Gladlee of Guernsey
Monday 12th August, Suez Canal
We left Ashkelon with Nigel, at least, a bit under the weather after a last-night barbecue organised by Australians at the marina which went on longer (and more alcoholically) than we’d intended! The passage to Port Said wasn’t the most comfortable we’ve had, with the wind more or less on the nose and a lumpy sea for most of the time - still, we did manage to sail for a couple of two-hour sessions to give the engine a break. First impressions of Port Said were mixed, to say the least. We raised our agent on the radio as we approached the channel, and were firmly instructed (contrary to friends’ advice) that we must take on a pilot for the short distance between the port entrance and the yacht moorings - bad start. As we entered the port, though, we collected an escort of four dolphins, and the pilot who eventually boarded us was perfectly pleasant and made only a token demand for a “presentation” when he was taken off again. We were directed to moor stern to the wall just along from the yacht club, where we backed in through a load of rubbish which included a very bloated dead rat! However the agent, very friendly and helpful, was on hand to deal with formalities for us, and we were settled in to our overnight mooring with a minimum of fuss. Just as well we elected to go straight on to Suez, though, because the yacht basin is wide open to all the passing traffic, from supertankers to speeding pilot launches, and there is constant wash and slop against the jetty. But in spite of the unpleasant conditions there were scullers and dinghies out on the water, and even a boys’ swimming race later in the afternoon!
We were told to expect our pilot at 08.00 this morning, but in the event our agent didn’t turn up with our papers until 9. We finally got under way at 09.25 after embarking Mahmut, who was very fat, initially officious, and seemed likely to justify the awful reputation the pilots have gained from so many yachts transiting the Canal.
We made our way out of Port Said behind “Lady Edith”, a large French catamaran bound for Djibouti, and soon passed a familiar-looking ship moored on the east bank, the former cross-Channel ferry “Pride of Dover”. Hearts sank as we were directed to stop at the first signal station (usually a prelude to demands for baksheesh), but we had already explained that we were non-smokers, and in the event we only paused for a minute to pass over a crew list. Mahmut has since diverted us past various signal stations and has proved quite jolly company, given his limited English - doubtless all will change when we put him off at Ismailia with a smaller tip than he hopes for! Our progress down the canal has been uneventful so far - we’ve passed one long northbound convoy, getting a wave from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship “Brambleleaf” , but otherwise there’s nothing much to see except desert to the east and the occasional group of palm trees on the west bank. We should be in Ismailia for tea, and we anchor there overnight before going on to Suez tomorrow.
Thursday 15th August, Port Tewfiq, Suez
In the event Fat Mahmut made only a token protest about his tip when we put him off at the Ismailia Yacht Club, and we anchored off for the night, not far from a beach on which Egyptian holidaymakers were packed like a colony of gannets, with the overspill taking cautiously to the water (overcrowding isn’t helped by the fact that everyone seemed to be sitting at tables and chairs). Some more adventurous swimmers came to try out their limited English on us, and we were circumnavigated by a few decorous couples on pedalos. Further off a racing eight sped gracefully across the lake, while rowers under training pulled less efficiently in what looked like a miniature galley: convoys of ships passed in the distance. Braving the green and odd-smelling water Nigel swam over to the French yacht, who’d had less luck with their pilot - stops and baksheesh at several signal stations. Next morning we (and the French) called the pilot station on VHF at intervals from 08.00 as instructed, but to no avail: it was 9 by the time we were boarded by our second pilot, a stony-faced individual who took the wheel with scarcely a word and lit up the first of many cigarettes. Our discovery soon afterwards that we had a leaky hose connection in the cooling system didn’t go down too well, either, but we managed a temporary repair at the next signal station and kept going with a relatively small drip until Suez. Mohammed the pilot thawed out a bit as the day wore on (we shared our scratch lunch, and cake for tea): he proved adept at dodging convoys and anchored ships in the Great Bitter Lake, and he too accepted his baksheesh with good enough grace after bringing us right in to the moorings at Port Tewfiq. Here we were welcomed by various manifestations of the “Prince of the Red Sea Company”, who have so far proved admirably helpful and efficient. (One curiosity is that having signed up with the Suez-based “Prince” we have yet to pay anything for transiting the Canal - though it will eventually cost us almost $300!).
The Suez Yacht Club’s facilities are fairly limited: we are moored to buoys some 50m off, so no water or electricity on tap, and we haven’t yet sampled the “worm (sic) or cold” showers. The club next door has hosted wedding parties for the past two nights, with appropriately lively and over-amplified music (including garbled versions of “Colonel Bogey” and “Jingle Bells”, presumably left over from the British occupation). We fixed our water leak properly and changed oil and filters yesterday, and today ventured into Suez to inspect the market. The open-air bit was the sort of dusty, fly-blown, teeming shambles of stalls, barrows and assorted animals that you’d find almost anywhere in Africa, but there is a relatively civilised covered area with quite a bit of good stuff on offer - we shall return on Saturday for our final food shop before we leave. We lunched rather well at a decaying “Social Club” along the waterfront, where a smart Egyptian lady insisted on taking our photograph (twice), eating in solitary state to an orchestral recording of Elton John’s greatest hits! Tomorrow we think we’ve arranged a day trip to Cairo with someone recommended to us by a fellow-yachtie (negotiations conducted in limited English from a street-side tobacconist’s pay phone........).
Great to get a “good luck” message this morning from Dietmar and Sigrid, still on the island of Hydra, relayed by Fabian (“Heather”) on Gary of (“Amadon Light”) ’s morning radio “net”.
Saturday 17th August, Port Tewfiq
A smiling Mr Fouad met us punctually at 0800 yesterday with his battered Peugeot, and we had a good day out in Cairo. Mr Fouad’s English is extremely limited, so we made our own plans and just used him as a chauffeur (he cost only $40 for a 12-hour outing, as against a quote of $70 from the “Prince”). We had a walk through the bazaar area (much of it closed on a Friday but consequently uncrowded) to the Al-Hakim mosque, wandered round the downtown shopping area in an unsuccessful search for printer ink, then had a look round the Egyptian Museum before driving out to the Pyramids. Much of the museum is cluttered with nondescript stuff which is of little interest to the non-specialist, but the Tutankhamen relics are spectacular, and there were a number of other fascinating discoveries (splendid model boats, for example, and extraordinarily sophisticated funerary sculptures from the 25th century or so BC). We didn’t see the Pyramids at their best (late afternoon), but with relatively few tourists about the local hustlers seemed to be taking a break, and we had only the politest of hassle from the odd camel/horse proprietor. This made the whole experience infinitely more pleasant than we’d feared, and by the time Mr Fouad dropped us back we reckoned we could hardly have done better with our limited time. For the fourth night in succession we had to endure Egyptian music at full blast, this time from both neighbouring clubs at once (it’s even worse when they occasionally try their hand at Western standards)!
Despite its reputation we’ve had very few unreasonable attempts to extract money, cigarettes or whatever from us in Egypt, and the Egyptians we’ve encountered have mostly been friendly and helpful - long may it continue! We went into town this morning and stocked up at the market after ringing Jo: it’s understandable that James should have written Suez off as a “fleapit”, but away from the bus station it’s not such a bad place. On our first visit we were given a lift back to Port Tewfiq by a friendly electronics engineer: this time a minibus attempted to charge us E£3 each instead of 20 piastres (well, perhaps not all Egyptians are entirely honest!). Back on “Gladlee” we had to wait for a bunch of kids to finish their swimming session before we could move alongside and take on water (it turned out to taste a bit muddy, but after the second cup of coffee one hardly notices). Hebe of “Prince of the Red Sea” turned up to say goodbye and to present us with our bill - quite reasonable, considering the good service we’d had. We have a niggling worry about the stern gland packing, but otherwise we are as ready as we can be for the next stage of our adventure. No wedding parties tonight, thank goodness!
Monday 19th August, Shab El Hasa (Ras Sheratib)
After a fairly conventional anchorage last night in a bay 50 miles south of Suez, we are now tucked in behind a long reef about a mile and a half offshore. The reef is just awash, so that it takes the brunt of the waves pushed down by the strong NW wind and creates a modicum of shelter in the shallow water behind it. Apart from a brief lull early this morning we have had a steady Force 6 since leaving Suez at first light yesterday, which has meant some fast but quite tiring downwind sailing. Yesterday we went most of the way goosewinged, but today we dispensed with the main, rigged the pole and did most of the 40-mile passage with just half the genoa out, averaging just over 6 knots. The pole makes life much easier with a steep following sea surging past, which will often throw the boat 20 degrees or more off course, but it’s still quite hard on arms and shoulders not yet used to this sort of thing! At the end of both passages we have had quite a struggle to get the genoa in, with consequently sore hands from dry ropes - the inevitable flogging of the sail has worked some stitching loose, too. Sitting in continuous wind isn’t exactly fun (and there’s still quite a bit of swell even behind the reef), but it’s safe enough, less unnerving than the gusty conditions one so often gets in the Aegean - and at least we’re getting excellent amps from the wind generator at last! We can readily imagine what it’s like to go up the Gulf in these conditions (which is what most yachts do), and we’ve no intention of doing it - ever!
There hasn’t been much to see on the way down, other than glimpses of the Sinai coastal range through the heat haze, but now we are surrounded by oilfields - a large complex on shore, and a small forest of rigs on the other side of the reef. Their lights look like small towns to seaward, and there are half a dozen flares visible as well.
A cockroach greeted Nigel in the galley area when he got up yesterday morning, but so far we are reasonably confident that it was an isolated visitor from the landing stage at Port Tewfiq.
Wednesday 21st August, Shab el-Erg
We’ve probably never had two successive days of cruising so utterly different. Yesterday we had our third successive passage of Force 6-7 winds and 3m waves as we covered the 50-odd miles from Ras Sheratib to Ras Zeitiya at the bottom of the Gulf of Suez, crossing the Gulf in the process. We had even less genoa out than on the previous day, but we still made good over 5½ knots (the bulk carriers in the north-bound shipping lane were shipping mountains of water over their bows). Coming in to Zeitiya we had another struggle to get the genoa in, and this time it collected a nasty right angled tear near the clew. The wind didn’t drop much below 20 knots during the evening, so there was no chance of getting the sail off to inspect the damage. The bay has a small jetty for rig service boats, a few low buildings and a small military post tucked in below brown hills, but we saw virtually no signs of life before we went early to bed. This morning it was still blowing hard off the hills - up to 30 knots as we got the anchor up just after 0630 - and we set a scrap of mainsail to run down into the reefs and islands on the western side of the Strait of Gubal. As soon as we got away from the land the wind magically dropped, the sea subsided, and soon we found ourselves idling along in perfect cruising conditions. After a while we even got the genoa down, and a general sense of well-being may have accounted for Nigel’s turning right one island too early and taking an unplanned short-cut down the Tawila Channel. Fortunately navigation in these conditions is very easy - the reefs are clearly visible as brilliant patches of aquamarine - and we emerged safely at the other end having saved ourselves a couple of miles. Meanwhile the wind had dropped to F3, and we set the cruising chute as we passed a group of fishermen, skirted another reef, picked up the wind again and had an excellent reach in flat water towards the low sandy bank which we took to be our destination. We seemed to be taking a long time to get there, though, and it suddenly dawned on Julie that we’d sailed straight past Shab el Erg, which is actually a long horseshoe-shaped reef covered by water! That made one navigational howler each for the day, but no harm done, and we had our first experience of making our way through coral outcrops (Nigel spotting from up the mast) into the reef - brilliant aquamarine water in the shallows, calm water and only a light breeze. The change in conditions is quite dramatic, and we have actually been off the boat for the first time in four days, to swim over to the nearest coral outcrop and admire the fish. Other wildlife contributed to this memorable day’s passage - dolphins, a turtle and (brief sighting) a false killer whale. We might even have supper on deck tonight!
Friday 23rd August, off the Lotus Bay Resort Hotel, Safaga
We didn’t dine on deck, chiefly because our second helping of meat sauce cooked up in Suez had gone mouldy - by the time Julie had substituted a corned beef hash the wind had got up again. We decided to stay put for a day, which Julie spent painstakingly restitching the genoa while Nigel repaired holes in the dinghy, fixed (?) a niggling electronic fault and tried to clean down the deck fittings. An immediate problem with sailing in the Red Sea is high salinity, dusty air and a lack of fresh water, so all metal surfaces rapidly get coated with a layer of salty grime which has to be cleaned off at frequent intervals to prevent corrosion. The wind blew steadily at 20-25 knots all day, but in the early evening there was a brief respite which happily coincided with the completion of Julie’s great work. We hastily got the genoa up, whereupon the wind picked up to 25 knots again and stayed at F6/7 all through the night. The anchor was safely hooked in behind a large lump of coral, but it was still a bit nerve-wracking when the wind reached its peak: finding our way out of the reef in the dark would have been something of a nightmare (it was interesting enough soon after dawn this morning). Today’s run was a relatively straightforward 40-mile run round the islands off Hurghada and down to Safaga, still with strong wind and some quite heavy seas at times. Just before Safaga we were joined for 20 minutes by a school of at least 10 dolphins, swimming off the bow and occasionally leaping out of the water off the front of the bigger waves. In the anchorage off the hotels north of Safaga port we’ve found the young German couple who were our neighbours at Suez (a baby and a dog also on board), as well as another German boat (“Argos” ) we recognise from Antalya. The hotels make their facilities available to passing yachties, and it’s been nice to set foot on land for the first time in six days and buy a really cold beer - as a bonus the wind has dropped to less than 10 knots.
Monday 26th August, Safaga
The past couple of days haven’t gone entirely as planned......... On Saturday morning we took a taxi into town and negotiated our way into the port, where polite but adamant immigration officials insisted that in order to clear out we should have to bring “Gladlee” into the harbour immediately before leaving. We had better luck in finding fresh food (once we’d persuaded the taxi driver that we wanted stuff to cook ourselves, not a restaurant!), and we also replaced the mere 10 litres of fuel we’d used since Suez. Back at the boat we were stowing away our shopping when Uwe came over from “Argos” to see what our plans were. Uwe came down the Red Sea three years ago (but two months later) and he was forced back by strong southerly winds at the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb. This time he wants to be sure of getting down there by the end of September, which is our objective too. We seemed to have identical ideas on how to go on from here, so decided to continue southwards together - security for each of us, some good company (we hope), and the advantage, for us, of Uwe’s previous experience. Later we went over to “Argos” (a heavy Taiwan-built ketch) for coffee to meet Uwe’s attractive wife Gaby, then went for a swim and shower at the Lotus Bay hotel pool before indulging in their sumptuous evening buffet dinner - pity the theme turned out to be “Oriental” (= Turkish), though!
We agreed with “Argos” that we wouldn’t check out of Safaga: this is technically wrong, since this is our last “port of entry”, but it may save us hassle if we still have valid visas in the wilder and woollier parts further south. We’ve decided to start with a 135-mile overnight hop to avoid a couple of dodgy anchorages, so early yesterday morning we set off a little ahead of “Argos” to negotiate the narrow channel which leads out into the port area and then to open water. We got over the shallowest bit of the main channel, but in the relatively poor light we failed to notice that we were drifting towards the shallows off Safaga Island - we didn’t pick up Uwe’s warning on VHF and went firmly aground on the falling tide. Uwe anchored nearby and came over to give us a hand with kedging, and several passing dive boats offered help, but an hour or so later we realised that we’d have to wait for the tide to make again before we could get off. Then a couple of hours later we noticed that the dinghy had come untied from the stern and was sitting on the sandbank 500 meters downwind with a couple of men in military fatigues inspecting it. Nigel sounded the “Froghorn” to attract their attention and radioed Uwe for help, while Julie started swimming across, eventually emerging from the waves in front of the incredulous squaddies, who handed over the dinghy, said “Welcome to Egypt” and strolled off! Uwe towed Julie back, but his outboard engine packed up 30 metres short of “Gladlee” and it required some furious paddling against the wind to make the rest of the distance. “Argos” has the same model of outboard as we do, and having “fixed” ours with a similar problem Nigel offered to take a look. We were in the middle of dismantling it when a small landing craft appeared from the naval base opposite and started manoeuvring round “Argos” - Gaby soon came up on the radio to say that she was being ordered to take the boat into the port. We prevailed upon Uwe (who doesn’t like been bossed about by petty authority) to take our outboard and go back to “Argos”. Meanwhile (it was now 12.30) we were starting to float, and with the anchor laid out earlier towards a safe channel we were able to kedge off into deeper water with (seemingly) no serious damage done. We joined “Argos” under escort and moved to the naval base, where we were greeted politely enough: we explained what had happened and were soon allowed to leave. Back up the channel against a freshening breeze (a few dolphins appeared on the way), and we were at anchor off the Lotus Bay again shortly before 15.00. Quite a day!
Uwe and Gaby have been immensely kind and good-humoured over what was pure and simple carelessness on our part (on the way back from retrieving the dinghy Julie asked Uwe whether he might regret his decision to team up with us - he just laughed!). Over beers later and a pizza in the evening we started to forge what promises to be a good partnership for the next few weeks. We discovered that Uwe’s tough-looking exterior conceals a careful and cautious sailor, and it was his feeling that the wind was picking up that has kept us in Safaga today. It is already gusting F6 this morning in this relatively sheltered spot, which may be all right for a day passage but is more than one wants overnight (in fact it was probably just as well we didn’t leave yesterday). This is a pleasant enough place to sit - the holding is good, and the view of the jagged range of hills inland is quite striking, especially in the evening light. The hotel is very nicely laid out, with two-storey villas in attractive grounds with an excellent swimming-pool, and there’s even a pair of tame cattle egrets for Julie to visit when we go ashore.