Harveys Logbook

The Red Sea
March 2000

The Red Sea is a fascinating place, starting at the Bab El Mandeb, (the name of the 25 mile wide entrance) it rums 1100 miles to Suez.  At it's widest it is 190 miles wide. We entered it on Monday 28th Feb

We left Aden around 2 PM the day before and headed out into the calm sea just like a harbor sail, a 5-8 knot north easterly, the wind is from the right direction, this is where it is supposed to come from. The Coastline from little Aden and on is dramatic and spectacular. Huge volcanic mountains just like the Matterhorn with sand dunes and mini deserts between, the little Aden oil refinery is built on a little desert as are some other towns.

At the entrance is Mayyun island, we reached it at dawn. What a spectacle the sun rising over the flat sandy island on the Yemen side with some spectacular mountains on the mainland in the background. On the other side we can see some mountains as well, the shoreline of Djibouti and Eritrea, 3 countries in sight. Lots of ships passing through, northbound ships to the eastern Yemen side and southbound ships to the western Djibouti, Eritrea side. The flat sea becomes lumpy, no wind must be the combination of tide and current. Soon some wind springs up from the southwest, looks like you will soon be sailing. Not so, soon it peters out, the sky is very cloudy and soon we get a rainsquall. The wind firms to 5 knots from the north, the wrong direction. "The wind only comes from here 1 percent of the time, " says PO who has red the Red Sea pilot in detail. So we motor north all day beating into the breeze seeing lots of ships, both northbound and southbound all day and night. Most ships travel at around 15 knots two to three times our speed, we see them come, we see them go, just lights and radar images at night. World trade is alive and kicking, these are the semi trailers of the high sea. I had expected to see Arab Dhows carrying cargo. "Your too late, they are to slow and uncompetitive," said Gunnar.

It is bordered by, Yemen, Saudi and Arabia to the west, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Egypt to the east. At its deepest point it is 1200 meters deep a real canyon.  Along the eastern side off the coast of Eritrea there are many shallow spots and sandbars many not properly charted. However this is the way most people go. Saudi Arabia has no tourist visas and chases yachts off the coast when they anchor. We missed Eritrea altogether and went up the middle in the shipping lanes. So many ships travelling north and south, this must be one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, makes you realize the impact of the closure from 1967 to 1973.

Before long I realize how Many boats does the Red Sea passage, particularly after we got into the radio schedules. Nearly all travel up the western side close to the coast of Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt. Saudi Arabia on the western side doesn't issue tourist visas at all and chases yachts away from anchorages so no one goes there. It's a long way from latitude 12 at the straits to latitude 30 at Suez over 1000 nautical miles. The main prevailing wind is from the North, sometimes it blows from the south in the southern half. For us it blew from the north just about all the way, fortunately lightly for the first half.  Places to get fuel and supplies include Masawa in Eritrea, Suwakin and Port Sudan in Sudan and Safaga in Egypt.
After 6 days of mostly motoring we are ready for a rest and select Khor Nuwarat about 15 miles across the Border from Eritrea. Khor Nuwarat means bay of Nuwarat, the anchor point Gunnar has picked out is Ras Istay, Point Istay.  The Red Sea pilot book gives us an accurate position to go for just off the bay and good directions to get in, The most visible landmark is a bunch of black rocks, exposed coral heads on the fringing reef, the entrance is just between these rocks and an island. We drop anchor at about 1Pm, 200 meters off the fringing reef to a bay beach and sit in a steady boat, aah what a relief. The afternoon is very cloudy, it even started spitting a fine misty rain on and off. The landscape we can see is flat and arid, no big mangroves just little bush that with waxy leaves in the salty soil. In the distance we can make out some sand hills.

The Pilot book says "No one lives here, there used to be a village on a nearby island but that's gone now. Nomadic fishermen come by from time to time in their four wheel drives or camels, want to trade for cigarettes. After lunch another yacht come in and drops anchor beside us, French. Before we left 3 more yachts came in and we were to hear on the radio lots of others too. Everyone has the pilot book. It's a good anchorage so lots come. "Let's go ashore," said Niklas. So we went for a walk in the scrub, the first time I have landed in a new country with no passport and formalities.  The moment we hit the beach Niklas says "Look at all the shells" they were everywhere, and camel tracks, no four wheel drive tracks but heaps of camel tracks and piles of shells everywhere. Obviously the boys from the desert come down here from time to time for a shellfish feast, they must go diving on the fringing reefs and bring the shellfish, lobsters and crabs back to camp for a feast. The highest point around is a sand rige maybe 10 meters above sea level. We all walked off by ourselves, what a relief, Niklas and PO came back with a great collection of shells.

The French yacht next door launches it's dinghy the come buy to say hello but no English. Later the dinghy comes by again with different people. "May we come aboard" they ask. "Sure we say". He went on to explain "I am a retired lawyer from Paris, since 1994 I have been sailing my yacht around the world, the Atlantic, the pacific, Australia, Malaysia, Phuket and on to here. I spend 4 or 5 months a year on the yacht my crew longer".  " I thought I had all the charts but are missing two of the Red Sea, My friend is a draftsman and navigator, would you mind if he made a copy of two of your charts?"  "No not at all" said Gunnar. While he was making the copies we chatted further.  " Djibouti" is an awful place" he said, The people are lazy and thieves, stole some things off us and took us down on the fuel purchase".  " However Eritrea is a great place, the people are really industrious, we went to Massawa and the capital. Now we are off to Sowakin in Sudan then on to Egypt and the Canal". ". The conversation wen on to discuss agents, they had a bad experience with one in Mali and the apparent necessity to have an agent for the Suez Canal.

After another day there we head off at 7 Am to head north straight into the wind and sea, motor motor, motor we go, After while it starts to get very choppy and we slow right down. Gunnar is debating "keep heading north or Talla Talla". The Pilot book lists this island as one that is easy and safe to approach it is out of our line so we can sail there from where we are.    "Raise the sails," says Gunnar and off we go, soon making 7 and 8 knots and a far more comfortable ride. Dropped anchor on the open but calm lee south side of the island late in the afternoon. "Let's go ashore," says Niklas. After walking to the first ridge we can see a huge Central Valley and what a huge but barren island this is. Nobody lives here lots have visited, I think of the Greek Island of Kalimos like this one with a village and over 1000 people. We spent 4 days there, the wind kept blowing strongly from the northwest and Gunnar kept saying, "it's no good fighting that chop, it's got to ease soon. While we were there a number More yachts came and went. Most went on to Suwakin a good protected port with fuel available and limited supplies. We did not, for some reason the boats insurers do not like Eritrea or Sudan and unless the owner pays heaps extra there is no insurance cover in these ports so we don't go.

Gunnar found and came in at the tail end of a radio schedule this morning, the lady leading it sounds like an Aussie. "You'd better take it Harvey. I did the next day and we became avid listeners to these informal gatherings each day. We hear from yachts all the way from Masawa Eritrea to near Suez. Each yacht reports its position, wind, sea and weather conditions. This proves to be the most reliable weather information available, there is one weather report from Jeddah we hear that is not very good.  By nothing on a pad the latitude of the various yachts you have a clear picture of what it's like in the seas ahead.
It's an informal gathering, set for 4.30 Am GMT, that's 7.30 local time each day. One Yacht agrees to be moderator calls for and receives reports from each boat, first any emergencies, then "calling for reports from yachts in the northern red sea, Come now" the moderator says and receives and repeats each one followed by the southern Rred Sea and Gulf of Aden approaches. In addition there is lots of chatter and other information traded, one guy has a sick dog on board, "Is there a vet among the fleet" he asks, the best suggestion he gets is to call a vet with a radio in Vienna. We hear more glowing reports of Masawa as well as Sakura, information on Port fees, Agents, fuel costs and all sorts of useful information is swapped. Suwakin is a ruin we hear but the people friendly and pleasant. The bus to Port Sudan is cheap and you can get plenty of supplies there. More went to Sakura then Port Sudan, corrupt officials and higher charges, so the word sure spreads on the grapevine.

After 4 days at Talla Talla listening to the schedules each day on 8123 kHz, the wind conditions look right. In a hike to the windward side of the island we can see no more white caps and reports from further up are of calms flat seas which is the best to expect. It hardly ever blows from the south here and this is good for motoring. Gunnar prefers motor sailing using main only and pointing much higher than an ordinary tack but still not straight for the target, we set and changed lots of waypoints en route.  The wind increased from the northwest all the way with only small swings.
After 2 days of motoring it is obvious we cannot continue, we are past latitude 20 but the wind The wind builds up to around 25 knots slowing us right down. That's what is happening everywhere even up at Swafega and beyond there is reports of 25 to 30 knots. Off with the motor and we start sailing, tacking from the west side towards the eastern side of the sea.
On our first tack we cross paths with the British Yacht Cormorant, saw him a long way off and we kept coming together. We are on port, "he must be on starboard," I thought. Not so, he is a ketch like us with 3/4 main and a small staysail but pointing far higher than us. With all that sea we are on a collision course and have to give way and pass behind him to miss.  I am despondent, sailing like this against the wind, tacking from one side to the other we are only going to make 50 miles a day. There is no way we can reach Suez by Saturday to meet the girls and Diana on Sunday.

Gunnar tries to cheer me up "What if the wind dies out altogether we have to conserve fuel"`says Gunnar.  "But when we get within 200 miles which we have fuel for we can go for it" he says. So I changed the plan emailed the girls and said "we wont be in Suez in time, come to Safaga Hurgatha instead" Spent 3 days to do only 150 miles, tests your patience, oh If I could only have got off and jumped on a plane.  Now I know how those tail end yachts in last years Hobart felt slogging into headwinds making only a few miles each day while the leaders basked in the glory of beating the records. Just on dusk one evening we reef in the sails for the strengthening breeze and then Halelulia the breeze dies down just what we want. On with the motor and soon we are doing 5 1/2 knots straight for Swafega. So we motor all night keeping up our speed around 5 knots, that's the decision if we stay faster than 4.5 knots we continue to motor, if not we sail. Shortly after dawn the wind picks up so it's sail. In the afternoon ithas died right down, on with the motor in the best sea conditions since before Khor Nawarat but only 2.5 knots across the ground when we are easily doing 5 knots plus through the water. Gunnar is disgusted, "Bloody Red Sea, first decent sea and the current is against us, according to the charts it's supposed to be with us".  He said.  We persisted and after a couple of hours had our 5 knots plus and were headed straight for Swafega.

Not that easy though, Gunnar dips the fuel tank " We don't have enough to make Safaga, have to go to Quesar, a little town 40 miles before Safaga.  By lunchtime it becomes obvious we don't even have enough fuel to get to Quesat and it's dead flat with no wind at all.

"I have a plan," says Gunnar. "What can it be?" I think. Some ripples come over the water, "What, breeze from the south east headed straight for Queasier". Sure enough that's what it is, only enough for 3 knots but wow what a stroke of luck, it only blows from the south on average 4 days a year says the pilot book. After dinner the wind has picked up, Gunnar has his charts and maps out furiously making calculations and plots. 
"This is not a sea breeze, its going to keep up we are changing course for Safega be there mid morning " he says. Next thing PO, Ingemar, and he are working like beavers on deck changing sails polling out the headsail and were off. "Might change the watches tonight, put you and PO on at midnight so you can keep tuning the sails so we get maximum speed," says Gunnar as I go to bed.  Instead of PO waking me it's Gunnar. "The wind died, I didn't dare keep going for Swafege, look at our course, what a Zig Zag".  "Quesar is just over there, too dark to find an anchor spot now, I go to sleep now and we go in at dawn" he says.  So there it is holly has chosen Quasar for us. After dawn it's an easy passage in, we anchor and have breakfast.

We fill up with diesel there but no landing so after lunch it's off to Safega under motor doing 7 and 8 knots looking foreword to clearing in and going out that night but alas no. Bu the time we reach port the south east breeze has picked up to 15 knots plus and it's blowing straight towards the wharf, far to choppy to tie up. Back to anchor in the bay behind a coral reef for the night. "Oh no wish we could go ashore" we all moan. Then just before bedtime bang comes the northwest's, straight off the wharf where it will be dead calm again but too late for clearance.

So off to the wharf and clear in next morning. Here at last and a well deserved break from the boat with Diana.  Gunnar, Nicolas PO and Ingemar do the last little bit to Suez. "Rough in the straight, huge waves with only 10 knots of breeze" said Gunnar. They had one rough night in the three it took, 40 knots plus and of course motored the whole way to the Suez yacht Club, that's where all the sailors go and say "Shit what a trip" We pushed ourselves because of time, most of the cruisers don't. It's not uncommon for them to take up to 8 weeks to do the trip anchoring nearly every night, in a bay, port or behind a reef.
Hey waves a guy from the shore, Gunnar and I go in, he is the ships chandler Hasim Salib, related to the guy mentioned in the red sea pilot who in 1993 used to bring fuel in drums a donkey cart. Gunnar negotiates for fuel and clearance and we order 1400 liters. What about a phone call, we want to phone Diana and Liz, "In an hour" he says. Then young soldier comes with 2 mates "No you cannot clear in here, you have to go to Safaga and you are not allowed into the town" we got out of him in broken English. "What about a phone call". No is the reply.