07. Red Sea, Aden to Suez 2009

This blog runs from the Port of Aden in early April 2009 to Port Said in early June 2009. The posts were originally satellite emailed to the blog, http://blog.mailasail.com/graptolite . My only crew from Aden to the Eastern Mediterranean was Steve Rolands. I had not originally planned to sail this short-handed but Tim Relton was unexpectedly recalled from Aden by his employer. It was a tough leg with strong winds almost always in the wrong direction.

12:47.55N 044:58.87E Port of Aden, Yemen, Sunday 5th April 2009
Graptolite arrived unmolested in the Port of Aden this morning. We had a few scares overnight with panicky nearby big tankers radioing about speedboats chasing them and helicopters being called in for protection. I think we
might have been confused for one of the “speedboats” once or twice as when we see unidentified boats around we’ve been going into stealth mode with no running lights. The approach to Aden in the dark was very dramatic with the orange city light-pollution making a silhouette of the mountains. We anchored in the outer harbour for a few hours waiting for daylight and have just arrived in the inner harbour for formalities.

12:52.18N 043:06.06E Southern Red Sea, Wednesday 8th April 2009
The guide books were right about Aden. The place is hopelessly ramshackle and dirty but it’s also very interesting. The town is mostly clinging like barnacles to the lower slopes of some big dusty mountains. There are some fortifications still remaining that were once used with obviously mixed success by us British to try to keep Arabia at bay but along with everything else they are all falling down. The night street market near the port was an education. I would guess little has changed since the days of the Ottoman Empire. At a food stall, we ate some strange-but-good inside-out pizza made with egg, cheese and onion for dinner. This was washed down with chai made by boiling up tea dust, sugar and dried milk on what looked like a jet-engine afterburner. Last time I had tea like that was in the Himalayas over 30 years ago. Coincidentally, Tim was there too. A lot of stalls were selling qat (the spelling might not be right) which are privet-like leaves that you chew into a cud. I’m not sure what it does for you as I never tried it but most of the users looked a bit wild-eyed. Tim flew home in the early hours of Tuesday to take care of business. By Tuesday afternoon Steve and I were provisioned, had formalities completed and were off. Soon after daybreak on Wednesday we were running through the Bab el Mandab narrows at the southern end of the Red Sea in the company of another couple of yachts.

13:12.54N 042:31.35E Ras Terma, Eritrea, Friday 10th April 2009
Creeping up the coast of Eritrea. We’re just sailing in the mornings and hiding out the rest of the time. The wind gets to be a bit boisterous and unpleasant hereabouts later in the day. There’s not much to look at onshore; just a lunar landscape of mountains and sand dunes and the odd military outpost. Makes you wonder what the Italians were thinking of setting up a colony here. The fishing has been good though and we’ve been keeping our small convoy of yachts, us, ‘Brianna’ and ‘Sarenity’, safe from the perils of starvation with supplies of the non-tinned variety of tuna.

13:51.95N 041:54.53E Mersa Dudo, Eritrea, Sunday 12 April 2009
Now we are now over run with fish. We caught an 8kg spanish mackerel yesterday. Well, maybe it’s a spanish mackerel. The identification is a bit uncertain. It could also be a variety of kingfish or wahoo. Anyway it’s of the family Scombridae. Excellent eating. I wish I had a freezer. With welcome donations of beer from Trevor on ‘Sarenity’ and banana cake from Bob on ‘Briana’ everything is going well. We are passing a part of the coast thick with volcanic ash cones and craters. They all look as if they were active yesterday but in this dry and dusty climate they are going to be around for a while. The only signs of human activity recently have been a few abandoned fishermen’s bothies and one rusty oil tanker wrecked on the beach.

15:06.99N 040:16.66E Howakil Bay, Eritrea, Monday 13 April 2009
We caught another fish, a giant trevally, this morning without really meaning to. It’s hard to just dangle a line in this water without catching something edible. The shoreline remains mountainous, lifeless and desolate, although the odd dusty camel has been spotted.

15:36.61N 039:28.40E Massawa Port, Eritrea, Thursday 16th April 2009
We came into Massawa yesterday in search of beer for my birthday. Massawa has seen better days and is very down-at-heel. There are many big ornate Italian colonial buildings that are roofless and have holes in them from bombs or shellfire. The people are helpful and pleasant, and all speak good English. The black-market money changers and the prostitutes are particularly friendly. We stand out like sore thumbs amongst all these very dark and very skinny Eritreans. For some reason that we have not got to the bottom of yet, there is no local beer to be had, only Heineken at $6 a can. Fortunately, there is a plentiful supply of cheap Eritrean ouzo and gin available. They taste very similar to each other. We tried some local food last night as well. It was a kind of bolognaise on a huge grey pancake not unlike carpet underlay.

16:02.17N 039:27.27E Sheikh el Abu Island, Eritrea, Friday 17 April 2009
Why is Easter this weekend in Eritrea and a week later than everywhere else? Answers on a postcard please…

This morning Steve and I and Vicki (Sarenity) went shopping for supplies in the sprawling Massawa Friday market. It was a very Third World experience with acres of trussed up sheep, goats and chickens, and sorry little piles of fruits and vegetables littered about in the dust. After clearing out of Massawa (only two packs of Marlboro extorted, a bargain), we headed north with 17-18 knots of wind on the nose and have reached the shelter of Sheikh el Abu Island for the night. We caught another 16lb Spanish mackerel this afternoon and for sundowners had sashimi with wasabi and zibib, a kind of Eritrean ouzo. Well, I did. Steve’s not keen on ouzo. Spanish mackerel is a really tasty white fish with big teeth and nothing like the little brown oily things you get in British waters. In case you were wondering. Happy Birthday, Tom.

18:15.01N 038:19.90E Khor Nawarat, Sudan, Monday 20th April 2009
There have been a couple of overnight anchorages for us on the Dahlak Bank off Eritrea. The last island had an active minefield on it which put a damper on any beachcombing. We arrived in Sudanese waters late last night and are now anchored in a quiet bay in the south. Sudanese flies have been described as being ‘superior’. I can well believe it. I’ve just had one trying to communicate by hopping on the keys of my laptop; quite atrocious spelling. Looked a bit like Jeff Goldblum. It ain’t half hot Mum.

18:46.43N 037:39.49E Long Island, Shubuk Channel, Sudan, Tuesday 21 April 2009
It’s been a good day’s sail from one uninhabited island to another along the Sudanese coast. The anchorage this evening was just a short snorkel to a very colourful coral reef and some pretty reef fish. There were sea eagles nesting in the dunes and unfortunately a startling number of plastic bottles washed up on the otherwise deserted beach. Today’s fishing included about a dozen big grumpy barracuda which were all thrown back. Steve also caught half a tuna, the other half being bitten cleanly off by something very very big while being landed. The last fish caught was another good-sized Spanish mackerel which was just barbecued for dinner. The generator died last night. Power to the people.

19:06.46N 037:20.26E Suakin, Sudan, Wednesday 22nd April 2009
We had a careful sail through the reefs in the very poorly charted Shubuk Channel along the coast and arrived at Suakin this afternoon. Suakin is a sort of port but got eclipsed in the porty business by Port Sudan many years ago and it is now pretty much a crumbling ghost town. The ‘old town’ on an island in the middle of the harbour is a spectacular deserted ruin. The claim to fame for this place is that it was the last slave trading market in the world and was busy up to the end of WWII. We have our shore passes and will explore tomorrow.

19:06.46N 037:20.26E Suakin, Sudan, Thursday 23 April 2009
It’s all a bit biblical in appearance here. Donkey carts are the local transport and there are as many goats as people. Most houses and shops have a wall that’s fallen down or a roof caved in through neglect so the goats tend to lord it up in style indoors and the people sit around out on the dusty streets. We bought some flat bread and a few bits of fruit and vegetables in the market. No meat though as the butchers’ stalls could make a vulture gag. Old crew from the Pacific days will remember ‘Carina’, a tiny Hungarian boat being single-handed around the world by a luxuriously-bearded lunatic called Aaron. He arrived here in Suakin at the same time as us. Personally, I wouldn’t dare navigate around a village pond on that boat so, respect. We are taking a bus to the slightly more cosmopolitan Port Sudan tomorrow.

19:17.42N 037:19.67E Marsa Ata, Sudan Saturday 25th April 2009
Yesterday the crew of ‘Graptolite’ and ‘Silver Heels’ caught a bus the 30 miles into Port Sudan. We could have got a taxi but it’s always a bit more colourful to be jammed cheek-by-jowl with the raggedy natives and with the beggars pawing at you through the windows. As the bus pulled out of Suakin the crumbling coral-stone buildings of Suakin gave way to suburbs of rusty corrugated iron and wood shanty towns and just when we thought it couldn’t possibly get any less luxurious, the
shanties gave way to a hinterland of sparse nomad encampments of twigs and old carpets. Still, the flat desert coastal plain was resplendent with little pale blue, pink and yellow flowers, or so it seemed from a distance. For some reason there are millions of windblown plastic bags impaled on the scrub everywhere. Port Sudan is a bit more of a city and less tumbledown than Suakin but not much. The produce market was busy but being Friday it all began to get quiet in the afternoon. We found a place for lunch and had an excellent but simple meal of grilled chicken with rocket and tomato salad. It might have been the pleasures of an air-conditioner that made it taste so good. It’s painfully hot here. Back to Suakin and the market there was just opening up again so we called into a bakery for some bread fresh from the wood-burning ovens and used up the last of our local money on fruit. We sailed out of Suakin this morning but unfortunately didn’t manage to get very far as there are strong northerly winds and so we are hiding out in a ‘marsa’ inlet in the reef ten miles up the coast.

19:32.46N 037:19.50E near Port Sudan, Tuesday 28th April 2009
We just had a couple of days sheltering in Marsa Ata waiting for the weather to calm down along with Graham and Val (Silver Heels II) and Aron (Carina). Marsa Ata was interesting enough. It’s a big flat wetlands area with sea-eagles and flamingos. It’s a bit like the Norfolk Broads except for the wildlife and having no pubs. The weather is nice again and we are back underway.

21:21.06N 037:00.53E Khor Shinab, Sudan, Thursday 30th April 2009
The last couple of anchorages have been on some more isolated reefs off the Sudan coast. Tuesday night was on Sanganeb Reef. The snorkelling was some of the best I’ve seen. The coral has survived much of the bleaching that we saw in the Pacific atolls and on the Great Barrier Reef recently (what a poseur!). ‘Unbleached’ coral is very colourful stuff. The reef fish were also plentiful and in sparkling form. I particularly liked the clouds of tiny mixed gold and iridescent green fish hanging around the bommies. Wednesday morning was at Shab Rumi which also has very nice coral and also the remains of some of Jacques Cousteau’s undersea habitat experiments from the 1970’s. Also, apparently, the remains of one of his diving team but I never saw that. We had an overnight passage last night up to Khor Shinab. We are currently anchored in a spectacular big sea-inlet right into the heart of the mountainous Nubian Desert. The desert colours change with the angle of the sun but are mostly yellows, reds and purples. I can see only one solitary tree in the landscape and there are no people anywhere. Apart from ‘Silver Heels’ who are still travelling with us.

22:20.97N 036:49.13E somewhere in the no-man’s land between Sudan and Egypt, Monday 4th May 2009
After waiting out some northerly winds, we left Khor Shinab on Sunday morning and daysailed to Elba Reef. It is another excellent snorkelling site. As we now have some rare southerly winds we are now on a 150 mile dash across the wonderfully named Foul Bay. It’s not all that clear which national courtesy flag we should be flying just here as there seem to be unresolved issues concerning the border between Sudan and Egypt. As there is nothing much ashore, apart from a few scraggy camels, maybe nobody cares. We just caught a tuna and had sashimi for breakfast. We are all out of Cornflakes.

24:09.66N 035:41.91E, Fury Shoal, Egypt, Tuesday 5th May 2009
A southerly gale sent us surfing across the Tropic of Cancer last night. When we were most of the way across Foul Bay and in less than the time it took for me to think the autopilot had broken, the wind dropped to nothing
and came back as an equally strong gale from the north. I like to think this may have been merely a robust but affectionate farewell pat from the equatorial parts of our planet. We are now sheltering in splendid isolation on a windswept but not too bouncy reef on Fury Shoal where it is reputed that dolphins like to swim with yachties.

24:09.66N 035:41.91E, Fury Shoal, Egypt, Thursday 7th May 2009
We are still sheltering here on Fury Shoal and still waiting for the wind to behave. We’re in daily radio contact with a number of other yachts in the Red Sea and it seems everyone else is also trapped in the anchorage they find themselves in. Dolphin Reef on Fury Shoal, where we are, is surreal enough to be worth more of a description. This is a remote, entirely watery, spot offshore and we can see no land from here. To our north, only about 100 metres away, are crashing big breakers over the shallow coral on the reef front. In the moonlight the breakers are all that can be seen. We are anchored in the lagoon behind the coral in sand in very clear water. The wind is howling and the wind-generator is screaming but the big waves are fortunately mostly tamed by the time they get to us. So far the anchor is holding. The rigging has become crusty with salt and red with dust blown in off the desert. I took swim out to the inner edge of the coral earlier today, tooled up with wetsuit, snorkel and spear. This was mainly in an attempt to try to find something edible as we have no more fresh food onboard. There were plenty of fish but millions of years of evolution make it just too easy for fish to keep out of the stabbing range of us monkeys.

24:09.66N 035:41.91E, Fury Shoal, Egypt, Monday 11th May 2009
It’s now been over a week since we dropped anchor on this reef and we are getting stir crazy. A short lull in the wind this morning allowed ‘Silver Heels’ to join us here from the place they had to run into when the gale started but it was not enough to allow any of us to make any progress north. We are now well out of fresh food and are working our way through the canned stuff. Much of these cans are only in the locker as they are the unwanted residue from dozens of voyages. We have had some gastronomic successes though. A long lost can of Spam contributed to an almost Full English breakfast one day. Spam has been an illegal substance in the previous nine countries visited (and should really be illegal everywhere) so I don’t know where it came from but it was startlingly good when fried crispy. It was safe enough today to launch the dinghy. We motored across the lagoon and a big pod of dolphins came to investigate, as they are presumably contracted to do as this place is called Dolphin Reef. Three of them stayed to play and we swam around with them for a bit. A first for me. No pictures though as this crew didn’t bring any kit for underwater photography.

25:32.02N 034:38.12E Port Ghalib, Egypt, Thursday 14th May 2009
We left Dolphin Reef on Tuesday afternoon crashing through 20 knots of wind from the northwest. We set off with the intention of running back if it got nasty but by the early hours of Wednesday morning it was OK so we carried on to Port Ghalib arriving before lunch for fairly painless Egyptian formalities. We did have to have to be checked for Swine Flu though. Port Ghalib is a big new swanky resort with hotels, housing, restaurants and shops which is geared up for dive boat charters. The only thing it seems to be lacking is more than a handful of paying customers. Wednesday night was cholesterol catch-up night and we pigged out on cheeseburgers and beer in an otherwise empty ‘TGI Friday’s’ (a corporate name that makes little sense in a Moslem country if you ask me). With more beers in the ’50 Bar’ in the Marina Diving Hotel we took in a belly-dancing show but there wasn’t a lot of belly to be seen as the dancers were all a bit skinny. We did some happy-hour cocktails and Egyptian food this evening with Graham and Val (Siver Heels) who turned up this morning.

25:32.02N 034:38.12E Port Ghalib, Egypt, Saturday 16th May 2009
Provisioning here is proving to be a bit difficult. There is not much in the way of a regular Egyptian community out here in the desert. The hotel nearby has a stiff price list for boat food but even so they could only supply about half of what we wanted. We have some beer and chocolate now though so things are not critical. We have been hanging out at the Grande Café where they do a Happy Hour from 8 till 10, two-for-one Sakhara lager and a nice grilled chicken. I even tried a shisha pipe but it was only for the cinematographic effect. There is something a bit Hollywood about these Red Sea diving resorts and itwouldn’t surprise me to see Indiana Jones racing around in the marina. Perhaps making a sequel called ‘Raiders of the Lost World ARC’?

26:59.57N 033:59.87E 17m south of Hurghada, Tuesday 19th May 2009
We set off from Port Ghalib yesterday morning to have an overnight run up to Hurghada but it’s been bouncy with 30 knot+ winds against us and progress is slow. ‘Silver Heels’ ran for shelter inshore before dawn but anyone who can spend seven years just cruising past Thailand is in no real hurry.

27:13.51N 033:50.50E Hurghada Marina, Egypt, Wednesday 20th May 2009
Hurghada Marina is another new, barely open, resort where nothing looks to be more than a few months old. We ate at a restaurant onshore last night and I had filet mignon of camel with a chilli and chocolate sauce. It was very good. I also had an excellent wheat beer from Luxor. And you thought beer and chocolate was just sailing food!

22:33.75N 033:46.87E Endeavour Harbour, Tawila Island, Strait of Gubal, Egypt. Saturday 23 June 2009
Behind the glossy façade of the new marina at Hurghada we found a real town, admittedly touristy and obviously Egyptian. All kinds of good things could be purchased there using mobile phone, credit card and cash, just like the folks do out west. Supermarkets and alcoholic beverage suppliers even delivered stuff direct to our boat. Haircuts, fishing tackle and female
bar-room singers were all also within easy reach. Makes your head spin with the decadence of it all. On Wednesday we had a really good and inexpensive seafood meal out on the town with Graham and Val (Silver Heels); Graham and Suzy (Eeyore) and Peter (Cool Change). By Thursday evening I was struggling with a mild dose of King Tut’s Revenge. It was just me; I think I’m getting a bit sensitive to seafood. It was nowhere near as bad as the Tonga Trots but it kept me in my cabin all day. We have now left Hurghada and have parked up in strong wind at Endeavour Harbour twenty miles up the coast. They give places fancy names here but this is just an inlet in an uninhabited desert island near the bottom of the Gulf of Suez. We’re not finding any weevils in the ship’s biscuits any more but we spotted a couple of cockroaches sauntering around recently so we have some in-boat chemical warfare going on.

27:49.72N 033:34.97E Marsa Zeitiya, Gulf of Suez, Wednesday 27th May 2009
After a few days in strong winds at Endeavour Harbour we got what we thought was a lull on Tuesday morning and struck out to Marsa Zeitiya about 30 miles up the coast. It wasn’t a lull at all but we made it. Just. While we were edging through some reefs about half way there, the seawater impeller broke up and the engine coolant system boiled over and burst a pipe (again).
Fixing stuff while rolling around and trying keep from being blown onto the rocks is only fun when it’s over. Good helming Steve. Marsa Zeitiya is no better than Endeavour Harbour apart from having some oil rigs to look at. Canadian single-hander Peter ‘Cool Change’ has been stuck here a long time and seems to be going slightly mad. We had him over for beer and curry last night.

28:20.89N 033:06.78E Ras Gharib, Gulf of Suez, Thursday 28th May 2009
We set off from Marsa Zeitiya yesterday evening and had an overnight motor to Ras Gharib. The waves and wind were all too nasty to sail. The coastline here is still mountainous desert but is littered with oil tank farms and lit up with gas flares. The shipping lanes are squeezed close to shore in the Gulf of Suez. That and the oil offshore production platforms all made for a
busy night. Ras Gharib holds the distinction of being my first place of work as an adult all of 31 years ago. I was a snivelling mudlogging geologist at the time, pining for hearth and home. I had a rough journey there from Newcastle. My plane ticket had been cancelled by my office, by mistake, and I had to talk them into holding the plane on the runway at Newcastle until it was sorted out. The Kenyan Airways flight out of London didn’t want to land in Cairo because of some fog and landed at Jeddah instead, where the quickest way back to Cairo was to go to south of the Equator (my first time) to Nairobi; get a hotel and fly back to Cairo the next day. I landed in Cairo stone-deaf from some problem with decompression and made my way to another Cairo airport by sign language where an ex-Korean War Dakota flew me on to Ras Gharib. The final part of the trip involved dragging a drunk ex-Vietnam War helicopter pilot and an Egyptian military observer out of the bar in the Ras Gharib base to take me out to a BP/Deminex exploration drilling-rig that had been converted from an old trawler. Anyway, I played a tiny part in establishing the Egyptian oil industry. Also after I brokered the Camp David Agreement and peace with Israel in 1979, President Anwar Sadat gave me a medal and a huge palace overlooking the Nile. I made that last bit up.

29:03.47N 032:37.97E Mersa Thelemet, Gulf of Suez, Friday 29th May 2009

Another overnight motor last night got us to the anchorage of Marsa Thelemet. We slept all day to catch the northbound tide this evening up to Suez (hurray!) but 5 miles out this evening we got walloped by 40 knot headwinds (boo!) which is too much even for the salt-crusted seadogs that we are. We retreated with our seadog tails between our legs back to where we started.

29:03.47N 032:37.97E Mersa Thelemet, Gulf of Suez, Saturday 30th May 2009

The wind generator finally got wrecked in 40 knot winds. It was good while it lasted. We’re not going anywhere soon. Everton lost in the Cup Final which has depressed the crew. Wherever you are, you’re with the BBC.

29:03.47N 032:37.97E Mersa Thelemet, Gulf of Suez, Sunday 31st May 2009

The wind is still a howling gale and, even thought this is a well protected anchorage, we are still getting very rattled about and water is being blown over the deck. Just to add insult to injury we have also been in a sandstorm most of the day and the cockpit now looks like a sandpit. Nigella Lawson has been read a lot recently for inspiration with the food we have left. She has some kid’s recipes that include expressed breast milk but we won’t be trying them. It’s impossible to get hold of any here.

29:56.85N 032:34.37E Suez Yacht Club, Suez Canal, Tues 2nd June 2009

We had a nasty trip from Marsa Thelamet to Ras Sudr yesterday. There were strong winds and a dust storm and we had to hug the coast most of the way to keep out of boat-stopping waves. At the Ras Sudr anchorage on the east shore of the Gulf the winds became more pleasant and there were even dolphins playing around the boat. An early start this morning and we were tied up at the Suez Yacht Club by lunchtime. Which was nice. Lunch in the Red Sea Hotel and then a bit of boat cleaning which Steve thinks a waste of time as we will get dusty again along the Canal. It might be a wait of a couple of days here for formalities and warships getting priority southbound.

29:56.85N 032:34.37E Suez Yacht Club, Suez Canal, Friday 5th June 2009

This is our fourth night here in lovely Port Suez and it doesn’t look like we can start to transit the Canal now until at least Sunday. There have been submarines and other bit of military hardware swanning south and they get priority over more peaceable vessels, particularly ones with sails. I’m very vexed.

30:35.10N 032:16.34E Ismalia, Suez Canal, Sunday 7th June 2009

After being told we couldn’t leave Suez until Sunday we set to work doing some repairs then on Saturday afternoon we got one hours’ notice to take on a pilot and go. Naturally it was not easy and by the time we got to the Great Bitter Lake the Egyptian Army had had time to throw a floating bridge across the canal ahead of us. There was lots of shouting. By the early hours of this morning we were moored in Ismalia where we are once more waiting for a pilot for the run up to Port Said and freedom. The Suez Canal has coincidentally played a bit-part in my own family history. Most recently were my dad’s military adventures in Malaya that took him and fellow squaddies this way in the 1950’s. In 1916 my great-grandfather Joe had a one-way trip through here to Mesopotamia to machine-gun some Turks who very un-sportingly shot back. And as early as 1915 my great-uncle Reg of the East Lancs Regiment was in the area also fighting off Turks. The Turks at that time were attempting a hostile takeover of the Suez Canal Company. Of course, the canal wouldn’t even be here at all if it wasn’t for great-great uncle Ferdinand whose steadfast refusal in 1854 to admit a mistake with the coordinates turned a small drainage ditch project in Zululand into a major seaway in Egypt. More lies obviously.

31:32.21N 032:32.09E Eastern Mediterranean Sunday 7th June 2009

A pilot called Mohammed turned up and we had a days’ motor through the desert to Port Said where the pilot jumped off on to a launch, clutching his baksheesh. It was a happy moment to sail out of the harbour into the evening sun of the Mediterranean.
There are a couple of days at sea for us now until Larnaca, Cyprus.