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That Pirate isn’t Johnny

2009 March 3

Nearly four years have gone by since a hail of bullets tore into the 47-foot cruising yacht Gandalf as she made her way across the Gulf of Aden. Luckily, sailors Jay Barry and Carol Martini of Gloucester, Massachusetts, lived to tell about their encounter with pirates in the treacherous waters that separate Africa from the Middle East. They also won the distinction of having thwarted the ambush, mostly because Jay swung the steel-hulled sloop around and rammed one of the two boats, crushing it, while Rod Nowlin, skipper of the 45-foot steel cutter Mahdi, sailing alongside, opened up with a pump shotgun. Nowlin killed two, perhaps three,of the pirates.

Their story has been told countless times but somehow it endures and continues to take shape as pirate attacks escalate worldwide, especially off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia, and throughout Indonesia. Cruising sailors have listened carefully to such tales, hoping to adopt strategies to keep themselves safe.

On a bitter cold January day, Jay and Carol shared their thoughts on the harrowing ordeal while sipping a few pints of Fishermen's Ale at the Latitude 43 bar and grill, within view of Gloucester's famous fishing fleet

Know what you're doing, know how to fix things on your boat, and know where you're headed, but most of all, go with other competent people, said Jay, still cursing the boatload of Southern California cruisers whom he refers to as The Old Needies because they were forever requesting assistance along the way and delayed his personal itinerary, making Gandalf and Mahdi more vulnerable to pirates.

"Rod and I had pretty much the same size boat, so we could go along at about the same speed, up to 8 knots. But The Needies were about 35 feet, in a boat that wasn't made for this kind of sailing, and they couldn't keep up, even after we put in a third reef and were moving along at only 3.5 knots. Besides, their engine and other equipment hadn't been maintained, so it was one problem after another," Jay said. "Rod and I spent days fixing things for them, but after a while, I just couldn't do it anymore."

The plan for crossing the Gulf of Aden was to sail at night, instrument lights taped over, observing VHF radio silence and sailing fast as possible. The weather window was adequate, the moon in a dark phase. Unfortunately, The Needies required Rod's attention one more time, which delayed the departure of Gandalf and Mahdi.

On March 8, 2005, three days out of Salalah, Oman, and 18 miles off the coast of Yemen, Carol spotted two wooden fishing boats approaching. It was 9 a.m. The three men in each boat were pirate scouts. The most obvious telltale: no fishing gear aboard. Carol woke Jay and called over to Rod, his wife Rebecca, and niece Jamee, suggesting all keep an eye on the horizon. The stalkers veered off after taking a hard look.

"To them, we were Christmas presents," Jay said.

By sunset, 30 miles off Yemen, two 30-foot boats with powerful inboard diesels were screaming toward them head on. Gandalf and Mahdi closed ranks. The pirate boats, using the blinding sun as a shield, immediately opened fire with automatic weapons. Fifteen bullets slammed into Gandalf, five through the dodger, others piercing the mast, boom and stanchions.

"They were clearly trying to kill us," Jay said, calmly sipping his beer:

Carol recalled how she went below to send out a mayday and send e-mails to friends in Aden saying that they were under attack. In hindsight, Jay figures he should have activated the EPIRB.

"Otherwise, if things had turned out differently, there might not have been a trace of us left behind," she said.

Gandalf's boom had been slacked to port, allowing Jay to swing her hard around and ram the nearest boat. Rod, ex-Navy, was blasting away with his shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot, knocking out the engine of the boat closest to Mahdi and making sure the pirates kept their heads down. By that time, Jay had crushed the other pirate boat and reversed gear for fear the wreckage would damage his rudder.

"With Rod shooting, those pirates decided not to shop at Mahdi any more, so they headed straight for us," he said, describing how the attackers nudged their bow against Gandalf's stern and began climbing aboard, but Rod shot them dead.

"That was nice of him," Jay said flatly, while Carol nodded enthusiastically. "He looked like Davy Crockett, holding his shotgun and firing away from the cockpit," she said.

Although both Jay and Carol acknowledge the gun helped turn the tide of misfortune, neither seems decided on the need for one aboard. Just look what happened to Sir Peter Blake, killed by robbers in the Amazon while reaching for his rifle. Yes, but what if he had been able to shoot first? The argument goes back and forth. Some facts are indisputable. Jay's scrapbook contains photographs of the bullet holes, projectiles meant to kill him and Carol without warning. Certainly the outcome for Gandalf and Mahdi is unique, chalking one up for the good guys. Their story might have ended tragically had Rod been unarmed and Jay less aggressive.

So what's the solution?

Jay, a skilled mechanic with a passion for vintage Porsches, suggests more United Nations or multinational anti-piracy patrols instead of guns aboard cruising boats, and perhaps a restriction on the size of vessels allowed to ply certain dicey waters. Boats longer than 12 feet would be prohibited, and violators would be destroyed by mini-guns mounted on friendly warplanes. Satellites would track all traffic.

Carol, a physician, withheld judgment.

During their eight-year voyage, the couple met dozens of cruisers, some armed, some not, including nervous members a French flotilla whose plan for crossing the Gulf of Aden was to form a defensive wedge if pirates appeared.

"Not sure that would do much good," Jay said. "Like the wolves, the bad guys are going to carve one of you off."

After the attack, Gandalf and Mahdi sailed for Aden, followed a day later by their nemesis, The Old Needies.

"The Needies limped into port. They never saw any pirates. Didn't even see the debris," Jay said.

Officials in Yemen filed incident reports, perplexed that Jay and Rod refused to describe the pirates as black-skinned because all had Middle Eastern complexions and were not dressed Somali-style.

"I kept telling them, 'They looked like you.' But they didn't want to hear it," Jay said.

These are precarious times for sailors who ply lawless waters. Given that, preparations must be made for encounters with merciless bandits just as they might for a pending gale. Special equipment is needed: a drogue, a pump shotgun, maybe something lethal enough to make a Navy SEAL proud.

After all, the pirates climbing over the gunwale aren't likely to resemble Johnny Depp-they're real-life cutthroats and thieves-and possibly terrorists looking to kidnap Americans. At least that's what Rod discovered after checking with a few military intelligence sources.

These days, people often ask Carol about her travels and, of course, the pirate attack. Her response: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" --D.L.