Gladlee of Guernsey
Sunday 1st September, Ras Banas
Our progress down the Red Sea can hardly be described as steady, nor has it been a lot of fun so far. We are currently sitting out our second day of 30-40 knot winds behind Ras Banas, waiting for easier conditions to make the 24 hour passage across Foul Bay. We got here shortly after midnight on Saturday morning after an unintentionally lengthy passage from Safaga, having had to scrap plans to stop at the island/reef of Gezirat Wadi Gimal. Ras Banas is long sandspit with a reef extending south from it - there’s a low range of hills beyond the reef to the SW, but otherwise not much to see except a small military post on the spit, from which soldiers emerge occasionally to wave and shout at us. Fortunately they don’t seem to have a boat!
We rather enjoyed a further enforced two days’ waiting for the wind to ease at Safaga, with afternoon visits to the pool and evening beers ashore with our new friends from “Argos” (most of the beer on shore was unfit to drink - a defective batch - but Nigel fortunately discovered how to identify the few good bottles left in the various bars!). Tuesday was Bernard’s birthday, and we put through a very clear RT call to Wellingborough, which was encouraging after a less successful contact with Jo the previous Sunday. On Wednesday, though, we finally had a calm night, so early next morning our two-boat flotilla set off again. This time we negotiated the channel inside Safaga Island safely, and our only anxious moment came when a patrol boat roared up behind us from the naval base - much relief when it passed with friendly waves and disappeared in a cloud of exhaust smoke. We picked up wind from astern as we headed southwards, and as we set genoas it was soon clear that we can sail more comfortably than “Argos” in these conditions, and as a result we make about the same speed (although bigger, “Argos” is a disproportionately heavier boat). By late afternoon the wind had all but disappeared, the sea calmed down, and we had to settle for motoring through the night. Julie was on watch soon after 0400 when Uwe radioed to say that they had a mechanical problem, and half an hour later he asked for help - Julie laid “Gladlee” alongside, and Nigel hopped on to “Argos” . He was back on board five minutes later having lent a hand to tighten up a loose alternator mounting, and we motored on until the wind picked up again around 0800. By mid-morning we were approaching Gezirat Wadi Gimal, but the wind had picked up to F5-6 and the sea was too rough for us to be able to pilot our way through any off-lying coral outcrops ( known as “bommies”) on the way in. “Argos” , in the lead, decided to abandon the idea, and we headed on down the coast. This left us with a dilemma: it was by now too late (sun in the west) to find our way safely into any of the smaller inlets down the coast, and nobody fancied starting on the crossing of Foul Bay, which would involve another 160-odd miles, two nights more at sea, and probably a landfall after dark. We proposed to “Argos” that we put into the Ras Banas anchorage, for which we had exact GPS co-ordinates, a good chart, a full moon, and reliable information that the approach was free of dangers. Uwe understandably took a fair bit of persuading that this was a wise move, but by late evening the wind was picking up again to over 20 knots and we were all getting quite tired. In the event our pilotage and steering by GPS was spot on as we led “Argos” inside the sandspit, we anchored without any problems, ignored flashing lights and shouts from the shore, and retired gratefully to bed!
We seem to have been unlucky with these lengthy spells of strong wind, which are unusual for this time of year. It’s certainly frustrating to have come this far down without getting moderate conditions for more than a day or two, and there’s not much point in sitting beside an unspoiled coral reef if it’s too rough to swim! The one positive thing to come out of the past week has been our joining forces with “Argos” - we seem to make a very good team, and it’s obvious that “Gladlee” ’s contribution during the passage down here has more than made up for unfortunate experience of our first day out together. We managed to get over to “Argos” yesterday for supper and a chat - it’s particularly good to have company when you’re stuck like this - and we’ve just traded cigarettes and beer with local fishermen for two handsome fish which we hope to offer our friends this evening. Apart from Nigel’s trapping a finger while adjusting anchor warps this morning (the 30-knot wind showered blood rather dramatically all over the boat!) we are in good shape, but some calmer weather would be most welcome.............
Tuesday 3rd September, Ras Banas
Still here and we begin to wonder when we shall ever leave......... Uwe and Gaby managed to dinghy over for an excellent fish dinner on Sunday evening, but by 0400 yesterday morning the wind was back up to 35+ knots. Following what is now a familiar pattern it moderated slightly after daybreak, though there was a lot of ominous cloud about. By 10.00 we had a full F8 which hardly subsided at all until mid-afternoon, and the associated fetch over the few hundred metres from the reef was also starting to get a bit worrying. Various rather bedraggled birds (terns, and a yellow wagtail) appeared on our guardrails, hanging on for dear life lest they got blown out to sea! During the evening, as usual, the wind dropped to a relatively docile F5, but the barometer remained uncomfortably low, and by the time we went to bed we were getting over 30 knots again. At 04.00 this morning we had a brief taste of F9 (Strong Gale), and yesterday’s pattern has more or less repeated itself today. Even the squaddies on shore have kept their heads down, with sand blowing horizontally across their small outpost (our decks and rigging are also getting caked with salt and sand). We are all agreed that these are unusual conditions, and probably not just local: such evidence as we can glean from observation and Weatherfax seems to confirm this (as do Gary’s charts from Rome, relayed to us on his morning radio “net”). Forecasts from Jeddah are too vague to be of any use and bear little relation to what we are experiencing, and we haven’t yet been able to contact any nearby ship to get a report on actual conditions offshore. In any case it would be silly to embark on even a downwind passage if there’s a risk of getting 40 knot winds (and associated seas) in the middle of the night. Nonetheless it is very frustrating to sit here wasting valuable days and wondering whether perhaps, after all, conditions really aren’t so bad a bit further on. Every few hours we chat to “Argos”, but with so little change in the situation there’s not a lot to talk about!
Meanwhile Nigel had another rather unsuccessful radiotelephone contact with Jo on Sunday night but a very good connection with James’ office both yesterday and this afternoon (he wasn’t there, but Portishead generously didn’t charge for either call). Portishead advise trying earlier in the day on 17 Mhz, so perhaps next time we’ll have better luck with Jo. On SSB we check in every morning with Gary, now in the Gulf of Fethiye, but we seem to have lost contact with “Tunnix” for the time being (we spoke briefly three days ago as they were en route from Cyprus to Antalya). Julie has been sanding and re-varnishing woodwork in the cabin, and Nigel’s finished off an article (“An ABC of the Aegean”) for the CA and got on with the boat diary. Though by now we feel reasonably safe, this continuous strong wind is wearisome - surely we must be due for a break soon?
Saturday 7th September, Marsa Halaib
We are rather improbably moored alongside an Egyptian gunboat, while “Argos” hangs off her stern. We arrived in this bay a few hours ago after finally escaping from Ras Banas soon after midday yesterday. Having picked our way in between the coral reefs we were summoned to the patrol boat and asked to produce our papers. After some slightly tense exchanges Nigel and Uwe managed to get on quite friendly terms with the boat’s captain and a young man who is presumably a security official. Eventually they were told that we should be allowed to stay for one night in what was dramatically described as a “war zone”: although Egypt’s administrative border is theoretically some way to the north of here, this is the southern end of an area Egypt claims from Sudan. In spite of strenuously argued objections the Egyptians insisted on keeping our passports, so Uwe took in into his head to ask whether we could stay the night alongside! A rather startled captain agreed, and though we might have preferred to anchor off (two of the gunboat’s crew have nothing better to do, it seems, than sit three feet away from us chatting) we stayed put in the spirit of solidarity. We’re about to go across to “Argos” for supper, after treating ourselves to our first fresh-water showers for ten days.
Our stay at Ras Banas continued through the worst day, Wednesday, with the same awfully familiar weather pattern - a steady F8 for much of the day, with gusts up to 44 knots during the morning, followed by a relatively moderate F5/6 from late afternoon until the small hours. A fishing boat stopped by briefly but had no fish (half a dozen boats were huddled behind the reef all day). There wasn’t even a morale-boosting outside contact (except for Gary’s “net”) after Nigel’s successful RT contact with James - and a very positive message from Phil - on Tuesday evening, both of which had cheered us up no end. We kept ourselves busy as best we could, with Julie sanding and varnishing while Nigel tackled the last few photo arrangements for last year’s diary. We managed to manufacture a gaff out of a surplus pole and an aluminium coathook, designed to land the fish Julie is going to catch with her new hook and trace (backed up with some swivels, weights and line donated by “Argos”). Occasionally one of us ventured on deck to check our doubled-up anchor warps (on 42 metres of chain) and to wipe off the accumulated sand and salt from the “bridge” and other metal surfaces, which in these conditions develop rust spots within a few hours.
Mostly, though, it was a matter of waiting and, inevitably, speculating about the weather. In spite of numerous attempts on various frequencies we were still unable to raise any ship or coast station which might have given us information on what was going on elsewhere. At one stage a large dive boat came up from the south and passed within half a mile of us before battling into the swell off the cape and disappearing up the coast - evidently he didn’t have his radio on, though, and we felt a bit like shipwrecked mariners watching a distant vessel pass by their island without altering course! By Thursday we were beginning to get a bit desperate, and Nigel eventually acted on Uwe’s suggestion of contacting the Met people at Bracknell to see if they could shed any light on what was going on. Portishead connected us within minutes, and Bracknell gave us a quite detailed and helpful prognosis of our local weather for the next few days. This, together with a very slight decrease in the average wind speed, encouraged us to think of leaving the following day. The wind stayed moderate overnight, the morning crescendo barely reached 30 knots, and soon after 1300 we had our anchor up. “Argos” wasn’t so lucky, though: theirs had wedged itself behind a shelf of coral, and very sensibly (as novice divers) they called Julie over to use their equipment and help sort out the problem. This she duly did, and soon afterwards we were enjoying a comfortable run southwards on the genoa, crossing the Tropic of Cancer at sunset. We sailed on until midnight, when the wind died to nothing and we were forced to resort to the engine and an hour later “Argos” radioed for help - the same problem as before with the alternator mounting! Julie dropped Nigel off in quite a nasty swell with a bag load of tools, and this time (touch wood) he and Uwe may have made a better job of it. Julie was justifiably nervous of bringing “Gladlee” alongside again, so Nigel left the tool kit behind and swam across - not his favourite way of getting back, but refreshing after hot work on an unusually humid night! Poor Uwe and Gaby are as embarrassed as we were after our grounding at Safaga, but the experiences of the past week have certainly cemented our partnership - apart from which we have become good friends.
Our hosts here have been most courteous and hospitable - we have only to move off the boat or adjust a rope to find hands offering to help, and we have even been offered food and cigarettes (a far cry from the baksheesh-seekers who spoil Egypt for so many people): lights have even been rigged on deck for our benefit. It is nice to be able to record that our positive impression of ordinary Egyptians has far outweighed he negative. Incidentally, it was also comforting in a way to learn from the gunboat’s crew that the weather at Marsa Halaib had been almost as bad as at Ras Banas, though the winds hadn’t exceeded 35 knots.
Monday 9th September, Ras Abu Imama
Saturday’s incongruous experience with the Egyptian Navy was almost eclipsed yesterday. We left Marsa Halaib in a fresh breeze, but by the time we rounded Ras Hadarba, 15 miles to the south, the wind had freshened again to F7 and was soon hitting 35 knots as we ran down under a scrap of genoa in between the reefs towards the small bay of Marsa Umbeila, where fortunately the entrance is free of dangers and the shelter reasonable. The wind continued to blow hard through the afternoon, but we had just decided to swim ashore and explore the reef off the beach when a beach buggy appeared round the corner with a couple of young men wearing fatigues on board. They beckoned to us to come over, so we duly swam across and were promptly asked (not too seriously) for our papers! They turned out to be Egyptians (still!), spoke no English, but were obviously disposed to be friendly. Within a few minutes we were both invited to have a go at driving the buggy, after which we sat down on the sand for a few minutes of makeshift conversation. After a while they shook hands and roared off, and we had a short but spectacular snorkel over the reef nearby before heading back to the boat. Today we had a good run down the coast in 20-25 knots of wind and mostly calm sea, though a swell kicked up as we approached Marsa Abu Imama. We and “Argos” have remarkably similar habits, and unfortunately this extended to our each losing an entire set of fishing tackle during the passage. It was the first time we’d tried out the hook and spoon we’d bought in Safaga, so bang went £20 as well as Uwe’s wire trace and weights (it was small consolation that it was the knot between line and trace that had come undone, so not our fault).
The entrance here is magnificent in early afternoon light, with the brilliant aquamarine of the shallows contrasting with the dark blue of deeper water and the dazzling sand, while inland is a range of hills with a striking peak in the middle shaped like an Arizonan butte. Bird-life is prolific, with ospreys, Western reef herons, Caspian terns and crab plovers among others. Apart from a few shacks on shore the place is deserted, though small groups of people occasionally wander by in the distance. Coral reef is quite hard to find (though there are small hills on shore which are made up of old coral), but we dinghied ashore with Uwe this afternoon and walked some way to find a small patch which had some lovely coral formations and a great selection of colourful fish. Later Uwe and Gaby came over to make a phone call home and stayed for a few beers and music (Uwe is a big band jazz fan and was delighted with our Fletcher Henderson tape!).
Wednesday 11th Sepember, Khor Shinab
Julie has slept on deck for the past two nights, and each occasion she’s been woken up early by a southerly breeze and the sound of Uwe laying out a kedge (Uwe has an active imagination and is inclined to react to problems before they actually arise!). Yesterday morning the wind speed barely touched double figures, though this morning it did gust up to 18 knots once or twice. With the profusion of coral heads in this anchorage there is actually little danger of dragging (chain hooks itself round the coral very effectively), and we found this morning that we were sitting quite securely almost directly over our anchor! Unfortunately the rope on Uwe’s 45lb CQR kedge had wrapped itself round several “bommies”, and Julie had to dive again to disentangle it (we’ve since persuaded him that he is reasonably safe without it, but he probably won’t sleep much again tonight).
We had almost calm conditions for an hour or two yesterday before the N wind came up (just as Julie went off in the dinghy to do some bird-watching), and we had a very pleasant two-hour run down the coast in 20 knots of wind before turning in to this two-mile deep inlet, reckoned by some to be the best anchorage in the entire Red Sea. The lagoon at the head of the inlet is an irregular mile or so wide and has low hills on three sides: certainly scenic, but it lacks the intimacy of our last two anchorages, and neither the coral nor the bird life is quite as good. Still, with a flat calm for much of this morning it was a spectacular place to be, not least for the silence (at last) once the ospreys had stopped calling to each other. Nigel took the opportunity to go up the mast and clean some of the sand off the lights and the backstay, and after sorting out “Argos”‘s kedge we went off to swim over a nearby reef - the usual colourful array of fish as well as a three-foot barracuda! As we were anchoring yesterday a fishing boat turned up with three generations of cheerful and very black Sudanese on board. We couldn’t spare sugar, their first request, so offered them Coca-Cola and cigarettes in exchange for a reef trout (neither the small boy nor his father knew how to open a ring-pull, so we really are off the beaten track.....). Grandfather asked for a T-shirt, and Julie dug out a Royal Temple one which has shrunk too much to fit either of us - something to include in our next newsletter to the Club! Later Uwe and Gaby came over to share our approximation of a spaghetti alla marinara, and in spite of Uwe’s currently dodgy digestion we had another very agreeable evening - dinner on deck for the first time since we started down the Red Sea.
Sunday 15th September, Suakin
We arrived here two days ago after a fairly unmemorable 150 mile passage from Khor Shinab. We had originally agreed to shorten the trip by anchoring overnight under Ras Abu Shagara, but by the time we got there the light was pretty bad, and Uwe couldn’t reconcile his large-scale chart of the area with the plan in the pilot, so we pressed on southwards. We sailed from time to time, but by early morning the breeze had all but disappeared and we had to motor for the next nine hours. This brought us past Port Sudan and within range of Suakin, and we got a nice wind on the beam for the last stretch (the first time we’ve had the main up in three weeks!). One unusual feature of the passage was the number of stray migrating birds we saw on the way, and we had a couple of hitchhikers aboard (a swallow and a tree pipit) for several hours. A nightjar also appeared out of nowhere, the first Julie had ever seen. Some super dolphins, too, late on Thursday afternoon.
Suakin’s claim to fame is that it was once a prosperous port and slave-trading centre, and the island in the middle of its natural harbour is covered with the ruins of what must have been a substantial town, built almost entirely of coral. The island is linked to the present-day town by a short causeway, and “new” Suakin (or El Kaff) is a ramshackle collection of tumble-down buildings and unpaved streets which is rather reminiscent of the set of a Hollywood Western. The anchorage off the old town is sheltered and wonderfully quiet, and we have been looked after most efficiently by a local agent (who has dealt with formalities and supplied fuel) and a likely lad of 10 who answers to the name of “Tosh”. Both have considerable experience of dealing with passing yachts and remembered several of our friends. “Tosh” escorted Nigel, Gaby and Uwe to the market (Julie stayed put, a little under the weather), where he conducted sharp negotiations with local traders and waxed very indignant if we were casual about getting change (we had all bought far too much local currency, given that there wasn’t much to buy anyway, so we weren’t too fussy about prices either - but “Tosh” was visibly horrified that we were prepared to pay the equivalent of $1 for a kilo of potatoes...........). We bought tomatoes, bananas, oranges, grapefruit and fish, and “Tosh” undertook to get hold of some (goat) meat, chicken and eggs for us at a more propitious time of day (no refrigeration, of course). Later in the afternoon Mohammed the agent appeared with our jerry cans full of fuel, and meanwhile we started tackling a niggling problem with our engine cooling system (a pinhole leak in the heat exchanger letting salt water into the fresh water system).
Yesterday was busier than one might have wished, given a fairly humid ambient temperature of over 35ºC and little breeze. Nigel got up early to resume work on the heat exchanger, spurred on by the thought that until it was fixed we couldn’t run the engine to charge the batteries to run the fridge to get any drinks cold........ He was interrupted by a whistle from the shore - “Tosh” with our goat meat - and once ashore in the dinghy was confronted with “Tosh” ‘s gentle insistence that the water man was there now, had to go to Port Sudan later, and it was now or never for water. We hastily emptied jerry cans into our tank and water bottles and eventually managed to take on 45-odd gallons, rowed out in relays of jerry-cans filled from a small tanker pulled by a donkey (it is said to be good water - we shall see!). Work resumed on the heat exchanger, with the help of some epoxy welding gunge supplied by “Argos”, whereupon “Tosh” summoned Nigel ashore again to fetch eggs and a (live) chicken, both of which he deposited in our dinghy. Feeble gestures in the direction of the bird brought immediate understanding from “Tosh”, who tucked it under his arm and promised to deliver it later in a more oven-ready condition! (It came back not only plucked and gutted but thoughtfully part-cooked: unfortunately what little remained was very tough, but we were duly grateful, given the agent’s assertion that no chicken was to be had in these parts. It cost the equivalent of $3, probably at least two days’ average earnings). By mid-afternoon the heat exchanger was back in place, and we took a break to go ashore, “Tosh” guiding us around the ruins (we saw a handsome British lion above a gateway, as well as some 19th century naval mortars) and up to the market again. The local people are strikingly good-looking and very friendly - we were greeted cheerfully in English on all sides and were scarcely pestered at all by kids, “Tosh” dealing severely with any competition (he also warned us to beware of “thief-men” who came from places like Port Sudan and Kassawa). We’ve left him with a final commission, to get us bread and some more bananas first thing tomorrow, and rewarded him for his services with a spare diving mask (for his fisherman father), our other undersize Royal Temple T-shirt and a “Gladlee of Guernsey” souvenir pencil!
Wednesday 18th September, Long Island, Shubuk Channel
After an overnight stop inside the reef at Marsa Esh Sheikh (nice birds, including a Goliath Heron and some spectacular flights of migrating cranes; mangroves and a pleasant view of the hills behind), we threaded our way through the reefs and islets of the Shubuk Channel to emerge into the small inland sea behind the huge Shubuk Reef. This is the nearest we’ve had yet to the classic tropical seascape - no palm trees, but low sandy cays covered with scrub, various colours of blue sea, and the white line of breakers marking the main reef to the north. There are lots of birds (flamingos, ospreys, herons, terns, plovers and more), evidence of turtles nesting, and scores of little hermit crabs which stop dead and pretend to be empty shells when anyone comes near: we think we may have seen a pair of dugong (manatees or sea cows) on the way in to the anchorage. A curious smell of old fish turned out to be a large heap of shark and ray extremities, dumped on shore by local fishermen along with dozens of empty oil cans. That apart it’s a lovely spot (and no flies, for some reason), and we all decided simultaneously to stay an extra day and enjoy it. Unfortunately we’ve missed a nice northerly breeze today, but if we’d pressed on we should doubtless have had a flat calm!.
Enthusiasm for snorkelling was slightly dampened when we saw sharks on the reefs, but it turned out that neither the coral nor the visibility was all that good anyway. We had an excellent desert island barbecue (sausages and potato salad) with Gaby and Uwe on the beach last night, and walked part of the way round the island this morning - too hot to stay out long, though, with the daytime temperature now well over 35ºC in the non-existent shade, and the humidity noticeably higher than in the northern Red Sea.
Gaby and Uwe came over for tea this afternoon and took the opportunity to phone Uwe’s mother via Portishead (excellent connection). We talked over our respective ideas about getting from here to Bab el-Mandeb and reached rough agreement on passages and stops - Uwe, unpredictable as ever, needed some convincing that we still have quite a long way to go. His latest plan for the Gulf of Aden is to head for Djibouti - fair enough - but then to wait for the NE monsoon on Socotra!).