Attempted Piracy near the Gibraltar Straits?

5 October 2009 By Claire Griffiths

Mate/Chef Sharron Stannard was on watch at the helm of the 70-foot power catamaran, M/Y Damrak, at 2 a.m. on October 1, 2009, when she noticed a vessel acting suspiciously approximately three miles off the yacht’s starboard side as they headed west toward the Gibraltar Straits.

M/Y Demrak was in transit from Juan les Pins, France, to Bonanza, Spain.

Stannard says the vessel was following a very erratic course, moving back, then forward, fast then slow for approximately one hour, between M/Y Damrak and the Spanish coast and it gradually was getting closer. Lights on the mystery vessel moved between being visible and not.

“When the vessel was within two miles on our starboard bow, I altered course thirty degrees to starboard to avoid them and give them sea room. They then turned directly towards us and came on at high speed. I altered course by an additional ten degrees to starboard, but they changed course again directly for our beam. I called for the captain, who was asleep off watch, for assistance. The vessel was continuing towards us at high speed on a collision course. I blasted our horn and the captain shone the searchlight on their vessel,” recounts Stannard.

The mystery vessel then pulled up alongside M/Y Damrak approximately 30 miles from the port. Stannard and Capt. John O’Connell continued their course, calling the vessel on the radio asking for identification and their intentions, but they were met with no response. By this time Damrak had moved off approximately 100 metres and the aggressive vessel proceeded towards the port stern, coming alongside as if to board. Stannard shone the spotlight on them again and they stopped in the water, then tried to shine their spotlight on to Damrak, but failed. Stannard says she kept the spotlight on them as she kept heading away. At the same time, she began calling for assistance from Spanish authorities. Fortunately, the unknown vessel did not continue to follow them.

“Their vessel was similar to a high speed 'cigarette' boat with a windshield approximately thirty feet long,” explains Stannard. “It had a white hull, with colored angle markings on the hull at the bow, from deck to waterline, similar to that on Guardia Civil vessels. We saw no ensign or names. There was some kind of arch over the cockpit with a covering and we could not see them inside. We didn’t get any response from Spanish Authorities on VHF Channel 16 as we were out of range. We increased our speed and made our way towards the Spanish coast and contacted Tarifa MRCC via satellite phone to report the incident.”

Stannard has passed through this area several times and never has experienced or heard of such an incident before and she suspects the vessel was trying to come alongside to board. “I think we probably blinded them with our spotlight,” she adds.

“It was a moonlit night, so when I could see their port and starboard navigation lights and white bow wave heading straight towards us at speed, even after we changed course, the adrenalin was pumping.  Afterward, when they had gone, I was nervous. You realize how far away you are from help and how vulnerable you are. [It] makes you look at a small, irregular radar signal in a whole new light! Even though the incident didn’t reach a distress situation, we felt we needed to report it and inform other vessels who may be traveling in the area.”

Do you think that this incident was a possible piracy attempt? Are you in the area? Have you witnessed anything suspicious?

Do you think Stannard and Capt. O’Connell handled the situation well? What would you have done?