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Notes from Southbound Red Sea transit September 2005

By doina — last modified Mar 23, 2007 03:36 PM

Published: 2007-03-23 15:36:15
Countries: Oman , Sudan , Yemen , Egypt

The following notes were compiled from our passage of the Red Sea en route from Corfu to Dubai. Our boat is a Beneteau Oceanis 44 cc, and we had a crew of two guys and a girl, average age 56.

Suez Canal

You don’t have much control over things here; just have cigarettes on hand for "baksheesh": Marlboroughs are the general currency but L&M;’s are cheaper and seemed to work as well. Both are readily available in Egypt and about half the cost of buying them in Greece. Get guidance in advance from the agent and don’t be shamed into giving too much more: a little goes a long way in Egypt. We used Felix Agency and paid $576 for our Beneteau Oceanis 44 cc. We had 3 crew all holding Egypt visas which we were probably charged for again.

On the first day the pilot guided us down the edge of the channel going against the flow of a north-bound convoy. On the second day however, we had to wait for the south-bound convoy to pass and anchored in the Bitter Lakes for 3 hours. This delay caused us to abandon plans to sail straight through to Dome Marina (see below). We arrived at Suez at dusk and moored there for the night.

Formalities

Even though we cleared in at Port Said, we had to obtain some sort of permit to cruise in the Red Sea (actually just to go to Abu Tiq Marina in El Gouna). It was not made clear to us at the time, but only two ports have been set up to issue these permits, which are quite cheap (around $10 for the permit but watch out for the marina fees). In the north, the marina is Dome Marina (29o 26’.6 N, 32o 29’.2 E) which is about 20 miles south of Suez, and in the South, it is Port Ghalib. We made the mistake of saving a day and going directly to El Gouna and had to engage an agent from Hurgada who charged us $191 but didn’t have change of $200. If we hadn’t wanted to stop at El Gouna, I don’t think we would have required the permit. However El Gouna is a great stop, and at present facilities exist for permission for yachts to visit only at Port Ghalib, and Dome.

Port Said

Difficult to tie up safely, and when moored between the fingers as recommended in the pilot, difficult to get ashore. Our anchor didn’t hold and we took a long line to the buoy. The Port Fouad Yacht Club has essentially no facilities but some of the locals come down to sip soft drinks outside. There is water but the electrical points are inadequate. A local man took charge and pushed two bare wires of our shore power cable into an old socket and we got power. Coming from the north, we engaged Felix Maritime Agency, and were duly escorted to meet the big man, Nagib Latif, at his office on the Port Said side. This is effected by free car-and-passenger ferry from the terminal immediately next to the yacht club, followed by a long walk along the canal. ATM’s give Egyptian Pounds.

Ismailia

This is a town half way through the canal where everyone stops. Mooring on the yacht club quay at the end of a deep bay was safe and easy with a mooring buoy; there was no surge or wake, and proper power and water. In addition it is quite a nice little town with some historic interest. I found the only place to get a beer: George’s Restaurant which is close to quite a nice supermarket that everyone assumes you are looking for. You can stay as long as you want and it is convenient for a trip to Cairo.

Suez

We moored between two buoys and someone from the yacht club came out by boat to take our lines and offer to bring bread etc. We paid the same fees in all three “yacht clubs” but Ismailia was the only one that provided the value.

Dome Marina

This was the place we didn’t go to and should have to get our cruising papers. We called them to tell them we were coming, and they told us we would have to “call their Cairo office to make a reservation”! From their brochure the place looks pretty bland, but they say they have two restaurants.

El Gouna

This is a privately developed town started only in about 1997. The marina, Abu Tig, is very nice and there are numerous restaurants and bars around it. For some reason the Marina makes you go stern to on the leeward wall: it would be so much easier if you could back into the northerly wind. In addition this area is the farthest from the marina office and showers. No doubt there is some rationale. There is a shuttle to “downtown” El Gouna, or you can take a motorised rickshaw (“Tok Tok”), but not very much there. We went into Hurgada by taxi which cost us about $25 for the round trip including taking us around to find fuel line (successful) and a digital camera (only at the Kodak shop). We played golf and one of us went for a two day trip to Luxor which she said was fabulous. Phil Jones, the marina manager is extremely experienced with the Red Sea. For 4 days we were charged LE 375, about $65, and bought fuel at about $0.25 per litre. ATM’s and banks available, so it is possible to change Egyptian Pounds to US dollars, though one of the banks has a daily limit. Two thumbs up.

Port Ghalib

Another private development but at a much earlier stage. Basically there is only the marina, the buildings around it only shells at the time of writing (9/05). A diving hotel, on the complex but too far to walk to, was recently opened and charged us $20 each for a buffet lunch. A small bottle of water was 10 Egyptian Pounds as against about 1 in the store. Nice, but charging too aggressively. Captain Sherif (+20 12 212 8242) is in charge of the marina and was very accommodating. We paid (in dollars) $20 per night for mooring, $7 for water, $21 for electricity (we have aircon), and about $10 for “40 copies”. The immigration people, presently at the airport but soon to be located at the marina, required 6 copies of crew lists in English and 6 in Arabic! Fuel was US 0.50 per litre. Except as a safe harbour and the place to clear in with the good services of Captain Sherif, there is little to recommend it. No ATM’s, no banks, two “supermarkets” with virtually nothing, no taxis, no bars, but friendly security guard and plenty of dust. The water is beautiful.

Weather

All of the weather forecasts understate the wind strength by about 15 knots. The forecast from www.windguru.cz for wind and kite-surfers covers the Gulf of Suez, is highly regarded, but also underestimates the wind to the same extent. Weatheronline and grib files were virtually useless. In Egypt, we found that the breeze subsided in the afternoon and then began to build from about 2200, and increased as the sun came up. By mid morning it could be blowing 30 to 35, but (we think) not usually much more at this time of year. The direction was northerly or either side. In Sudan, we found the wind would be still first thing in the morning, but then freshen and blow all day until the evening when it would subside again.

Seas

There was almost always a sea running even when the wind was light. Every eight or ten minutes we would get a train of 4 large waves, which we put down to the sum of different sets of waves perhaps due to reflection from the Eastern shore, or due to the wind there having a different direction. The same effect was with us at least as far south as Massawa.

Traffic

With the exception of ships around Port Sudan, we saw no ships after exiting the Gulf of Suez, and, with the exception of dive boats in Egypt, of which there were many and large, and one open boat near Port Sudan, we saw no small boats. No fishermen, no other boats of any kind came into view until we were south of Massawa, and then much fewer than expected.

Navigation

We found the charts to be accurate and properly aligned with the GPS except in areas too small for the scale of the chart, which you would expect. Here the sketches from the Morgan & Davies "Pilot" were extremely useful. We used MaxSea on the laptop using the (British) Admiralty raster charts, and were mindful of the few areas where there was obviously a paucity of data.

Marsa Halaib

We went into this bay for a break from short off-watches and hand steering. There is an Egyptian Navy patrol boat in here staffed with guys who spend 20 days at a stretch. They were extremely hospitable, apologised for taking our passports and invited us for dinner on board, which we accepted. The next day after our overheating problem had manifested, they allowed us to go alongside, use electricity from their generator to run the aircon, and then provided two mechanics to replace the bad hose for us; all with great humor and generosity.

Suwakin

Our trip was divided into legs of two or three days so that we could have a break and also see something of the places we would have been passing. Port Sudan is a very commercial looking place and we thought Suwakin would be much nicer. Actually there is nothing there except for the ruins of Old Suwakin, which are reminiscent of those pictures of Dresden in 1945, and worth a look. Since the place is rarely visited by yachts at this time of year, the agent was not in evidence and we eventually got the port authorities to feel sorry for us and walk us through the formalities. This was difficult because they were obviously fearful of the uniformed military and civilian-dressed security people, who were completely confused as to why we were there. The security people are a bunch of suspicious young thugs with no limit on their authority. We needed water and diesel but settled for one person going ashore and collecting the pump we'd odered by DHL from Port Sudan and then leaving as quickly as possible. For people interested in visiting Sudan, I would recommend arriving by air.

Massawa

A potentially sweet stop made almost impossible by the distance from the dinghy landing to the town, the heat and humidity, the absence of local taxis, and the lack of imagination on the part of the people setting the rules for yachts. Diesel is rationed and we had to beg to get 400 litres, in a combination of jerry cans from a truck pump. It is however available in the black economy, though I don’t know the limitations on this. Visas, required for stays of longer than 48 hours, cost $50 in US currency. You have to obtain a chit from customs in which you declare an amount of foreign currency (we declared the amount we wanted to change, $140), and then take that to the bank to get local Nafca. (15 to the $ officially, perhaps up to 25 unofficially, but beware stings from the plain clothes finance police.) When you leave you have to show the receipt from the bank. Mike the laundryman is an invaluable resource, but doesn’t presently have transportation. His friend Habtom, who has a pick-up truck, is one of the most unreliable people on the planet. Diesel was $1 per litre, and bottled water was $1 for 1.5 litres (believe it or not). Beer however, was only 50c. Mike will organise and pay for things and you pay him back in US$. He presumably makes something on the exchange. Business is slow in Eritrea and prices are high: either the businesses are jacking up the prices in an effort to produce more profit per sale, or else there is crippling duty, we couldn’t tell which. There are no ATM’s, no credit card facilities (with the exception of one travel agent in Asmara that we know of), no international GSM system although the locals do have mobile phones, no yacht agents except Mike, and no local taxis in Massawa. Altogether, in the heat of September it was pretty challenging and frustrating. Asmara, the capital in the mountains, is definitely worth a visit.

Pirates

We started off with a list of strategies, conscious of the aggressive attack reported by Gandalf and Mahdi in March this year. Among our strategies: tow a line to get tangled in their propeller; install fish netting around the boat to discourage boarding; signs in Arabic and English; bullet shields of wood or steel sheet; bullet proof vests; AK47’s, later repeating shotguns. In the end we chose not to get the guns (for the usual reasons); the vests weren’t ready and we decided not to try and bring them into Massawa because they could cause difficulties with the authorities; we decided against going into Aden and did not buy the line and the netting in Massawa because it was outrageously expensive. We were going in the opposite direction to all the boats that have been attacked and at a time when there is considerably less yacht traffic. Part of our concern was due to the Mahdi and Gandalf report that described an incident markedly different from any of the others. We rationalised that that report had been designed to explain bullet holes and so-on and as such was not necessarily a purely factual account. Furthermore, we had been encouraged to understand that to a Yemeni, firing a gun in the air does not necessarily carry the threat that we would normally understand from such behavior.

We were also armed with the telephone numbers of the coordination centre in Bahrain for Coalition Forces in the Gulf of Aden area, and the Yemen Coast Guard English-speaking Operations Centre in Sana’a. Both of these had been tested during the planning stage a couple of months ago, and neither number was correct when we tried to call them to let them know we were passing through the area. Our strategy was to make every effort to discourage approach and especially boarding, and failing that to set off the Epirb and retreat below decks and call for help on the VHF, possibly using the parachute flares as weapons.

In the event, we trailed the end of a 10mm line which was secured with a knot we could trip to deploy the whole line: We prepared signs in English and Arabic saying not to approach the boat; and that we were in touch with the coalition forces and the Yemeni coast guard, ready to deploy: We put the Epirb in the cockpit: We put a heavy marlin spike in the cockpit and briefed one of the crew on use of the VHF for a mayday call. Two nights we ran without running lights. In the entire Gulf of Aden we saw only one vessel smaller than a container ship, and that was about 6 hours West of Aden. They came close to enough to ask for cigarettes which we declined to give. The preparations tended to make us feel the risk was greater than it was, so we softened the paranoia with a good cocktail hour.

Tom Bell-Wright

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