Tuesday, March 31, 2009

North towards Suez

After being storm bound for three days, an almost too good to be true, benign weather-window has appeared, hopefully allowing me to make the 300 miles to Suez in light variable winds - fatigue and self steering permitting.

Port Ghalib was a strange place to be stuck. A massive new tourist development situated in the middle of otherwise "undeveloped" desert. The architects have placed the yacht moorings in front of a large hotel and I think we added more "colour" than perhaps intended. Shaggy sailors working on engines and carting cans of diesel, juxtaposed with northern Europe tourists on a winter-sun package.
On arrival it took us all morning to clear the customs berth so that by the time we headed over to the quay, a strong northerly had picked-up. The moorings were arranged Mediterranean style - stern to the quay. This was my first experience in Kika of a Mediterranean mooring in which berthing involves a precise reverse into the quay, between two other boats, with concerned owners looking-on, and the added challenge of a strong cross-wind.

Going astern has never been mine or Kika's strongest suit and adding precision and cross-wind into the mix didn't make things any easier. Fortunately the marina must have observed similar manoeuvring problems before and had a boat on-hand to aid, but still it wasn't one of my better efforts, though the only damage was to my ego.

I joined a fleet of six French boats, my New Zealand Whangarei neighbour, "Eric the Viking" on Vagabond Virgin, great to catch-up, and a couple of other boats, including my companions for the last few days Paddy and Caroline on Kristiane. It was a good sociable time between engine filter changes, numerous electronic pilot fixes, and diesel and water refills.

This morning I cleared my quay slot before the wind picked up and headed out to sea. As forecast there's a moderate north-westerly has picked-up and for a change I'm making good headway under sail. I'm very happy to postpone the trial of my fixes to the electronic pilot in favour of the wind steering and it's great to give the engine a rest - it didn't seem too happy to be leaving this morning - I've added "cold-start glow-plugs" to my ever expanding list of repairs - or perhaps it's just complaining about the excessive work it's had to endure over the last couple of weeks.

It looks like the hotel will be deprived of its colourful adornment as the whole quay is leaving today while the going is good - but I guess it won't be too long before a new batch of weather-worn sailors arrive to dismantle their boats besides the sun-bathers.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Escape from Dolphin Reef

The wind kept me pinned within Dolphin Reef for three frustrating but enjoyable days. With Kristiane moored outside the lagoon I made a daily wet dinghy pilgrimage to meet them for sun-downers and invariably stayed for supper. The second night, I was well prepared, remembering to turn on Kika's anchor light, take a torch and hand-held VHF in-case of problems. Trouble was after a few too many drinks I watched in horrified slow motion as the VHF slipped from my pocket and disappeared into the dark waters around the dinghy. That'll teach me - or perhaps not ...

The days passed quickly with much weather punditry, boat jobs and snorkeling in the incredibly clear, but cold waters around the reef. I spent one morning cleaning barnacles off the bottom of the keel, where the anti-fouling hadn't reached when we painted the bottom on the careening grid in Darwin. They'd cemented themselves in-place making for slow but satisfying work. As I gradually chipped away at the organic layer, I was compensated for my labour by the many intrigued fish who remained close, presumably to see if the bits falling from Kika offered any kind of nutritious snack. The highlight were two huge Napoleon wrasses slowly circling underneath, completely unperturbed by my frequent graceless dives and vigorous scraping.

The reef was well stocked with large fish including some tasty looking grouper; unfortunately spear fishing is prohibited in Egypt, but fortunately not can-openers.

On the third day I made my way outside the lagoon and tied to a line used by the live-aboard dive boats; I relocated to permit our planned nocturnal get-away. After a few teasing lulls, at 10pm the wind had unambiguously dropped and we set off anticipating we'd have light winds for the 100 miles trip to Port Ghalib. I left with high hopes that the fix I'd made for the self-steering would save me from 20 hours fixed to the helm.

Soon we found ourselves in a large sea, making slow headway and by morning the wind picked-up again whipping-up the sea further and frequently halting our progress as we ploughed into the large waves. Fortunately the pilot showed an anchorage in the lee of a coral fringed sand split a few miles towards the coast. I'd decided I needed a rest after a busy night when the electronic pilot had packed-up within the first hour. Kristiane readily agreed and we picked our way between the bommies into the shelter behind the island.

North of Port Sudan the quality of the charts deteriorates significantly, with the chartlets in the pilot guide the only detailed source available. The chart is clear that it should not be relied upon for boats cruising the coast:
Due to the age and quality of some of the source information, positions obtained from satellite navigation systems may be more accurate than the charted detail ... Most of the area covered by this chart has not been systematically surveyed. Many depths are from miscellaneous lines of passage soundings, old leadline surveys or from other Governments' charts whose source material is unknown. Uncharted shoals and patches of coral may exist.

I spent a vexing afternoon in the anchorage battling with the autopilot and trying to fix a new problem with the down switch of the electric windlass which seemed to be short-circuited and caused the chain to run-out as soon as the windlass was powered. The double frustration was that the manufacturers (Lofrans) had fitted tamper-proof screws to the unit preventing me from even attempting a fix, short of drilling out the screws. The end result is that I can't solve the problem and have had to work round it by disconnecting the motor down connection. Then I invested quality time with the autopilot but despite deepening my understanding of its inner workings, I ended the afternoon no closer to a solution. However positively, the forecast showed the wind easing overnight we jumped at the chance to try again to cover the remaining 60 miles to Port Ghalib.

I studied the pilot guide and decided to try the passage north between the island and the shore, rather than retrace our path and add 4 miles to the journey. Kristiane agreed to follow behind me, though with the sun low in the sky it was tricky picking a route through the coral. After successfully edging my way round one large coral head I looked over my shoulder and was horrified to see Kristiane up on the reef. I was enjoying the challenge of the route, but in retrospect felt I hadn't sufficiently emphasized the dangers to Kristiane so felt some responsibility for their predicament. Just as I reached them, they scraped themselves clear, and somewhat shaken decided to take the longer route round. I pressed on a little more cautiously and found my way to clear water, my achievement tempered by guilt.

For most of the night my earlier shortcut kept me ahead, which was fortunate as just after 11pm the engine died as I unexpectedly ran out of fuel. Kristiane, who put their earlier mishap down to experience, quickly caught up to Kika, and saved the day by offering me their last two fuel cans - enough to make Port Ghalib and saving me from drifting helplessly in the windless night. I'd bought extra fuel cans in Aden, and thought I would have enough fuel, but had clearly underestimated the fuel consumption in previous days' heavy seas. For once the wind behaved as anticipated and despite another exhausting night glued to the wheel, morning revealed the channel leading to our first official port of entry in Egypt, with the chance to check-in, refuel, reprovision, clean-up and put back the clocks to a new timezone - GMT+2.

26/3/2009 (16:00) - Mooring outside Dolphin reef: N24deg 09.4' E35deg 42.65'
27/3/2009 (10:00) - Gezirat Wadi Gimal: N24deg 39.5' E35deg 09.4'
28/3/2009 (06.30) - Customs' berth @ Port Ghalib: N25deg 32.0' E34deg38.3'

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Storm bound in Dolphin Reef

The forecast indicated the wind was going to shift to the NW sometime between midnight and 6am. With my original cunning plan I would have arrived in Port Ghalib between 4 and 5am, which I naively assumed would be before the strong north-westerlies arrived. Last night I woke up at 2.30am to roaring winds and thanked my autopilot for scuppering my attempts to beat the weather - I would have been caught out in 30 gusting 35 knots of head-wind in nasty short breaking seas, probably unable to make headway towards my destination. Instead I let out more chain on my primary anchor and spent an hour readying my third anchor just in-case I started dragging; my second anchor was already set to the stern to stop me swinging as the wind shifted. Fortunately the anchors held and my third anchor remains on-deck unused. I guess this type of sudden change is the kind of weather that gives the Red Sea its fearsome reputation.

The wind is bombarding the boat with desert sand, plastering all leading surfaces with what looks like a layer of grime. It's a losing battle to try to clean it off, but it makes Kika looked very unloved - just hope there's freely available fresh water in Cyprus.

Amongst other signs I'm getting closer to a European spring is the decrease in the temperature of the water. Even in a wet-suit, it now takes me an hour or so to fully warm up after a session in the water. With the wind screaming across the reef today, I'm afraid I didn't make it into the sea and spent the day working down-below.

When I arrived last night there were four live-aboard dive boats moored outside the reef, dwarfing a solitary yacht. As I approached the reef I had a brief chat with Christian - the yacht - and concluded there weren't any available moorings and in any case if I was going to try to anchor in the reef's lagoon, I had no time to spare. This evening I made the effort to extract the dinghy from the forepeak, inflate it, and make my way over to meet the crew of Kristiane. A fun evening, but I'm glad I'm inside the reef, despite the sound of the wind, there's negligible swell making it across the reef, compared to the mooring outside. It looks like I'm going to be here for at least another day possibly longer waiting for a break in the weather, so plenty of time to explore my temporary home environment. From the sound of the various radio nets, the whole sailing community is temporarily halted in their progress north, waiting for a break in the weather.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Great push north: days 3 - 4

I waited in the anchorage until last light to leave, hoping the seas would ease a little, but in reality they were much as before. However I knew the seas would calm down overnight and that makes a few hours of hard slog into a big sea bearable.
The cunning plan began to unraveled when the autopilot insisted on steering me in circles. I tried every trick I've learnt over the last few months to persuade this obstreperous machine into steering anything resembling a straight course - nothing worked. I hove-to and attempted to fix the problem. As I've done many times before I removed the chain linking the pilot to the rudder and put the servo drive unit on the chart table to fault-find. As I searched for tools in the stern, Kika healed over as a large wave passed and there was a crash from the saloon. The heavy drive unit had toppled over and punched a hole in the floor board. An expletive laden hour later the pilot was back in position after a "Nick fix"™ and ready for a trial. The result - larger radius circles, but not significantly better. Time to admit defeat. Hove-to, I was drifting slowly away from the reefs, yet still clear of the shipping lanes. I felt defeated and exhausted so decided that a few hours sleep would put things back into perspective. Once refreshed time to rethink; I was keen to make it across Foul Bay, but Port Galib was no long viable. Instead I settled on Dolphin Reef 90 miles to the north, just to the north of the bay, but just possible to make in day-light and do-able hand-steering

I'd forgotten the monotony of being stuck on the helm hour after hour unable to leave without the boat rapidly heading off course. I tried various options with the wind-steering, elastic and ropes but when I needed a break, I resorted to idling the engine and letting the boat drift.

Dolphins and fish brought relief to the tedium. It was impossible not be swept up in the euphoria dolphins seem to have as they leap out of the water when heading in your direction in what I imagine is joy at the excitement of a boat to play with. It seems Dolphin Reef is aptly named as I had four separate dolphin visits. The other excitement was the first non-barracuda I'd hooked in days. I eased the engine and slowly reeled the monster in. You get to know the type of fish on the line by how they behave. Tuna and barracuda largely seem to give-up and let themselves be reeled in as they skim along the surface, though barracuda fight the closer they get to the boat. Mahi-mahi stay under the surface and swim from side to side, sometimes jumping out to try to free themselves and put up an impressive fight the closer they are to the boat. By the way this monster was behaving, I'd hooked a large mahi-mahi - my digestive juices began flowing in anticipation. Male mahi-mahi have a distinctive hump above their head, as I carefully reeled in my food for the next few days I could see clearly that I'd hooked a female. However before I'd had a chance to gaff her, I noticed her mate swimming beside her. I hesitated entranced by the two fish swimming together; did I really want to bring fishy bereavement to such a loyal partnership? My delay was just long enough for her to leap out of the water and shake herself free of my hook. The decision had been made for me and I was relieved and happy with the result. Am I going soft?

I just made Dolphin Reef with enough light to ease my way into the lagoon between the patches of coral and dive to check the anchors in the fading light.

The "Great push north" is temporarily suspended here, while I wait for a break in the weather. Still I'm across Foul Bay and have entered Egyptian waters. Tomorrow I'm looking forward to some snorkeling on the reef before battling with the autopilot.

Anchorage in Dolphin Reef (18:00 23/3/2009): N24deg 09.7' E35deg 42.4

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Great push north: day 3

This morning the NW 10-15 knots forecast turned into NW 20-25 knots and a correspondingly nasty sea built. I hove-to and studied the options. It seems careful attention to the pilot book pays. Initially I only studied the overview chart which shows a dearth of good anchorages within Foul Bay. However on closer inspection the detailed sketches highlight a few reasonable options. I decided to shelter in an anchorage behind a bank of coral 18 miles to the west, it was the closest, best and most sailable option. Like a lot of coral anchorages the route is edged by hazards and I was a little concerned about simultaneously spotting the bombies and steering the boat. I needn't have worried - the large seas were very visibly breaking on the banks and with the sun behind me, the shallow patches and isolated coral pillars were easy to spot by the colour change of the water. I expected I'd have the anchorage to myself, as I assumed all sensible sailors would be tucked up in a secure haven waiting for the wind to decrease, however a third of the Scandinavian fleet seemed to be suffering from the same madness and had arrived a few hours earlier.

Once anchored in the calm waters of the reef's lee, what to do next? Would the "Great push north" grind to a halt in Foul bay? Pondering the options and formulating a plan is the kind of challenge I enjoy. The forecast indicated easing winds tonight, continuing light on Monday, followed amazingly by southerly winds Monday night, but suddenly the weather window slams shut with 25 knots from the NW on Tuesday morning. Another complication is that most anchorages are fringed by coral and when anchoring on the coast you need to arrive no later than 3-4pm, otherwise the sun is in your eyes and you can't spot the path through the coral. However it seemed a shame to waste half a day of light winds and the rare southerly wind in the night, by prematurely halting my progress north. Slowly a plan emerged that startled me in its cunningness. Port Ghalib is 180 miles from my Foul Bay anchorage, it has a lit entrance allowing me to arrive at night and make the most of the rare southerly winds and arrive before the onset of the strong north-westerlies.

Anchorage in Shab Abu Fendera (12.00, 22/3/2009): N22deg 53.4' E36deg18.5'

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Great push north: day 2

Today felt a little like the calm before the storm. The sea was flat, the wind from behind, making for very pleasant sailing. However the winds are forecast to increase and shift to the north, but not as strongly as normal so I'm taking my chances. I've been making the most of the calm day, by airing the pillows and sheets, baking bread, giving the engine a little love in the form of an oil change, and decanting diesel from the extra cans I bought in Aden that look like they're about to burst their contents at any moment.

The obstacle ahead is the aptly named "Foul Bay". A coral strewn bay with only tenuous or difficult entry anchorages meaning there's 130 miles between safe havens. Although the favourable southerly disappears overnight I can't see a better weather window appearing in the next week so rather than waiting an indeterminate time for the perfect winds, I'm motoring into moderate seas with a head wind. While sensible boats have found a beautiful secure anchorage on the Sudanese coast and are sipping their first sun-downer, I'm bouncing around in the dark. It's not pleasant, but I'm slowly making my way across the bay. The strong northerlies resume on the 24th so I'm saving my sun-downers for then.

Position @ 20:00 (21/3/2009): N22deg07' E37deg01'

Friday, March 20, 2009

Great push north: day 1

I didn't quite make my planned 3am start, but thought 4.30am wasn't a bad effort. There's currently a little more moonlight later in the night which helped me very cautiously edge my way out of the reef-break leading into Suakin.

The anchorage in Suakin was busy with both Scandinavian and French boats who have opted to travel together. En masse the anchorage decided to make the most of the break in the prevailing northerly winds and head as far up the Red Sea as possible before normal conditions reassert themselves. With my earlier start I thought I'd get a head start on the other boats, but once clear of Suakin I noticed Blue Marlin following close behind, with the other boats emerging soon after at dawn. I soon left the other boats as I opted for a more direct route north outside the protective inshore reef. It seems my gamble paid off as there was little swell in the sea after a calm night.

Radio propagation in the Red Sea is surprising. Normally VHF radio range from yacht-to-yacht is 20-25 miles. However here it's possible to talk to other yachts on the VHF 100-200 miles distant. Great to hear familiar voices ahead, as sadly I seem to have left the pirate busting group behind. It was a relief to hear from "Helen Kate" yesterday who headed off along the Saudi shore from the Hanish Islands. They don't have a short-wave transmitter so it's been impossible for the rest of us to hear how they were getting along. It seems they sailed the east coast without being arrested and are now 90 miles ahead of me. Perhaps their gamble paid off..

Position @ 21:15 (GMT +3) 20/3/2009 N20deg17' E37deg32'

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Today I felt like I'd entered a different era; donkeys suddenly became the main means to transport goods. Mules and camels also shared the burden and the twenty-first century occasionally intervened with a scattering of tut-tuts, Toyotas and Landrovers.
The ruins of Suakin indicate there was once an impressive city here, it's almost as though I'd entered a post-apocalyptic future, with the survivors scraping a living amongst the derelict buildings of the former advanced civilisation with no means, no use or no inclination of rebuilding their once great city.
The "hello mister, welcome to Yemen" greeting we received across the water, was replaced with a slightly more reserved, "hello mister, how are you?" though huge smiles met any response I offered. I restocked at the market, no need to worry about scurvy for a while. Kika has been refilled with diesel and the omens look good for a push north. The flow of strong northerly winds have been temporarily interrupted by a confusing combination of low and high-pressures giving light winds from a variety of directions. I'd hoped to leave this evening, but Mohammed was called off on some other business and I've only just received my passport (8.30pm). My new plan is to set the alarm for 3am, when hopefully I'll have some moon-light and cautiously make my way out of the port channel and set sail north for Egypt.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Into Africa

After yesterday's monster barracuda incident, I was a little reticent to put out the line again. However I noticed Blue Marlin, one of the Norwegian boats, pulling in a small tuna and thus suitably encouraged I deployed the fishing gear. Ten minutes later I had what looked like a good sized tuna on the line. When I landed the fish, the poor thing was missing the last third of its body, someone had taken a meal from it in the time it took me to reel it in. It reminded me of the cautionary words I was given some time ago as I was preparing to snorkel, "remember when you go in the water, you're entering the food-chain and you're not at the top!"

There are two routes from Long Island, my overnight anchorage, to Suakin - today's destination. Normally I'd enjoy the challenge of the shorter tricky coral dodging passage, however it's hard to be up the ratlines and on the wheel at the same time so I opted instead for the easier slightly longer passage. It's a shame as given the stunning turquoise waters around the small coral islands I passed on the easy passage, I imagine the extra challenge of the inshore passage must have been easily balanced by its beauty. Sailing along the coast, my anticipation of the imminent landfall increased as I caught my first sight of the new continent; hazy desert running to the sea with mountain ranges painted on the background - like a film set.

Up until the end of the nineteen century Suakin was the principle port of Sudan. According to my pilot guide it was destroyed by the British military around the turn of the century and the shipping moved north to Port Sudan. Sailing between coral fringed sand-dunes down the long entrance into Suakin, it felt as though I was sailing into the heart of the desert. Eventually the channel ends at the ruins of the old city, apparently still in much the same condition as when it was destroyed over hundred years ago. I've never seen anything quite like it. It's one of those places were you can't wait to pump up the dinghy and get ashore - well actually most landfalls are like that - but this one especially so.
Sadly before exploring on land, you need to check-in. Mohammed (who else?) is a local agent and busied himself all afternoon taking five copies of the crew list, passports, crew photos, diesel orders and fees from every boat. In return we'll receive a shore pass and tomorrow can finally head ashore to explore.

2:30pm Suakin: N19deg 06.5' E37deg 20.4

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

East coast sailing?

It's been a while since I've eaten a mahi-mahi, I treated myself to yesterday's fish for breakfast this morning and what a treat, I'd forgotten quite how delicious they taste.

From not seeing any boats for a couple of days, at 6.30am, as I passed the sheltered bay of Khor Nawarat, the Scandinavian fleet emerged from the various anchorages within and joined me for the sail to Long Island - 40 miles along the coast. The VHF came alive with melodic sounds of Norwegian and Swedish voices - haven't a clue what they were saying - but there seemed to be a lot to discuss.

After my delicious breakfast I had high hopes for today's fishing. Sure enough the line had only been out for 10 minutes and started screaming out - the sound of a big fish. I imagined filling the fridge with mouth-watering mahi-mahi steaks. Carefully I reeled in my catch, only to discover a monster barracuda - not what I'd ordered at all. They sit high up the food chain with the associated risk of ciguatera poisoning - to my taste they also smell bad. I had the best intentions of releasing my predator friend back to sea, but he didn't seem to appreciate my efforts to extract the hook from his vicious mouth, in-fact I think he could do with an anger management course as he seemed intent on extracting his pound of flesh from my hands. I eventually managed to free my fishing tackle, and return my unwanted catch to the sea, but he'll have a very sore mouth for a while.
The countries in this area make the cruising sailor's life a little easier by using similarly designed flags. The Sudanese flag is the same as the Yeman flag with the addition of a green triangle, the Egyptian colours add an eagle motif. So take some green fabric, contact adhesive and a Yeman flag and bingo an instant Sudanese flag. Wonder if Blue Peter would be interested in the idea?

As I arrived at the Long Island anchorage I could almost imagine I was on the east coast of the UK, sailing down the Twizzle with birds calling out from scrub covered low-lying sandy islands. UK - no coral in Essex and the waters a little colder, but how about a twinning campaign; Walton-on-the-Naze twinned with Shubuk, Sudan?

Long island anchorage @ 16:30 17/3/09 N18deg 46' E37deg 39.5'

Monday, March 16, 2009

Slowly north towards Sudan

I'm slowly making my way towards Khor Nawarat, Sudan. I will have taken 48 hours to make the mere 140 miles to the anchorage from Harmil island. The winds have been light and ahead of me and my actual track tells a different story, of a busy zig-zaging northwards. Still so far it's easy sailing, none of the short-steep waves the Red Sea is infamous for and I'm clear of the shipping lanes so the radar has been silent all day.

I'm still finishing off the large tuna of a couple of days ago, but the fish have been taunting me, jumping out of the water around the boat - big tasty-looking fish. They gave me little choice than to put the line in again. In no time, I'd hooked a small mahi-mahi. Its size gives me an excuse for another go tomorrow.
Position @ 23:00 N17deg56' E38deg50'

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A day in Eritrea

The Red Sea has been showing its gentler side today - calm seas with 10-15 knots of wind, making for very pleasant sailing.

I managed to keep the spinnaker up until 4am, when the wind died and I motored the remaining 20 miles to Harmil Island. It was a good job I arrived in daylight as as I quickly found myself enmeshed in a maze of coral heads and had to bid a cautious retreat until using the ratlines I could make-out a clear passage into the anchorage. The pilot guide referred to Harmil island as uninhabited. Being king of an island for a day always appeals, even if it's a land with a little else than a few stunted mangroves clinging to its otherwise barren sand. However no time to loiter, I wanted to press on while the strong northerly wind remained further up the Red Sea. So after dropping anchor I wasted no time in heading up the mast to investigate the furling problem. As I manually unrolled the genoa at the mast-head a boat rounded the NE tip of the island and headed in my direction. I didn't like the idea of a boat load of strangers arriving while I was dangling helplessly from the mast so I made a record-breaking descent just as the local military arrived. Despite the threatening looking weapons onboard my first and only Eritrean visitors were all smiles and left once they'd received some "gifts" - a couple of old novels and some drinks. They had a base at the southern end of the island - so much for pilot guide's claim of uninhibited lands. Not sure they appreciated my effort flying their flag, it was only up for a day and has now been replaced by a Sudanese courtesy flag.

I've just feasted on ceviche (thanks to Danika on Mata'irea for the recipe). I caught a fat dog-tooth tuna yesterday and have been making the most of it all day.

The parable of the weed and the boat hook
One day a boat was sailing through a sea dotted with floating weed. After some time the weed became tangled around the self-steering servo rudder and the skipper of the boat noticed the speed had dropped from 5 to 4 knots. "I must remove the weed so that I'll arrive in the next anchorage before the wind turns against me", thought the skipper. His first plan was to use the boat hook to pull the weed from the rudder. He hung over the back of the boat and struggled with the boat hook for over half an hour trying to remove the weed, but the thickest weed at the bottom of the rudder was the hardest to reach and he failed to remove it. Suddenly inspiration arrived. Instead of battling precariously off the back he simply stopped the boat - the weed fell free. Pleased with himself he felt master of all problems, rapidly solved the genoa furling problem with liberal use of boiling water and WD40 as well as finding a novel solution to reuse mast winches' head when hoisting additional sails. The moral: A restful night away from shipping makes troublesome problems vanish.

Hamil Island anchorage (8.30): N16deg32.9' E40deg10.1'
Position @ 20:00 (GMT+3): N17deg00' E39deg45'

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Superstitous sailors?

We'd studied the weather, debated our route and had decided unanimously to brave the conditions and leave our windy anchorage in Hanish Islands the following day. However, our resolve crumbled when we awoke to the same sound of the wind howling through the rigging, without a hint of the drop we'd been anticipating. Fortunately Ian came to the rescue with an excuse to allow us to temporarily postpone the decision - he was having trouble charging his batteries and wanted to investigate the problem. His alternator regulator proved to be the culprit and after some work we managed to rig a temporary solution with two switches and 12W and 24W light bulbs allowing him to set the charge rate to either 6A, 25A or 80A - almost as good as the real thing. The delayed gave us a chance to listen to weather reports from others further north. The omens looked good - 80 miles ahead of us the wind and sea had decreased. However then we downloaded a weather forecast showing the winds increasing. What to do? Gunner announced that he wouldn't be setting off as he'd noticed it was Friday 13th. Ian decided to give himself more time to get the boat in shape. Antares and Risho Maru, seemed happy to wait - but I'd built myself up to leave so decided to head off. My decision was based on the boat ahead reporting more favourable conditions and my concern that the strong southerly winds would die out in a few days leaving potentially light head-winds. I'd much rather put up with 12 hours or so of nasty seas, than motor an extra 300 miles. However I doubted the sanity of my decision as once I'd left the "shelter" of the anchorage the full force of the wind swept across the boat. I also hit a problem with the furling gear on the genoa - I could only unfurl a metre of sail. It gave me an excuse to turn back - but then I knew I would likely be stuck for another day so decided to press on and hoisted the hanked-on jib instead. Five miles out the worst of the gusts moderated, but then another 5 miles I was in a short occasionally breaking 3-4m seas. Kika coped fantastically and soon we were making a good 7 knots with only a small headsail set. I estimate the wind was 25-30 knots gusting to 40+.

In preparation I'd cleaned the hull, cooked and baked some passage food and managed to rig an alarm, loud enough to wake the dead (or sleepy), to the radar. Typically soon after dusk, I found myself in the midst of shipping transiting the Red Sea, but fortunately the radar alarm worked fantastically letting me know every 10 minutes if there were any ships within a 8 mile radius - which there were for most of the night.

Today as predicted the winds and seas moderated and I gradually increased the sail area, going from this morning's small working jib to full main and spinnaker by mid-afternoon. I seem to have become the temporary weather taster for the group, providing advanced weather information, though they're still calibrating my pronouncements of "little lumpy" and "quite a strong blow" with what it would mean for them in practice.

I'm planning a pit-stop at Hamil Island (Eritrea) tomorrow morning, to fix the furling gear, then if the wind holds I'll push on into Sudanese waters - just to continue the tradition of visiting countries at turbulent times. To date I've been in Thailand during the airport protests, Tonga with riots after the King's death and Gulf of Aden, during the escalation in piracy. Though I narrowly missed Fiji during the military coup and Martinique for the current round of protests.

Position @ 20.30 (GMT+3) 14/3/2009: N16deg08' E040deg52'

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Out of Aden and into the Red Sea

I'm writing this lying at anchor in the "shelter" of an island 80 miles into the Red Sea, with a steady 30 knots gusting 45 knots outside - I hadn't expected the notorious Red Sea weather to reveal its strength quite so quickly. Looks like I'm set for a challenging passage - seems to be a theme in these parts.

After a manic time in Aden, stocking up for the passage up the Red Sea, I set off on Monday at the same time as eight Scandinavian boats - including pirate convoy members Helen Kate. Swedish and Norwegian filled the VHF airwaves overnight, breaking up the little sleep I managed to grab, but tiredness was quickly forgotten as dawn revealed the entry to the Red Sea. Seldom has the transition from one Sea or Ocean to another been so pronounced. One moment I was sailing in the Indian Ocean, the next I rounded Bab el Mandeb ("Gate of Tears") and I was in the Red Sea. Initially the Red Sea, hid its true nature - the steep seas subsided as I rounded the headland, however an hour later and the strong SE wind was soon building a nasty steep chop. Our group divided, Helen Kate and I stuck to the east Yemeni coast, while the other boats crossed the shipping lanes to the western Eritrean coast. Our plan was to continue north while the southerly winds held, but by midday the heavy conditions were taking their toll and we both decided we needed a rest. A new plan quickly formed and we altered course for the Hanish islands, which we made just after dark with the full-moon guiding us into the anchorage. Bliss - an uninterrupted night's sleep in a protected anchorage. The next morning while we planned our next hop, the others from our pirate dodging convoy arrived, so instead we decided to be sociable and stay for a day. Our sociability might have been a tactical error as that evening the wind increased and we anxiously monitored the tension in our anchor chains as 45 knot gusts blew through the anchorage. You know it's blowing when you need to close your hatches at anchor to stop the breaking waves flooding the boat. The wind has continued throughout the day, delaying our departure - but we've decided to head off tomorrow and brave the steep seas as it looks as though 100 miles north (hopefully sooner), the wind is a much more reasonable 20 knots.It's frustrating being storm bound as I feel time is ticking away - I have a hard deadline - my sister's wedding May 2nd. The plan is to fly back to the UK from Cyprus, but first I have to make the 1200 miles up the Red Sea with a wind that so far doesn't seem to share my urgency. Still I've been making use of the extra time in the anchorage to study the pilot guide - it's destined to become the most thumbed guide on the boat; engage in much weather punditry with the others and brave the wind and clean the hull. It's unbelievable how quickly the bottom has become fouled. I cleaned mussels, barnacles, weed and even found a small crab living in the space between the rudder and the skeg. Now if I was French I could have created a delicious "fruits de mer" topped with blue anti-fouling paint.

Anchorage @ 20:00 (GMT +3) 10/3/09: N13deg 46.8' E42.46.6'

Friday, March 06, 2009

Into Aden

We arrived in Aden just after midday. After the having the anchorage in Mukalla to ourselves, it took some adjustment to have to search for a place to anchor in amongst the other yachts - but great to be reunited with friends again.

The last part of the trip was fairly uneventful except Antares picking up a DSC distress call from east of Suqutra island over 600 miles away - amazing when VHF is normally only line of sight. More worrying was that when he tried to relay the mayday to the collation forces no one responded!

Looking back on this last leg, it's been great to sail the whole way and compared with most other boats in the anchorage it sounds like we've been lucky with the wind. One downside of the wind, is the accompanying desert haze - the ropes, deck, and any flat surface is covered in a thin layer of sand that makes everything look instantly dirty and unloved. I guess beating into the Red Sea head winds should wash it all away...

Aden 06/03/2009 12:30 (GMT+3) N12 47.59' E 44deg 59.00'

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Final night in pirate alley

Another great day sailing - with spinnakers set and some close action between Kika and Antares.
I even caught a couple of small tuna; each giving two decent meals. They've been marinating in the fridge all day.
I've never used the spinnaker/cruising chute so much before. The boat seems so much more stable with spinnaker compared with goose-winging with main and genoa. Seems there's always more to learn...

Unless something catastrophic occurs we'll reach Aden tomorrow and tonight will be our final night in pirate alley. Perhaps a good opportunity to reflect.

Large ship piracy is clearly different from yacht piracy, with yacht piracy more armed robbery than hostage taking. Besides the actual piracy an almost larger problem seems to be the accompanying paranoia. This leads to a complete break-down in trust between ships in the Gulf and results in the danger of large ships moving unlit at night and being too frightened to respond to radio calls.

The literature implies that the pirates use fishing boats making the pirates initially indistinguishable from fishermen. Given some of the over-inquisitive fishermen whose motive remains unclear perhaps some of the reported incidents could have been opportunistic fishermen trying to make a quick buck - however this could be my own paranoia affecting me here. I certainly wouldn't like to sail these waters without other boats around, it's been more eventful than I expected and I think we've all felt reassured by the presence of others in our little convoy.

Position @ 12:00 (GMT+3), 05/03/2009: N13deg 26' E047deg04'
Distance to Aden: 128
Daily run: 122
Engine hours: 0

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

270 miles to Aden

After an intriguing stay in Mukalla we're off again, for the comparatively modest 270 miles trip to Aden. The infamous five have become the depleted foursome; Helen Kate wanted to press on to Aden rather than spend time exploring inland - how will we manage without the protection of our Viking twosome?

Jasper made me feel better about running out of diesel on the previous trip, by running out of water the instant he left the port - it seems a common problem - misjudging the levels of fluids in our tanks.

After a slow start the wind soon kicked in and up went four spinnakers. It's been a manic morning - preparing for sea, recovering and stowing the stern anchor, securing the dinghy and then the seemingly continuous adjustment to the sails as we worked our way around the coast. There was little spare time to worry about the pirates. However, sixty miles west of Mukalla is an area renowned for numerous armed yacht robberies, so it was important to stick together. I've never worked so hard. Of course if you fall behind, you can always ask the others to slow down a little, but that's tantamount to admitting your sailing ability is below par. In fairness the four yachts have very different sailing characteristics, so in practice the faster yachts tend to reduce sail earlier or delaying hoisting their larger sails, but it still means the slower boats have to work hard to stay close. With much work Kika held her own, but it's been an exhausting day.

The sail through the night, past the piracy hotspot was notable in two ways. Firstly the wind continued blowing all night, and allowed us to sail; recently we've had to motor after the sea-breeze dies soon after dusk. Secondly, just before midnight, we came across a confusing array of lights. The radar showed three boats close together. Calling them on the radio, clarified the situation. It turned out to be a ship under tow with an armed escort - not met many of those before.

Position @ 12:00 (GMT+3), 04/03/2009: N14deg 14' E048deg57'
Distance to Aden: 250
Engine hours: 2

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Inland to Shibam

After some group decision making paralysis we let our helpful agent Maher organise a minibus and act as our guide on the trip to Shibam. As promised he arrived directly after morning prayers and we were off soon after 6.30am. Once we'd picked up our armed guard from the tourist police we were soon climbing the valley northwards and onto the arid highlands. There's little vegetation or population here, with the occasional sight of women (it seemed to be exclusively women) goat herders covered in black and wearing tall conical hats with the occasional camel roaming the plains.After a good few hours drive the road began to descend into a deep, sheer, Grand Canyon like valley. At the foot of the valley was our first stop. Khaylata Bagshan - a pastel coloured fort from 1798 strongly built with impressively thick timber doors and windows.We continued along the semi-fertile valley, past towns built into the steep valley sides with houses blending in with the surrounding hills constructed from bricks made from clay and straw.
In many places recent floods had washed the road away but the slow pace over the unrepaired sections gave us more of a chance to spy scenes of daily life such as camels used to grind grains into flour and oil, with the camels walking around the mill in tight circles.Our stops included Al-Khriba - once home to the Bin-Laden family; Raboyn - a walled city built into the side of the valley; Seiyun the town where we stayed over night which included a museum in its fort. One of the exhibitions featured photos from 1930. From the photos it seemed little had changed; Toyotas have partially replaced camels and donkeys, children's clothing has adapted and sadly plastic rubbish now blows around streets, but it seemed little else has changed.

Our final destination was Shibam, known as the Manhattan of the desert. A walled city in the valley striking for its ancient high-rise buildings.Apart from meeting a group of Saudi tourists in dazzlingly bright white robes in Shibam we were the only tourists we saw over the two days. Incredible when you consider the amazing sights we've witnessed. It was a long drive home, speeding along the foot of the valley, just above the river bed with the latest Lebanese hits blaring from the stereo and the driver and guard chewing the small green leaves of Qat - the Yemeni national narcotic of choice. Allegedly Qat produces a mild stimulant effect - chewing a few leaves had no effect for me, but apparently I needed more persistence; by late afternoon most men have a ball of mulch filling their cheeks which they've been working on all afternoon. Fortunately our driver delivered us safely home just before sunset.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Although I'm getting closer to Europe, my first taste of Yemen made me feel like I've never been further away. The time difference is only GMT+3 and yet it feels like I've entered a parallel world with familiar sights and sounds co-existing with, to my eyes, entirely alien scenes.

It's rare to be the only tourists in a city but in Mukalla we were the only yachts in the anchorage and the only tourists in town. As such there were plenty of men keen to practise their English with us. Men, as our interaction with women was limited to glimpses of their eyes from the narrow slit in their otherwise totally covered bodies.
On my first day's excursion, I was befriended by Mohammed, who helped me hunt down a working ATM, find some switches for the boat as well as acting as cultural guide, translator, negotiator and arbiter of good taste - he recommended Iraqi dates over dates from UAE ("much better flavour"). The shops are an interesting assortment of traditional with the floor full with sacks of flour, rice and spices, juxtaposed with more recent arrivals selling mobiles and electrical goods.
The first couple of days I spent reprovisioning and making essential repairs - the toilet once again has a stable seat, but the main task was filling the tank with diesel. Our agent Maher, supplied the diesel in leaky 18 litre cans. Transferring 200 leaky litres via dinghy in a roly anchorage from shore to boat vied for pole position of worse boat jobs alongside clearing a blocked toilet after a curry pot-luck or diving into the waters of a smelly port to free a fouled propellor. I wasted half the next day trying to rid the dinghy and decks of the layer of oily residue left by the refill.

One of the many familiar and yet confusingly different aspects to life is the way the Arabic version of Windows functions. The interface is a mirror image to a "western" interface, menus are ordered in the opposite directions, web browser back and forward buttons are reversed - (you press "forward" to go "back") and progress meters progress from right to left - looking, to my eyes, like they're going from complete to unstarted.

In summary, it's been a great break from braving the pirate infested waters of the Gulf of Aden with friendly, helpful people, great food (particularly the delicious clay oven baked flat bread, though I'm not sold on camel meat) and much to learn.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Exploring inland

Tomorrow I'm off to the old walled city of Shibam, known as 'the Manhattan of the desert'. It's already sounding intriguing as the tourist police (!) require that we take an armed guard with us.