stop along the route.

"We asked if it was possible to sail this route from Cape Town and the advice was clear," Mr Frostad said.

Experts said it would be safe if an exclusion zone were created and the route went across the Indian Ocean to India.

"That decision was made one year before [the race]," Mr Frostad said. "Suddenly the military created this corridor outside Somalia and everything changed.

"They started to patrol the corridor and the pirates moved east and pushed the activity much further east."

Ian Walker, the skipper of Abu Dhabi's entry, Azzam, said in September, before the race began: "It's staggering how it has grown in this day and age. "[In the last race] we had a piracy exclusion zone and had to stay 600 miles off Somalia and even sailing to Abu Dhabi would not have been that big a deal."

Walker said he and his crew sailed off Salalah, Oman, during the winter.

Now the Indian Ocean is a hotbed of pirate activity and attacks have been reported off the coast of Oman. The restart from Abu Dhabi was originally planned for Oman, but it was deemed too much of a risk.

The pirates "became more professional and stronger and started to attack right in the middle of the Indian Ocean", Mr Frostad said.

Organisers drew a new exclusion zone which further narrowed the path.

"Then, 10 months ago our advisers came to us and said they were starting to get more concerned," he said.

Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near Eastern and Gulf Military Analysis, said there was a slight reduction in the number of pirate attacks but they were still occurring weekly in the Indian Ocean.

"The UAE came back with a strong response with the use of force that told the pirates to stop targeting UAE shipping. The pirates themselves had to reach so far strategically from the Seychelles all the way to western India, perhaps they are getting overstretched," Mr Karasik said.

Mr Frostad said the Volvo race had faced security issues before. In 2008-2009, when the race stopped in Cochin, India, the boats arrived two days after the Mumbai attacks. Mumbai and Cochin share the same coastline.

"We had phone calls with our advisers and knew they were targeting foreigners and they were even coming from the sea. We had to make a call if we'd resend the fleet and we got the good advice and made good decisions," Mr Frostad said.

The 2014-2015 race will be discussed with Abu Dhabi soon, Mr Frostad said. "We will evaluate how it worked first," he said.

Organisers will sit with the teams and ask if shipping the yachts would again be a viable alternative.

"We are sitting down with Abu Dhabi fairly soon and we are very pleased with what we have achieved," Mr Frostad said. "It is important for us, the legacy and the building of the sport."

eharnan@thenational.ae