Gladlee of Guernsey
September 1996 - October 1996
Sunday 22nd September, off the Eritrean coast on passage to Massawa
The wind has deserted us, and we have been motoring most of the 16 hours since our unscheduled stop last night at an Eritrean Navy outpost called Hasmet, some 20 miles south of the border with Sudan. We had a rather fluky wind for Thursday’s passage from Long Island to Ras Asis, and it was during a calm spell that we discovered that the heat exchanger was letting salt water into the fresh water cooling again.......... By the time we got to Ras Asis it was blowing up to 20 knots from the north, but the anchorage behind the low-lying cape proved quite well sheltered and we had a comfortable enough night. Next day we had a short run down to the large lagoon of Khor Nawarat, anchoring behind a sandy cay: the “reefs” we’d avoided on the way in turned out to be disappointing patches of weed, but it was still a nice enough spot. Julie was ashore (Uwe also, but out of sight) when a trio of Sudanese, two in uniform with automatic weapons, waded over from the next island and strode purposefully down the beach towards her. Nigel watched rather anxiously through the spare binoculars from “Gladlee” , but the fellow in charge proved to be very friendly and anxious to be helpful (did we know where we were?!!). Later we watched them wade back again, pausing at one point to turn slowly round and fire a shot - perhaps a shark.........
From Khor Nawarat the plan was to head south for Eritrea, hoping to do 160-odd miles in two days and a night as far as Sheikh El Abu island, where we could stop for some sleep before covering the remaining 25-odd miles to Massawa. Once the morning breeze got up we had an excellent sail for six hours or so, with 18-20 knots over the quarter taking us down past the border on Ras Quasar. We and “Argos” each lost more fishing tackle on the way, but Julie put together another line and hook and landed a 6lb king fish, Nigel lending a hand with the home-made gaff. By teatime the wind had all but disappeared: as we were thinking about starting the engine we saw two launches approach “Argos”, half a mile behind us, and Uwe called to say that we were being ordered to stop by the Eritrean Navy. One of the boats came across to us, manoeuvring too close for comfort in the swell, and Nigel’s attempts to enquire what was up met with the distinctly hostile reply that without the proper authorisation we must get out of Eritrean waters. Eventually the aggressive young man doing the talking (dressed like the others in T-shirt and slacks) conceded that if we came to their base at Hamset we might get permission to continue on our way. We duly motored the five miles in to Hamset, while our two escorts roamed around like a pair of rather bouncy sheepdogs - one lurched up to us at one point to ask for some water, and after shouting furiously at them to keep clear we got them to move up slowly while Nigel lobbed a bottle neatly into their boat! Hamset proved to be a small marsa with a good but very shallow anchorage inside a rough breakwater, while onshore was a collection of makeshift huts and prefabs which presumably constituted the naval base. We anchored outside, where there was still a bit of shelter behind the fringing reef. The young man we had spoken to earlier came aboard with his boss, and the atmosphere was perfectly friendly as they checked our papers. The young man spoke excellent English, having studied in London, and offered a graceful explanation and apologies for inconveniencing us (it was clear that his initially hostile attitude was caused by his first encounter with “Argos” and Uwe’s usual intemperate reaction to authority!). By this time it was quite late and we decided to stay the night: Julie finished cutting up her catch, we laid out a kedge to keep our head to the swell, and the occasion seemed to call for a bottle of wine with what proved to be delicious fish steaks and sauté potatoes.
This morning started well, with lovely light and a score or so of flamingos wandering along the beach in front of the Navy’s huts. We set off soon after 0700, the revised plan being now to cover the remaining 135 miles to Massawa in one overnight hop. It has been disappointing to get so little wind during the day, not least because it’s been as hot and humid as we’ve had yet - over 100ºF in the saloon and hotter on deck - and even without clothes we have been dripping with sweat almost continuously. The remaining fish has been turned into reasonably good chowder, and Nigel had a good chat with Jo on the radio this evening, but otherwise it’s been more of a day to survive than one to enjoy.........!
Wednesday 25th September, Massawa
We had heard nothing but enthusiastic reports about Eritrea, and our brief stay has left us wishing that we had a few more days to spare. Not that we’d want to be sitting in Massawa for very long - the harbour is pretty dirty, the town only slowly recovering from the devastation it suffered in the war, and the temperature almost unbearable. It’s impossible, though, not to be captivated by the friendliness and enthusiasm of the Eritreans, and we should have enjoyed spending another day or two relaxing in Asmara. We took the bus up to the capital yesterday, a spectacular drive climbing 2300 metres over 110 km or so of tortuously winding road, most of it in remarkably good condition, and with gangs working on several stretches still under repair. (Even more spectacular must have been the Massawa-Asmara railway, which is painstakingly being rebuilt from Massawa up, but little of it is in evidence in the mountains except for a few tunnels and bridges visible from the road). The arid brown foothills gradually gave way to hillsides dotted with acacia: here large-scale terracing could be seen, though there was seldom evidence of any cultivation (this area was much fought over during the war and probably lost most of its population). We passed through the occasional village, stopping at one for lunch, climbed through even more serpentine bends into the cooler and greener highlands (lots of cactus} - and then came to a halt a mere 12 kilometres or so from Asmara. Heavy traffic was backed up on both sides of a truck, stopped in the middle of the road in such a way that only cars and small trucks could get past. Nobody seemed to be doing much about this (indeed the whole scene was remarkably peaceful in the circumstances), for reasons explained to us by a friendly bystander - in the process of trying to overtake another truck the first one had smashed the other one’s wing mirror, an incident which would normally have detained both parties for no more than a few minutes. However the overtaking truck belonged to the government, and no government-owned vehicle involved in any traffic incident could be moved so much as an inch until the police had inspected the scene of the accident.............. It took an hour and a half for the police to turn up from Asmara, while more lorries and buses joined the queue and a few smaller vehicles weaved their way past the obstruction. There was compensation for us in some entertaining people-watching and a magnificent view over the mountains to the east, and just as the police arrived our friendly informant found us a lift into Asmara and recommended us to what proved an excellent cheap hotel.
A first look round central Asmara (blessedly cool enough for a jacket or pullover) gave the impression of a comfortable and well adjusted lifestyle. The city was little touched by the war, and the streets and many buildings still have a distinctly Italian character. There are scarcely any smart shopfronts or modern blocks, but most essentials and a few luxuries are available at reasonable prices, and there is no shortage of places to meet your friends - almost every other doorway seems to lead into a bar, and along the main street there are dozens of cafes and pastry shops as well. In the evening the place hums (quietly) with conversation and a little local music, but one feels quite safe wandering around, and people are invariably friendly and helpful (a surprising number can communicate to some degree in English). We fetched up at a restaurant serving both local and Italian food and asked an elderly waiter to bring us a selection of local dishes - we had good braised lamb and stewed beef (very hot and spicy for Uwe and Gaby), served on sheets of injara, the local highland bread which “looks and feels exactly like damp grey foam rubber” (as the travel writer Dervla Murphy so nicely put it!). By the time we’d finished Uwe was asleep on his feet, so we abandoned the idea of coffee and walked back to the hotel, where we found our friend Woldemmet (from the traffic accident), his brother and a friend, who wanted to sit down for a drink and a chat. Uwe and Julie had to pass this one up, but Nigel and Gaby managed to survive several local brandies and enjoy some very agreeable company before finally getting to bed. This morning we went in search of the museum, but sadly it is closed for the duration and we had to make do with a stroll round the market and shops - again a thoroughly nice atmosphere, a positive and cheerful feeling wherever we went. We regrouped at the hotel to meet Woldemmet, who’d promised us a lift to the bus station, but he wasn’t there and we took a taxi - Woldemmet turned up a while later, full of apologies, to say goodbyes with hugs and kisses all round. It was touch and go whether we were going to get on a bus at all (we missed the first one, which looked pretty decrepit and very full), but all was well in the end, and after another breath-taking ride we reached Massawa in a mere four hours. The return fare, incidentally, was the equivalent of £1.70 per head!
Massawa, meanwhile, has looked after us well: formalities were not too arduous or expensive, and deliveries of fuel and water were arranged before we moved off the quay to anchor off the ruined former Governor’s palace. Another yacht (!) is moored nearby: it’s a very small one (“Inspiration”), which has been sailed single-handed down the Red Sea by a genial German named Horst, who’s waiting for his wife to join him for a couple of weeks before he heads on towards India........... A personable young man named Yohannes turned up with a price list from the grocery store he manages, and we have arranged to collect meat, vegetables, fruit and various other supplies before our departure tomorrow morning. We have also enjoyed a couple of meals in a simple but excellent small restaurant where the beer is cheap and has frost on the bottle! (Incidentally this is the only beer we can remember ever buying which has no label on it - bottles are religiously returned to be reused, and presumably labelling is thought an unnecessary luxury).
Sunday 29th September, Massawa
We have suffered a serious setback, though with luck it may turn out to be less than a disaster. After leaving Massawa on Thursday, with Gaby not well on “Argos”, we had a couple of relatively short passages south-eastwards, stopping at two pleasant island anchorages (“Port Smyth” on Shumma Island, with good bird life, and Adjuz Island in Howakil Bay). There was only light wind from E or S, so we had to motor all the way, with no particular highlights except the appearance of a few Indo-Pacific Hump-Backed dolphins a few miles out of Massawa - the first of this species we’ve seen. We set out from Adjuz yesterday morning, having half persuaded Uwe that we should aim to cover the next 150 miles in two days and a night (Uwe says he can’t sleep when “Argos” is motoring and wanted to take an extra day over the trip). Four hours out there was a loud rattle from under the hull: we stopped the engine at once, Julie took a look underneath and found that the insert of the Cutless bearing had come loose from its sleeve and had slid forward along the propeller shaft. Julie borrowed “Argos”‘s diving kit but could only force the insert part of the way back in again. It didn’t take long to decide that we must sail back to Massawa, Asseb being considerably further (and an unknown quantity), and Aden 350 miles away with no guarantee of a fair wind to take us through Bab el-Mandeb. Uwe and Gaby offered condolences and best wishes, though regrettably not even the token suggestion of an escort: had the situation been reversed we should have at least offered to go back with them. As it was we were not altogether sorry to part company, having begun to get a little irritated by some of Uwe’s odder ideas and their constant reliance on us for navigation, pilotage and general information!
As “Argos” headed off southwards we got the sails up and found a steady F3 from NE, which gave us a perfect reach at a comfortable 4 knots in calm water for the next 8 hours or so - the nicest sailing conditions for quite some time!. There was bright moonlight by the time we got back to Shumma Island, and our passage through the water kicked up some spectacularly bright phosphorescence: we also had a brief glimpse of the eerie phenomenon known as “white water”, a patch of luminosity which in this case looked like a ghostly whale slowly crossing our stern! Off Shumma the wind died completely for the best part of a frustrating hour, but it picked up again gradually from the NW, and as we tacked off the Dahlak Bank to come on a westerly course towards Massawa the breeze obligingly veered towards NNE. We managed to hold our course through various wind shifts until 07.00 this morning, but soon afterwards we were becalmed just over 2 miles from the harbour entrance. Fortunately we found that we could make almost 2 knots by pushing the boat with the dinghy and outboard, so Nigel spent the last hour and a half or so providing propulsion below the starboard quarter while Julie steered! Port Control was understanding and helpful on the radio, and it being Sunday there was no activity in the harbour, so with next to no wind it wasn’t too difficult to bring “Gladlee” alongside the quay just before 09.00.
It remains to be seen whether we can deal with the problem here. Normally replacing the Cutless bearing involves removing the propeller shaft and dropping the rudder, but we did the job eighteen months ago (which makes the present failure of the bearing all the more galling) and know how to set about it. The big question is whether we can get lifted out here properly, and then of course we shall almost certainly have to get a new bearing sent out from UK. In any event it looks as though we shall be here for a good ten days, which puts us even further behind schedule with the weather (sitting here in the heat won’t be much fun either). But on the positive side this could have happened much further away from a safe harbour, we did have a remarkably quick and easy passage back, and we are in a place where we know people are friendly, helpful and can communicate in English. It’s difficult not to be disheartened by what’s happened (not to mention by the task ahead of us), but things could actually be an awful lot worse.
Sunday 7th October, Massawa
We have had a frustrating week. It started well enough, with a reasonably confident assurance from the port manager that a crane could be made available to haul us out. The skipper of a British motor yacht on local charter recommended us to a DHL agency in Asmara as well as to the port agents, where Mr Solomon undertook to contact the senior engineer at the shipyard on our behalf. We phoned David Brooke-Smith at the Westerly brokerage in Hamble, who confirmed our assumption that the Cutless bearing could not be repaired (more surprisingly, he seemed to think it quite normal for the thing to fail as it did!). Next we phoned Telesonic Marine in London, having meanwhile learned that Horst’s wife Sieglinde would be flying out from Frankfurt on Thursday and could bring the bearing with her. A most helpful Rod at Telesonic didn’t manage to arrange a connection with Sieglinde, but he did confirm dispatch of the bearing via DHL, ETA Asmara Friday. Total phone bill around £45, but it seemed well worth it, and meanwhile we’d had an encouraging enough first meeting with Mr Afwerki, the dockyard engineer. Wednesday was spent freeing up the connections on the shaft and rudder (plus some much needed sanding of woodwork and a difficult repair to the loo pump), and by Thursday morning we were ready to join Horst in catching the early bus up to Asmara.
Apart from picking up the bearing (or so we hoped) we needed another break from Massawa, where the temperature has scarcely dropped below 95ºF(35ºC), even at night. There is generally some breeze during the day, but when it stops the atmosphere is stifling, and it’s impossible to do anything below decks without dripping with sweat. Massawa is kept remarkably tidy compared to some ports we’ve seen, but the environment is inevitably dirty, and a good deal of grit and dust transfers itself to the boat and to us. With limited water available it’s not easy to keep even superficially clean - it’s amazing how much dirt sticks to skin and hair in only a few hours - which adds to the general discomfort. Fortunately we have had the option of retreating to the relative coolth of the Eritrea Restaurant in the evenings, where the food is decent and the beers still refreshingly cold! Otherwise the town behind the port is becoming quite familiar - parts of it must have been quite distinguished once, with Italian-style pavement colonnades, substantial town houses and shops, and the occasional overhanging wooden balcony, perhaps dating from Ottoman times. It’s very run down now, though, and some of the grandest buildings still lie in ruins as a result of the civil war.
This time the bus journey up to Asmara was uneventful, and we reached the Legese Hotel shortly before noon. The DHL office turned out to be a 20 minute walk away, so we made our number there, passing the British Consulate (just moving in to new premises, as it turned out), on the way. Later we spent a pleasant hour browsing through newspapers at the British Council library before a good supper in the Legese’s restaurant. We are increasingly struck by the friendliness and intelligence of the people here and their easy and relaxed manner with each other (also between the sexes, which seems fairly unusual in this part of the world). Asmara is a modest enough capital city, but it must be one of the safest and most comfortable for a stranger to wander about in. We met Horst’s wife Sieglinde over breakfast on Friday before walking down to DHL again, where we found no package; however they were expecting three items from London via Addis Ababa in the course of the afternoon, so we weren’t too disappointed. We called at the Consulate for a chat with the Honorary Consul, Dr Hicks, then whiled away the time until a phone call to DHL in mid-afternoon brought the news that there was nothing for us on the flight from Addis. This was a blow - the next flight from Europe wasn’t till Saturday night, so there was no chance of our getting the bearing before Monday. There seemed little point in staying on, so we caught the early bus back to Massawa yesterday morning. A rain shower had left the boat in a filthy state to welcome us back, but our kindly neighbours on a tug had done their best to look after the boat, stowing cushions in the shelter of the sprayhood and adjusting our mooring warps. There is nothing we can do here until the bearing turns up - fingers crossed for tomorrow - and the only positive development has been a message from Phil (relayed by Jo during an R/T call) giving us a contact point in Salalah for picking up visas and charts. Salalah just seems a long way away at the moment...................
Saturday 12th October, Port Smyth, Shumma Island
Not a week for the faint-hearted, though it ended a good deal better than seemed possible on Tuesday evening. Our replacement bearing eventually turned up on Tuesday morning, but meanwhile Afwerki at the shipyard had failed to keep two out of three appointments to discuss ways and means of lifting us, Solomon had had the effrontery to suggest that $100 would be a reasonable reward for his services, and we’d been hurriedly moved off the quay and alongside a tug to make room for a freighter to unload. It continued to be stiflingly hot, and sleep was not made easier by heavily amplified music from the terrace of a nightclub a couple of hundred metres away. On a brighter note we engaged the friendly Weldemichael (recommended by Rod Heikell) to do our laundry, and after a heavy hint from Gary in Antalya we invented a “ham” radio callsign for ourselves and established contact with Tony Britchford at Kilifi Creek in Kenya, who runs a daily net covering the entire Indian Ocean. A French yacht, “Decibel” , came in and rafted alongside us: Francis, Ginette and their friend and crew Philippe provided welcome distraction as Tuesday evening found us in an apparent impasse. Solomon reported that Afwerki had made enquiries about suitable strops with which to lift us, however none were available, even at the naval base. Nigel’s visit on the back of Solomon’s motor-bike to the port’s own small workshop drew a blank as well, as did visits to a couple of private boatyards. Without strops of some kind a crane was out of the question, but without lifting the boat a metre or so off the ground we couldn’t drop the rudder to remove the propeller shaft to replace the Cutless bearing............ The one remaining hope was Afwerki’s half-suggestion that we chock the boat up at low water over at the shipyard - we hadn’t taken this terribly seriously, but at this stage straws had to be clutched. Wednesday morning saw us biking round the bay to the shipyard, where Afwerki gave us a none-too-clear outline of his proposal: we should bring “Gladlee” over to the beach (officially referred to as the “dry dock”) at high water and ground her as close inshore as we could, and as the tide fell Afwerki’s team would arrange to jack her up to the requisite height. With “Gladlee” drawing a good 1.3m and a tidal range of only 0.8m we couldn’t for the life of us see how this was going to be done (with hindsight, Afwerki probably didn’t either!), but we seemed to have no choice but to give it a go - they had evidently managed to drag several quite large ships on shore to work on them, so perhaps “Gladlee” ‘s relatively modest all-up weight of 7-odd tonnes wouldn’t present too much of a problem.
Back on “Gladlee” we explained the situation to our new French neighbours, who immediately offered to tow us over to the shipyard. We used our dinghy and outboard again to manoeuvre over the last few metres, and Afwerki and a couple of helpers hauled us alongside what looked like a tank landing craft and on up the beach until the rudder touched bottom. There we sat to await developments: we could get no very clear idea from a slightly impatient Afwerki what he proposed doing. High water was an hour and a half or so away, and within a few minutes a team of seven appeared, including a foreman in blue overalls bearing the legend “Dry Dock”, a portly bosun-type figure with a face-mask, another diver (without face-mask) and a variety of helpers. These set about manhandling large chocks of wood under “Gladlee” ‘s stern, an operation which involved one diver or the other submerging in four feet of muddy water to guide the blocks into position. After watching this for a few minutes Nigel joined the party in the water and offered his face-mask and snorkel to the second diver. The mask was gratefully accepted, though the snorkel wasn’t a great success - in spite of a careful briefing the diver evidently thought it would supply air with the top end underwater (it didn’t!). Eventually a bed of blocks was in place, the tide started to recede, and a massive rusty jack was produced and positioned under “Gladlee” ‘s counter, the load spread by battens and a sheet of polystyrene to protect the gelcoat. At this point Afwerki invited us to give the go-ahead for lifting - sensing that this was not the moment to seek Westerly’s blessing on the operation we reassured ourselves that the boat was solidly built and crossed our fingers. The jack was cranked, the stern started rising, centimetre by centimetre, and chocks and wedges were carefully put in place on either quarter to support the hull. By mid afternoon (the yard normally stops work at 14.00) the boat was canted at an unlikely angle forwards, the jack itself had been chocked up higher, but we still had to ask for more - that rudder stock is longer than it seems! Afwerki himself stripped down to his shorts to join his team in the water, the handle of the jack was almost too high to reach, the chocks were starting to look distinctly precarious - and then finally the top of the stock came free and the rudder was lowered into the water. We applauded, the team knocked off, and as dusk fell a solitary night-watchman sat and watched as we removed the shaft and cleaned it up, replaced the bearing and repacked the stuffing-box. As darkness fell we headed for the shower (a standpipe over a blocked squat toilet, cold water and no light, but a wonderful luxury by that time), and afterwards to a bar along the road which served nothing but cold beers - we had five each before returning to cope with dinner and bed on a slope. There were some disconcerting cracking noises during the night (compressing polystyrene, we eventually realised), but in the circumstances we slept pretty well.
Afwerki was quite relaxed about re-launching us when he appeared early the following morning, so we spent a couple of hours cleaning up and checking over what we’d done before the team arrived to unchock us. This operation produced the only mishap of the entire operation: the jack slipped and “Gladlee” dropped several inches on to her rudder, though quick thinking by the crew got the remaining chocks out so that she remained on an even keel. Fortunately the only injury was a gashed finger, and we decided that Westerly construction could probably cope with a relatively modest bump. There were mutual congratulations all round - Afwerki all smiles after what must have been quite a difficult challenge - and the team seemed pleased with the tip we decided to leave on top of a remarkably modest bill. We made our way carefully back to our berth in the port, this time rafted outside “Decibel” , whose crew had gone up to Asmara (Horst and Sieglinde visited us briefly at the dockyard before taking themselves off in “Inspiration” for a cruise round the Dahlak Islands). Solomon at the port agent’s was genuinely delighted with our result - though he may not have been quite so delighted with his tip - and we called in to thank “Vana of Clifford” (whose skipper Kelvin had offered help and advice when we first returned to Massawa) and were generously entertained to cold beers. For what we hoped would be our farewell dinner at the “Eritrea” we chose injara, the curious local flat bread made of fermented millet, and zigini, a beef stew eaten with the fingers: this seemed to please our usual waiter, and after a couple more beers we felt pretty pleased with life too - how fortunes can change in a couple of days!
After all the drama it seemed to take us an eternity yesterday morning to do our final shopping with Yohannes, sort out laundry and fuel with the excellent Weldemichael, and check ourselves out with immigration and the tourist office. It was almost midday by the time we got under way. We had to motor for three hours, exchanging news and information as we passed the Australian yacht “Amaroo”, inbound to Massawa from Yemen, then had an excellent beam reach for a little over an hour before the wind gave out. We made it here to Port Smyth five minutes before sunset - just as well we knew the way in - and anchored off the ruined jetty with a sigh of relief! This is a lovely spot, with plenty of birds for Julie, beautiful colours in the water, dazzling sand and camels wandering about. We’ve decided to pause a day to catch our breath, get ourselves and the boat clean, check over the engine (yet again) and enjoy what may be our last desert island for some time. Tomorrow we head for Anfile Bay or, if conditions are right, straight for the Straits of Bab el-Mandeb.