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Thailand to the Med - 2009

By Sue Richards last modified Jul 29, 2009 07:18 PM

Published: 2009-07-29 19:18:13
Topics: Red Sea
Countries: Egypt , Eritrea , Maldives , Oman , Sri Lanka , Sudan , Thailand , Yemen

Submitted by Rob and Dee Dubin, SV Ventana

Including anti piracy strategies, Red Sea planning, scuba diving and thoughts on Baksheesh.

Ventana made the passage from Thailand to the Med during the 2009 season. There are numerous accounts from other cruising sailors covering the details of customs, fuel, groceries, etc so we will try to confine our remarks to subjects not covered by others.

We have been living aboard for 14 years, are avid scuba divers and are in the midst of a very slow circumnavigation. Our goals were to go slow and to enjoy as much snorkeling and scuba diving as possible. Readers should keep that in mind as your situation may be very different.

Our route was: Similans; Galle, Sri Lanka; Uligan, Maldives; Salallah, Oman; Al Mukulla and Aden, Yemen; then into the Red Sea with stops at Massawa, Eritrea; Suakin, Sudan; Port Ghalib, Hurghada and Suez, Egypt. We also made a great many stops at reefs and islands in the Red Sea as you will read below.

Preparations

We departed Phuket near the end of January but would generally advise departure just after New Years for the best weather and little chance of cyclones. It is a long way and the earlier you start the less rushed you will feel.

Unlike most cruising seasons it seems boats get a real delivery mindset in this portion of a circumnavigation. There are major hurdles hanging over you such as passage through pirate alley, the long trip up the Red Sea and then the Suez Canal, consequently we have seen many boats think only about the destination and forget the reason many of us are here is the journey. In 2009 one boat left Thailand and barely a month later were tied up in a marina in Egypt not far from the Suez canal having bypassed 5 countries. We on the other hand spent six fascinating months getting to Egypt. We suggest you enjoy the places along the way - they are certainly different than anywhere else in the world.

From Thailand you will need to go all the way to the Med before you get to anywhere with real marine services and the clock seems to always be ticking to get up the Red Sea, so you will not want to stop long for repairs. Also shipping parts is not hassle free so make sure you and your boat are really ready to be self sufficient for a long time. You will be doing LOTS of motoring (maybe 600 hours or more) meaning your engine and its spares need to all be in good order. Fuel is not always clean so a baja filter and extra fuel filters should be carried. Almost all of the fuel you will get will come via your own jerry jugs so carry as many as you can. Extra 20 liter jugs are cheap in Phuket and you can toss them when you get to the Med. Watermakers are also on the highly recommended list.

Sri Lanka

Our first major stop was Sri Lanka. In hindsight and despite the sentiments in the previous paragraphs we could have happily given this place a miss. It is quite expensive to check in, and fuel, repairs and bringing anything in and out of the port are major hassles. There are not any real marine services here and the tourist sights are about a C+. To top it off we found the people not very friendly and very obnoxious about wanting your money. We suggest your time and money can be much better spent elsewhere.

Maldives

Next stop was Uligan, Maldives which we found fantastic. Friendly and easy officials, welcoming people and easy delivery of food, fuel, etc. Plus the clearest water you will have seen since the South Pacific. Definitely a little slice of paradise. We found excellent snorkeling and spearfishing.

Oman

Salallah, Oman was surprisingly 1st world and the officials were polite and very efficient. There was easy replenishment of food and fuel (via your own jerry jugs or more expensive fuel barge. There is even a travel lift here but not lots of small boat services.

Pirate Alley

First make sure you have seen all the websites for the coalition warships patrolling the area and have all the most recent information, phone numbers, email, SSB frequencies etc.

Salallah is where you will want to convoy up for passage of pirate alley. Best to get together with 3 or 4 boats whom you like and are all easy going and flexible enough to work with multiple opinions on everything.

Piracy in 2009 reached epic proportions and suggestions from previous years were invalid. Since this is a fluid situation even advice based upon 2009 may be outdated in 2010.

In 2009 a transit corridor for merchant ships was set up approximately 70 miles offshore. Protected ship convoys moved together based upon boat speed from 12-20 knots. Some cruisers (especially those not in a yacht convoy) went alongside the corridor even though their speed was much slower. Some of the time they were alongside a convoy and other times the convoys passed them by and they were alone until the next convoy caught them and then passed them.

The other option is a cruisers convoy of 3 or 4 yachts staying about 10-15 miles off the Yemen coast. We recommend this.

At one point we heard a “live” pirate attack via VHF. The freighter called frantically for assistance as they were being chased by several speed boats. A coalition warship answered and dispatched a helicopter towards their position- 20 minutes flight time away. It was very dramatic as the ship was being sprayed with automatic weapons fire and calling minute by minute what was happening and the helicopter pilot responded every few minutes saying how much longer until he arrived. The ship continued evading at his maximum speed of about 16 knots and just as the pirates had caught him and were about to board his ship the helicopter arrived. The pirates fled at sight of the helicopter but had the helicopter arrived 5 minutes later the outcome would likely have been different

Needless to say this was sobering for us to hear but it also gave us an idea of what an intervention by the heroic warships would entail. I concluded that the only thing that saved the ship was the small difference between his speed of 16 knots and the pirate boats’ speed of maybe 20-25 knots depending on sea conditions. This meant the ship was able to outrun the pirates for 20 minutes until the helicopter arrived. Also his bridge height allowed he and his radar to see the pirate ships a good distance away before the chase started. The windows in his bridge were all shattered by automatic weapons fire, but his steel ship allowed him to continue to evade while he was being fired upon.

Thinking about how this would work for yachts I concluded it would not work at all. Our speed is maybe 6 knots and we only see them a few miles away. This means any chase would be over in a minute or two. And fiberglass would not stop bullets so we would heave to at the first shots. Consequently I concluded that unless the coalition war ships are willing to set up 5 knot yacht convoys and stay right alongside, then the corridor is not a good idea for yachts. Also the existing corridor is 70 miles offshore meaning 140 miles out and back to the corridor in unpatrolled waters so you are in the pirate zone for an additional day increasing your risk.

If I were transiting in 2010 I would get a group of yachts together and petition the warships for a once a week 5 knot escorted convoys preferably nearer the Yemen coast. If that is not possible I think it is better to stay close inshore and count on stealth.

If you do get a group of 3-4 yachts and take the 10-15 mile offshore stealth plan, here are some thoughts and suggestions.

  • Despite the fact that most of us feel better in convoys, the simple fact is that if one yacht is attacked other yachts nearby cannot really do anything to help. Therefore the hope is that a group of yachts close together will not appeal to the pirates - especially since this is (so far) not within their normal method of operation. For the convoy then to help as a deterrent you need to sail very close together- ¼ to ½ mile or less. You need to be able to get very close alongside each other within 5 minutes if you see a boat approaching so sailing a mile apart won’t cut it.
  • Next do everything possible to promote stealth. We maintained near radio silence. If we had to talk we made sure we used a low power channel. If all the boats have US capable radios you can use a US only channel such as 18A which is less likely to be monitored by the pirates. We had only tiny lights that carried less than half a mile or no lights at all.
  • Take down your radar reflector if you can.
  • Most importantly have codes for everything you say on the radio and consider every word you say before you say it.
  • Do not mention boat names, since observers may have seen your boat in one port and know you are heading to the next one - instead use personal names. Do not say alter course to 260 - instead say come right 10 degrees.
  • Check in daily via phone or emails to the coalition warship coordinator. If you do check in to the SSB net have a complete code for that.

The system we recommend is as follows:
Designate one or more arbitrary waypoints such as point X at 13N 46E. Tell each other the waypoint lat/lon in person before you depart or send it via an email but NEVER say it over the radio. Then refer to your position as 46 miles TO X on a bearing of 250, current course 290. Or after you pass point X say 37 miles FROM X on bearing 080. We also had letters A,B C etc for the ports along the way between Salalah and Aden so if you were stopping at Al Mukulla you could say you were heading to point A and should be there today. Do not say you are stopping at point A – that is a pirate clue. If you tell the net you are heading to point A they know it is Al Mukulla and you will be stopping.

You will see fishing boats nearby. They look just like pirate boats. Our suggestion is watch your radar, alert each other via brief radio call and close your formation.

We all felt more vulnerable at night but the fact is of nearly a hundred pirate attacks only one so far has been at night, so stay close all day. This may mean motoring so you can match speed.

Yemen

We stopped at Nishtun where they motioned us alongside the wharf. They checked all our papers but did not clear us in and did charge us about $15 for the overnight tie up.

We also stopped at Al Mukulla which we enjoyed quite a bit. We recommend this spot though stopping here does put you at slightly more risk since shore side watchers could report your departure. The attack we heard on the radio took place about 50 miles due south of Al Mukulla.

When you arrive in Aden celebrate-we felt like 50 lbs. had been lifted from our shoulders.

Others have written extensively about Aden. The only thing we will add is to make sure to get plenty of US dollars which many ATM’s here dispense. The ATMs in Aden mall have dollars. From here on you will need dollars until Egypt and especially if you need unexpected repairs in Eritrea or Sudan the work will be expensive and they only take dollars. The Suez canal only takes dollars and will be in the $350 range for a 40’yacht. Carry $1,000 or more.

We HIGHLY recommend a visit to Yemen’s capital Sana’a. Not to be missed and we guarantee it will be one of the most unique places you will have ever seen.

The Red Sea

We found both the GRIB files and Buoyweather.com to be accurate in predicting the wind direction and general strength. The winds vary greatly all throughout a 24 hour period and buoy weather is very helpful as it gives winds 4 times per day. While both were basically accurate in showing trends and direction, in general they regularly forecast 5-10 knots less than we had. We also found in the Southern Red Sea the winds were strongest from 2pm-8pm but around Port Ghalib it was the opposite. There the winds would usually pickup sometime between 3 am and 8 am then die out before noon. North of Hurghada it seems to always blow and much stronger than the forecasts show. For this area www.windguru.com or www.windfinder.com are both more accurate. Make sure to read the wind modifier explanation for El Tor on windguru.

The Red Sea is best approached with a plan. It is over 1,000 miles to Suez and half of it has strong northerly winds on your nose, coupled with very short boat stopping seas that are far worse than we’ve seen anywhere else.

In AVERAGE 25 knot conditions in the north part of the Red Sea a boat that normally makes 5 knots motoring to windward may make only 2 knots!!! Please read the previous sentence again.

There are several sections that require overnight passages of about 120 miles. It is not uncommon for boats on these sections to get half way through and have the winds come up on their nose slowing their progress to 1-2 knots and they turn around and go back 50 miles.

Because of this many boats go as far as possible in every weather window. In between windows they don’t do much as they are stuck onboard waiting somewhere while the winds howl overhead. Next weather window they are off again passing by wonderful places because they have a window. The result of that is that they often get to Suez and realize they missed out on enjoying the Red Sea.

We would suggest a different approach - how to enjoy the Red Sea

Leave Asia early in January, don’t waste much time in Sri Lanka or any of the other stops. Then after so many nights at sea since Thailand slow down and day hop for awhile. The Southern and middle sections of the Red Sea lend themselves to a cruising pace while the Northern sections due to stronger winds and lack of anchorages can be done in several overnighters where you will knock off the miles. First off don’t get swept into the herd mentality and think you must race along - tell yourself it is OK to be last in the fleet and let others go ahead.

Ras Arah is an excellent first anchorage after Aden and a 2 am departure from there allowed us to be at Bab el Mandeb at dawn when the winds are lightest. This worked well for us and we did not have the 40 knots just north of the straits as so many others reported. It also allowed us to easily reach a perfect anchorage near Assaab, that is NOT listed in the Red Sea guide at 12 58.16N 42 50.33E.

The next section of the Red Sea is enjoyable day hops or longer with prevailing southerly winds. At some point you will arrive at the convergence zone where the winds can abruptly switch from south to north. A twenty knot southerly may be followed by 4 hours of calm and then a 25 knot northerly. Fortunately this will probably be predicted by the GRIBs. Be careful here in selecting your anchorages. Twice we had predicted winds going from strong southerly to strong northerly in the middle of the night. The predictions came true and both times we were forced into midnight relocations as we were on a lee shore with 25 knots and big waves rolling through the anchorage. In both instances there had been no available anchorages with both N and S protection so we picked anchorages that we could exit in the dark with an option to go nearby to another anchorage that had Northerly protection and which we could enter in the dark. Maxsea showing your track into the anchorage is very helpful for retracing your track back out in the dark like this. In general Maxsea was very accurate. Also helpful are actual maxsea tracks from yachts in previous years.

Other than the overnight trip to Khor Narawat you can day hop all the way to Elba Reef. Getting an early start will get you in before the strongest winds in the afternoon, and if a big blow is expected just get to a spot you can wait it out and enjoy yourself. At each of the following we got stuck for 4-6 wonderful days waiting on weather: Sanganeb, Talia, Fijab, Halib and Dolphin, and we would not have missed them for the world. Especially the week at Dolphin reef - a highlight of our circumnavigation.

Diving and Snorkeling

The southern portion of the Red Sea does not have very good underwater visibility. The coral in the Northern portion in Egypt has suffered some bleaching damage and in Egypt there are thousands of scuba divers on the reefs daily. Consequently the best snorkeling and dive sites are in the middle, mostly in Sudan. We especially liked the section from just near Massawa north to Dolphin reef. Unfortunately many boats miss this fantastic cruising ground because a weather window comes along and they just go regardless of what they may be missing. Slow down and ENJOY this excellent cruising, which certainly includes some of the best scuba diving in the world.

Our dive favorites in order were:
Ras Shumi, Dolphin Reef, Sanganeb Reef, the entrance to Marsa Fijab and the reef at Talia Islands. Don’t miss snorkeling inside the lagoon at Elba reef and swimming with the Dolphins at Dolphin reef - where you should use the western anchorage. At Marsa Mahadiq I saw a moray eel with a head 2 feet across and a body thicker than a large tree - my most amazing sighting in 35 years of diving. Shuma Island is reportedly good snorkeling and the wreck of the Umbria is highly rated plus any of the others marked in the Red Sea pilot book are likely to be good as well. If you are very interested get a Red Sea dive book before you leave Thailand as you will not find one until Egypt, by which time all the diving is behind you.

Ventana carries a scuba compressor and we filled over 50 tanks for ourselves and our friends to dive. Even if you do not have a compressor the dive boats are very friendly and helpful offering air fills, food and fresh water as well as advice. The snorkeling is just as good as the diving so you do not need scuba to enjoy all these stops.

Other Information

Overnighters
Good sections for overnighters are Elba to Dolphin reef across foul bay, Dolphin to Port Ghalib, Port Ghalib to Safaga or Hurghada, and Hurghada to Port Suez. We waited patiently and each time had overnighters with winds of less than 10 knots. The strongest winds are often in the Gulf of Suez and many boats find less wind and more room on the Eastern side of the big ship channel. Every mile north of El Tor does usually get easier with lighter winds and flatter seas.

Winds
The Red Sea pilot indicates slightly stronger winds in June than in May but in 2009 comparing the periods from April 15- May 15 and May 15-June 15, the later period had maybe twice as many days under 15 knots and half as many days over 25 knots. We did not arrive to Suez until July 7 and by then the winds in Gulf of Suez were very strong so waiting for lighter windows was a necessity.

Fuel
The fuel situation in Egypt changes daily as to what is allowed and whom you have to bribe. In 2008 Abu tig was inexpensive by getting it from moonlighting marina staff. That option was closed in 2009.

But in 2009 we stopped at El Quesir and used our own jerry jugs for fuel at 20 US cents per litre. The same time at nearby Port Ghalib at the fuel dock it was 90 US cents per litre. Quesir can be rolly and the best anchorage is near the wharf with a stern line to the large ship mooring to keep your bow into the seas, or closer to the wharf with a stern anchor out.

We stopped at Marsa Halib where we were very warmly welcomed by the military and shown where to anchor. We could not wander around much ashore but the navy commander sent his crew to the nearby town to get us fresh fruits and vegetables and in an emergency you can probably get a small amount of diesel or water there.

Fuel at Suez was available in your own jugs for 95 US cents per litre.

At Ismalia you can speak with Captain Salah just outside the gate and he will get you permission to bring in up to a maximum of 5 jugs. Go out hail a taxi and buy it at the station for 20 US cents per litre.

Canal Transit
The canal transit is well covered in letters from other cruisers but I will say in 2009, many of us had very pleasant experiences with our pilots so it is possible that they are trying to improve their image.

Parts Shipping and Sudan Embargo

In 2009 boats had parts shipped into: Male, Maldives; Aden, Yemen; Assab, Eritrea; Port Sudan (Suakin), Sudan. No doubt you can ship into Egypt but you will have no idea of the amount of baksheesh you will have to pay until it is in your hands. Assab is probably the simplest but none of these places are easy so I stress that you carry every spare you might need.

A warning on Sudan - the US and UK (and maybe other countries) have an embargo against Sudan. DHL said they could ship from the US to Sudan and after they had our package we found out about the embargo. Eventually we got the part but it involved dozens and dozens of calls and approvals from the US embassy in Sudan and the US Treasury Dept., State Dept. and Dept. of Commerce. In the end it was very time consuming and expensive. We did find out however that Australia has no embargo and shipping from Australia to Port Sudan (Suakin) is no problem and quite fast. Also because of the embargo US cruisers should not attempt to do any internet banking from Sudan as accessing your bank accounts from a computer in Sudan may result in your accounts being frozen.

Emergency Repairs

Repairs are possible but nothing will be like the boat yards you are used to having work on your yacht. The ports you will encounter work on 500’ freighters and thousand horsepower engines, not our delicate yachts. Few boat parts will be available but automotive parts can be found (not easily) as can machine shops.

Salallah does have a travel lift. Salallah, Aden, Massawa and Port Sudan all have big ship facilities with either railways or possibly cranes for small boats. Port Sudan has a dive boat industry so repairs are available and Mohammed from Suakin can connect you with a good but expensive English speaking mechanic.

In 2009 a 26’ boat was severely damaged with the bow stove in. It was hauled via a crane and had decent fiberglass, stainless and teak work all done to repair it in Massawa, Eritrea. This was done not at the main port where the yachts tie up but deeper into the harbor on the other side of the harbor where there is a big ship yard. Some of the workers speak English. The old man who runs the place is a bandit so bargain hard. You will need to pay in dollars and it will be expensive so carry extra US cash.

Thoughts on Baksheesh

Egypt is known the world over for its corrupt officials who demand "baksheesh" or bribes for doing their job. It is so prevalent there that the term Baksheesh has become the international traveler’s word for bribe, and simply hearing the word angers most of us.

In our recent inland travels in Egypt we took a packaged tour that included many buses, a sailboat ride, guides, etc. and even though we had paid in full for all those services we were expected to pay baksheesh to the bus driver, boatman, guide, etc. It felt we were being ripped off at every turn.

However we recently had an experience at a gas station in Egypt that gave me a slightly different perspective that is worth considering.

There were three of us jerry jugging fuel for our boats, two Americans and one Australian. In all we needed over 800 litres of diesel and lacking enough jerry jugs we anticipated 3 trips back and forth to the gas station.

After the first run our Egyptian friend who was driving us in his truck told us we should give the gas station attendant some baksheesh for pumping the gas. He said he would normally do that himself and it was not just a tourist scam. He suggested about $6 which would have been about 8% of our fuel bill. All three of us protested loudly and refused, whereupon the driver said OK, but told us he would have to go to a different gas station for the next run.

I commented to my friends on the irony of being by far his best customers for the day and him expecting us to tip him besides. In Australia tipping is unknown so the Australian commented further on the outrage of having to tip someone after the price per litre had already been agreed upon and posted on the pump.

Then I realized of course that when I eat dinner at a restaurant in the US the price is clearly posted on the menu and yet my meal will cost me 15% more since I will leave a tip for the waiter.

For the Australian who is used to never tipping the concept of any tip feels like a rip-off. For me as an American used to tipping waiters, bellmen, taxi drivers etc., those tips seem OK but tipping a gas attendant, bus driver or public official seems like a rip-off.

For an Egyptian used to tipping everyone it all seems normal. In the grocery store I have seen Egyptians tip the man behind the meat counter who packaged their hamburger meat.

So three different cultures - three different expectations. When in Rome do as the Romans do. After I thought of things in that light I had far less problem handing out some coins or cokes, or cigarettes for all the services that were performed.

Conclusion

The Red Sea is fascinating and unlike anywhere else in the world. You are unlikely to ever return to most of these places again so enjoy them while you have the opportunity.

For further information on all these place view our website at: www.ventanasvoyage.com or contact Ventana at ventanaweb@aol.com.

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