x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Yacht racers give pirates wide berth

Like icebergs, pirates are a hazard to sailors in an around the world race. Organisers have made provisions for such an occurrence.

Piracy has increased greatly in the 18 months since Abu Dhabi was chosen as a host port for this year's Volvo Ocean Race, with 188 attacks in the Indian Ocean reported so far this year.

Knut Frostad, the chief executive of the race, said the problem was always on the minds of organisers.

"We're not unfamiliar with these issues," Mr Frostad said. "With a sport that travels around the world, piracy is always an issue.

"An iceberg and a pirate are very different but we treat them the same way. We cannot eliminate either and it's always an issue with sailboats."

Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing skipper Ian Walker, an experienced Volvo Ocean Race competitor, said that in the last race in 2008-2009 piracy around Abu Dhabi was unthinkable.

"It's staggering how it's grown in this day and age," said Mr Walker.

Mr Frostad said that when planning this year's event, race organisers joined military experts in mapping out a route that would have been safe at the time.

But he says the military presence to deter piracy off the Horn of Africa has forced pirates to venture farther into the Indian Ocean.

So the decision was made to ship the racing yachts from Cape Town to Abu Dhabi and then to Sanya, in China, instead of sailing them.

"In the last three to six months, the corridor we created started to close up on us," Mr Frostad said. "It was no longer advised to send the fleet sailing on their own.

"It was a difficult decision. Regardless of what you decide upon you have to rely on professional advice."

The race organisers have not yet decided where the boats will be launched on the voyage to Abu Dhabi and China. They said they would make the call at the last minute to try to add racing time.

"Our aim is always to maximise the racing within the safety limits," Mr Frostad said.

This month, Oman's navy thwarted an attempted hijacking just 34 nautical miles off the coast of Salalah. Mr Walker said he sailed in that area this winter.

"It is really sad you can't sail huge parts of the Indian Ocean without an armed escort," he said.

For organisers in Abu Dhabi, where thousands are expected to greet the seven yachts when they arrive on New Year's Day, the upside will be a heated race to the Destination Village because of a shorter course.

"It'll create some nice tension," Mr Frostad said.

eharnan@thenational.ae