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Southerly Red Sea Passage

By Sue Richards last modified Jun 01, 2008 06:21 PM

Published: 2008-06-01 18:21:49
Topics: Red Sea
Countries: Djibouti , Egypt , Eritrea , Seychelles , Sudan , Yemen

Yacht Calliope
From the Mediterranean to the Seychelles
Autumn 2007

Calliope felt utterly insignificant as we threaded our way anxiously through the ships being marshalled into convoys at the entrance to the Suez Canal. Port Said control was issuing radio instructions on one VHF while our agent was calling on the other. But as we finally came within sight of Port Fouad, I was starting to relax just as a pilot boat came alongside to take us the last quarter of a mile – something we could easily have managed ourselves. As advised by our agent, we broke out our carton of Marlboro’s and distributed the packets among the crew. Welcome to the land of baksheesh.

All paperwork in Egypt is both laborious and expensive and this was made worse by our arrival at the end of Ramadan when the Canal offices were shut. Despite this, our agent managed to get us measured and booked in for a transit the following day to Ishmalia, where they are trying to establish a yachting centre at a wonderfully renovated 1930s club house. The canal transit is an experience, not so much because there’s anything much to see – the land is generally flat and featureless (although still strewn with abandoned tanks) – but because it’s such a famous passage and nowhere else is it possible to pass so close to such massive ships. After our overnight stop at Ismailia, a second pilot took us to the end of the Canal at Suez where we picked up a yacht club mooring for a few days to visit Cairo and the pyramids.

Heading south, most of the Gulf of Suez is devoted to servicing the many oil rigs that litter the adjacent coast – the Pilot warns of dried-out well-heads which are simply capped off and abandoned. When leaving an anchorage early the following morning I only just managed to make out a derelict rig through the general sea clutter of the radar and we passed the unlit structure just half a cable away in almost pitch darkness.

Abu Tig marina is part of the huge development at El Gouna, just north of Hurgada, which by Egyptian standards is now in its maturity, being at least fourteen years old, with fully-grown golf course and carefully planted parks. From here it was just a two hour drive to the temples of Luxor and the Nile.

After a week’s sight-seeing, reality set back in as we studied the charts on our return. Virtually the entire western coastline of the Red Sea is fringed by coral reefs. The last full survey dates back to 1833, making for interesting navigation; even with our GPS charting system using satellite-updated charts, we had to assume a circle of inaccuracy of anything up to 2 miles. But for local operators the reefs provide the main tourist attraction and Port Ghalib, 200 miles to the south, was the base for a dozen dive boats. The resort is still a huge building site in the middle of a featureless desert, but we spent a couple of days here, sorting out the boat, before setting off on the short hop of 20 miles to our planned anchorage in the Ernesto Reef.

Anchoring in the reefs is an eerie experience. The coral is only exposed at low tides, so in calmer weather the only indication of shelter can be a barely noticeable line of surf giving us the impression of being anchored in the middle of the sea. Even inside the reef, coral heads (or ‘bommies’) were a constant danger, and it took us some time before we could work out which coral heads were sufficiently deep for us to pass over.

Marsas – inland bays almost completely encircled by the desert – honeycomb this coast. The most spectacular of these is Shinab which stretches inland for nearly 6 miles. A small herd of camels were nibbling at the sparse thorn trees but, disturbed by our arrival, they soon wandered off leaving us completely alone in what must be one of the most isolated desert anchorages. Fishing boats operate out of the Marsas further south, long wooden craft with raised bows and brightly painted patterns running down the hull. As we approached Marsa Inkeifal, a boat came over to us and I indicated the couple of large fish that lay in the bottom of their boat and they happily deposited them on our deck, before speeding off again, apparently quite content with a single pack of cigarettes in exchange.

It was a short leg to Port Sudan. We’d already been in contact with Chico, the local agent, and he’d told us to anchor opposite the container dock, near a broken down concrete jetty. Since it was the weekend, there were nearly a dozen assorted dive boats back in port for the changeover of charterers. The agent came alongside with the port doctor – a cadaverous-looking man who appeared disappointed that we could report neither plagues nor deaths on board. Reluctantly, he allowed us to take down our yellow flag and gave us “free practique”, in exchange, of course, for a the usual pack of Marlboro’.

We liked Port Sudan. It’s remote from the troubles of the rest of the country and seems to operate almost independent of them. As a port it had a less introverted outlook and the petty restrictions on activities such as taking photographs, appear to be ignored. Like the rest of Sudan, however, it is desperately poor, and throughout the day there were crowds of men and boys sorting through the rubbish that lined the seafront, where many were sleeping during the night. The centre of the town, just a few blocks inland, was a sprawl of 1930s buildings, with the remains of what must have been some quite magnificent villas lining the harbour front. The market, however, was well-stocked and the people friendly and welcoming and we felt completely safe.

Suarkin had been Sudan’s main Red Sea port with a history stretching back for centuries. In the late 19th century the British enlarged the natural harbour, using the excavated coral to build the houses, but they later abandoned it in favour of the deeper harbour in Port Sudan and now the only ships are ferries taking pilgrims across to Mecca on the Haj. We visited it by car from Port Sudan and were amazed that there was almost nothing left. This ancient town has literally fallen down and is now a little more than a vast pile of rubble.

We decided to head straight for Massawa in Eritrea, 300 miles away, and plotted a course far enough out to sea that would be safe during the night. Lying off the coast around Massawa is the huge Dahlak archipelago, which remains virtually uninhabited and unexplored, visited only by a few intrepid dive boats. Eritrea is the only country along the Red Sea where we didn’t need an agent. Instead Massawa boasted its Mr Fixit – Mike the Laundryman – who could help with any problems. Almost uniquely for an African country, this didn’t involve baksheesh. The customs officer dealt with us quickly and with good humour.

The country only regained its independence after a 30-year guerrilla war with Ethiopia; the war ruined the country’s economy which has continued to decline ever since. Massawa was at the centre of the war and nothing remains untouched by the conflict. Entire buildings still lie in shattered ruins even 30 years later and although there are some signs of restoration, there is clearly virtually no money to pay for it. The town’s main thoroughfares are dirt roads, and the escalating price of fuel means that there are virtually no cars. In spite of this, the people seemed happy and, as the evening arrived, entire families decamped outside to chat to their neighbours and to passers-by. It made a cheerful scene amid the desolation of the ruined buildings.

Eritrea has a great deal going for it. We took a trip up the twisting mountain road from Massawa to Asmara which passes through some of the most spectacular scenery of Northern Africa. Asmara itself is like nowhere else: an Italian capital in Africa. During its brief colonisation during the 1930s, the Italians poured a fortune into its construction and the modernist buildings that resulted are everywhere. Despite its poverty, an army of street sweepers clean the city streets every morning, while begging is almost unknown. But the deteriorating economic situation was inescapable; the supermarkets that only a few years ago had contained a range of Italian delicacies had virtually nothing to offer except large gaps on their shelves. It seems that, like us, most visitors leave Eritrea with a feeling of affection for the place. In our case this was tinged with pity and frustration. Life could and should be so much better for them.

How could I resist Port Smyth? Apart from its name it was redolent of a lost past: a few scattered ruins with a crumbling jetty and a rather mysterious stone cistern. But its desolation made it home to a variety of birds and on a narrow spit of sand we could see flamingos feeding, while numerous other seabirds foraged along the beach or in the scrubland behind. The lighthouse in the distance no longer worked, (who was there to maintain it?) and its prefabricated steel structure was rusting and forlorn. Is there any place as romantic as an abandoned lighthouse? We spent a blissful afternoon, snorkelling around the coral heads, walking along the beach, hiking across the island or just sitting. I could have stayed for days but knew that the hardest part was now just ahead. Leaving very reluctantly the next morning, the sea was flat without a breath of wind, perfect to get out the fishing line and after only an hour or so’s trawling hook a fair sized tuna which we cleaned and cut it into steaks to barbecue for our dinner.

The good weather didn’t last. After a couple of hours, within the space of just a few minutes, an easterly wind got up and moved rapidly towards the south and rose to a force 5. During the night, when I was below in my cabin, I could tell that the wind was increasing steadily. The waves were crashing between the hulls and exploding against the underside of the deck. In the morning the conditions were like a textbook photograph of a typical Force 7 sea. Spume and spray striated the surface of the sea which had taken on an almost metallic sheen. I looked at the wind speed indicator, but it was dead, and looking up the mast, I could see that the anemometer had blown away.

The wind eventually settled down to a steady Force 6, but the sea was running more from the west and was making it very uncomfortable (even in a catamaran). Worse, however, was that we were now battling against a north-going current which at times was reaching 2 knots. By the evening we had had enough and we decided to make for an anchorage marked at Mersa Dudo. It was nearing midnight as we approached. The sea was becoming even rougher as the water shoaled and the shore ahead appeared as an iridescent white band, broken up by flecks of blackness. We couldn’t work out whether it was surf breaking on rocks, or whether it was simply a band of phosphorescence. We gave it a wide berth, before turning into the shelter of the bay and anchoring.

In the morning we could make out that what had so alarmed us in the night were simply patches of sand and dried salt illuminated by a bright moon. It was a fabulous anchorage: both severe and protected. Unlike the tan coloured desert of Egypt or the Sudan, this part of the coast was lined with dark – almost oily-black – volcanic hills, leading down to the scrub of the desert, beyond which we could just make out the line of mountains further inland. Cows and goats were being herded across the plain behind the tiny settlement to our west, while in front of us there were a few fishermen’s stone huts at the edge of the beach. The fishermen returned mid-morning and came over to us to offer fish for which they refused to accept any payment. The headman indicated that he was suffering from a cold so we gave him a packet of aspirins which appeared to cheer him up enormously

We stayed a couple of days until the wind had dropped a little, but the sea was still running and the current still against us. We now had the added complication of a busy shipping lane to cross as we tacked between Eritrean and the Yemeni coasts. As we approached Bab el Mandab, the ‘Gate of Sorrows’, at the narrow southern entrance to the Red Sea, we braced ourselves for the increase in wind that would result, but it never came. Instead, the wind went around to the East and we were able to pass through the straights on a single tack and then bear away for Djibouti. It was a massive feeling of relief that what had threatened to be the most difficult part of the passage was offering no resistance.

Since replacing Eritrea as Ethiopia’s outlet to the sea, Djibouti has enjoyed some real economic prosperity, but it’s still dependent for its survival France and the port itself is effectively run by the French Navy. In town, the cafés and restaurants survive on the large French community – not just their Navy, but their army, air force and even the Foreign Legion have large bases here. We had a couple of excellent meals although at a price not much lower from those in France. Its supermarket is similarly priced – but what a selection! After Sudan and Eritrea, the range of wines beers and spirits was astonishing and one that we took full advantage of.

It was a daunting thought that after 1,500 miles we were still only half way to the Seychelles, with just a single stop-over planned on the onward passage south. We spent five days in Djibouti and finally, refuelled and revictualled, with all engines serviced and spare parts fitted, we cleared out and headed into the Gulf of Aden. The north-east monsoon was now firmly established and we were heading against a fresh, but steady, wind. At least our wind indicator was now working, allowing us to set the autopilot to steer to the wind without any manual input. This time I dispensed with the staysail and unfurled the genoa – the distances ahead of us meant that boat speed was the most important thing. This was, after all, the main pirate leg.

Most pirate attacks involve commercial shipping. As far as any pattern could be seen in attacks on private yachts, they seemed to be random, rather amateur and opportunist. There is an established human trade of boat people being taken from Somalia north to the Yemen and some attacks appear to have been on yachts which have got in the way of this traffic. The general advice, therefore, was to keep as far away from the Somali coast as possible. Heading across to Al Mukalla not only achieved this, but it also kept us at a better angle to the wind. We had settled down to a course 45° to the wind and beat our way towards Al Mukalla but with a continuing current against us, progress was slow but life aboard was comfortable. We arrived after three days, travelling a distance of 400 miles over ground, but 470 miles through the water. We spent 24 hours refuelling and sorting out minor problems before heading off again. Mukalla is on the north of the Gulf of Aden so we had the advantage of starting off upwind and our situation improved as the wind steadily moved around to the north-east. The winds remained fairly constantly around F4/5, with a sea to match. At night we travelled without lights with our attention focused on the radar and as we approached Socotra we were reassured by the presence of quite a few ships which might be able to help should we run into problems.

In the event we saw no other boats. I eventually worked out that since we were well over hundred miles from the Somali coast (Socotra and its adjacent islands belong to the Yemen) any pirates would need to have a big boat to be able to handle the heavy seas. I also couldn’t see how they’d be able to board us in such a swell and this, plus the fact that we would be doing it at night, made me decide to cut much closer to the outside of Socotra than originally planned.

From Mukalla it took us three days before we were able to turn the corner around Socotra and we hadn’t seen a single pirate. The relief of finally sailing south and heading downwind away from the danger area was huge and we finally felt we were nearly there. Just to show us that we weren’t, the current was still against us, running at up to 2 knots, but during the first few days the fresh north-easterly wind helped us make good daily passages. One evening we were having dinner together while the log on the chart table was showing between nine and ten knots. In comparison with our earlier passages against the headwinds, we remained inside the saloon in comfort. But it was extremely frustrating (and not recorded in our Indian Ocean Pilot) that we should have such a strong current against us and although it turned in our favour during the last couple of days, it finally added over 150 miles and an entire day to our passage.

We crossed the equator five days after turning south and arrived in the Seychelles two days after that. In spite of the current, we had done very well. Our passage had lasted nine weeks and we had travelled almost exactly 4,000 miles, 400 miles further than the direct distance over the ground. We had seen only two other boats on passage but we had arrived with our boat intact and the crew in good humour, still speaking to one another, and with sufficient time for me to return for Christmas back at home.

© Andrew Smyth 2008