Gladlee of Guernsey

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October 1996 - November 1996

Thursday, 17th October, Mersa Dudo

“The best laid plans of mice and men........”   We are anchored in the bay of Marsa Dudo, on the Eritrean coast about 150 miles south of Shumma Island but still 120-odd miles short of the Straits.  “Decibel”  is nearby:  both of us set off from Ras Anfile two days ago and gave up trying to make any further progress south in a stiff headwind (up to F6), foul current (over 1.5 knots) and rough seas to match.  The wind has continued to blow SE at F5-6 throughout the last 24 hours, and we can only sit tight and hope for a change. 

The first leg down from Shumma went quite well for the first ten hours or so.  Anticipating the wind pattern of the previous couple of days we waited until early afternoon to leave, and we were able to sail a reasonable course for 40 miles, almost reaching the point where the Cutless bearing had let us down two weeks before.  Nigel put in a couple of tacks (!), but by midnight the wind had come S of E, and we settled for motor-sailing into an increasingly stiff breeze with an uncomfortable chop from seaward.    We’d already decided to stop at Ras Anfile, and as we came across the bay just after first light we fell in with “Decibel”, whom we’d seen pass Shumma the day before.  By soon after 08.00 we were anchored comfortably enough behind the headland, and later we went across to exchange news with Francis and Ginette over a cup of coffee (they’d arrived off Anfile in the middle of the night and had had to stooge around offshore for several hours until they could see their way in).  Otherwise we had plenty to keep us occupied:  we changed back to our new mainsail, changed the engine oil and all the filters, repaired leaks from the galley foot pump and the holding tank pump, checked over the rest of the engine (continuing concern about the fresh water cooling system), topped up the fuel, cleaned up as best we could, and baked bread (“what do you do all day on the boat?.....”).  Nobody else about, except for an outboard-powered launch which appeared in mid-afternoon with a group of locals and an Englishman (VSO? ODA? - we didn’t have time to ask) on board and paused for a brief chat with Julie. 

Tuesday morning saw us barely stirring as “Decibel” moved off - we just had time to fix up a VHF sked with them - but we were ready to leave by 08.00.  The engine started all right, we got the anchor up, and then found that we were only developing half power in gear.  We re-anchored, bled the fuel lines, restarted the engine (seemed OK), weighed anchor again - and stalled.......  Amid the beginnings of mild panic we dropped the hook again, by which time our first radio contact with “Decibel” was due and we could pass Francis news of a potential problem. 15 minutes later a more vigorous “bleed” did the trick, and to our immense relief we finally got moving.  By this time, though, the wind had got up again to F4, virtually on the nose, and we logged less than 4 knots as we headed out past Shab Sheikh light and turned on to a more SE course - by which time the wind had inexorably veered towards SE!  We set a course well offshore, hoping to escape the short seas near the coast and to sail later should the wind come round more to the E.  Come late afternoon there was a welcome lull, and Nigel had a first go at Corned Beef Hash (usually Julie’s speciality) with some very loud music to drown out noise of the engine!  A short-lived respite, though, since by 22.00 the wind had increased again to a mean (in every sense) 20 knots, and we were getting an appreciable foul current into the bargain.  There followed a thoroughly disagreeable night, with no moon, the boat slamming into the seas at regular intervals, and a fair amount of water shipped over the bow - fortunately there was no real need to keep a watch on deck!  By daybreak the wind was bang on the nose at up to 25 knots, and we were barely making 3 knots through the water against a current which was all but setting us backwards.  The nearest reasonable anchorage seemed to be Mersa Dudo, for which we knew “Decibel” had been heading, though our strategy of heading offshore meant that this was now 22 miles away.  We altered course SSE, with the current setting us to S, and ploughed on into a full F6 and a sea to match, all hatches closed except the small one from the cockpit to the aft cabin (spray even got in there occasionally, and Ted’s tarnished medal had to be cleaned up later!).  VHF contact with “Decibel”  found them already in Marsa Dudo after a rough night - we bashed on through the morning, making less than 3 knots through the water and a scant 1½ knots over the ground until well after midday.  Then, with the coast in sight, the wind freed off and moderated just enough for us to get some genoa out, sail for an hour and then motor-sail at a relatively decent speed past Little Abail Island and into the unexpectedly attractive bay, where “Decibel” was already lying at anchor in a mere 5 metres (“Red Sea Pilot” suggested anchoring in 10-12m, but has fortunately proved inaccurate in most respects about this place!).  The 22 miles had taken us 8½ very disagreeable hours, not made easier by the worry of having to run our ailing engine quite hard just to keep moving. 

“Gladlee” and “Decibel” anchored in Marsa Dudo

The scenery here is striking, to say the least.  Most of the terrain seems to be volcanic, with outcrops of black lava on flat ground covered with dark grey “sand” and isolated bushes.  To the south lies a row of almost pyramid-like hills, the highest reaching 1000-odd feet:  none of them appears to have so much as a scrap of vegetation, and they seem to be covered with the same dark sand as the plain.  The low cape on the east side of the bay has a small fishing camp nestling among the rocks - we passed by this evening to say hello to a small group of men and children busy plaiting ropes out of some kind of grass.  There are higher mountains on the horizon to the SW, and on the SW side of the bay there are palm trees - the actual beach is of fine white sand.  It is a surprisingly beautiful spot, which is some consolation, at least, for being stuck here (another is that the water’s much cooler than it was at Massawa, so with the steady breeze we feel quite comfortable in a daytime cabin temperature of around 32ºC - we even have the top sheet on at night!).  Meanwhile our radio is proving a real boon:  we’ve been able (we hope) to order spare parts from UK via Phil direct from the admirable Mrs Hawkins, we’ve had some useful exchanges with Tony Britchford in Kenya, and we’ve now set up a regular sked with two or three yachts coming this way from Al Mukalla and Aden.

Monday 21st October, Mersa Dudo

The past few days have been reminiscent of our week at Ras Banas, with a frustratingly regular wind pattern pinning us down here, and no means of knowing how long it may last.  The wind has hardly been of Ras Banas proportions, but we have had 18-28 knots every day from between S and SE, with only a brief lull at breakfast time and sunset.  We’ve been in touch with an American yacht (“Free Spirit”) coming the other way, who’s reported identical conditions over the last couple of days between here and Bab el-Mandeb, including N-running current of up to 1.5 knots.  “Decibel” is still with us, Ginette getting understandably down-hearted at the seemingly interminable delay.  We have our moments of gloom, too, since even if we do get going soon we shall now almost certainly have to put in to Asseb to refuel and take on water:  the water tank’s empty, and we have scarcely enough fuel to get to Aden at the sort of speed we are likely to manage against wind and current.

“Decibel” anchored at Marsa Dudu

If it were not for the worry and the enforced delay this would have been a very pleasant place to spend a few days - the landscape is fascinating, there are lots of shells to pick up on the beach, some bird life (pelicans, ospreys, cormorants, falcons) and a relatively pleasant temperature.  Francis and Ginette have given us a lift in their dinghy whenever they’ve gone ashore, Francis is a keen spear-fisherman, and there are fish in abundance round the wreck of a small coaster not far away.  Julie did a Chinese-style dish with ginger, soy sauce etc the other evening when Francis presented us with a couple of red snapper, and when he rather apologetically came over with an enormous grouper yesterday we cooked dinner for four (“Mérou a l’Américaine”) and had more than enough left over for another dinner for two, a fish chowder and four fishcakes for breakfast!  Meanwhile we’ve kept ourselves occupied as best we can, Nigel catching up on harbour and anchorage notes for the CA, while Julie’s tried to clean up the boat a bit and prepare some of the worst worn wood surfaces for a much-needed fresh coat of varnish.  The radio has been a great boon again:  “Free Spirit” has checked on the mail waiting for us in Aden, “Before the Wind”  (currently in Al Mukalla) is interested in buying our charts, and we check in daily with Tony Britchford in Kenya.

Thursday 24th October, Asseb

Monday evening saw the first sign of a break in the weather, with less swell and a distinct drop in wind strength.  We all went ashore for a delightful evening stroll, wandering some way along the beach before clambering up the hill behind the fishermen’s huts.  The landscape there is grey and dusty, almost lunar, with the suggestion of a volcanic crater behind, while below it there is a pretty little white sand cove with crystal-clear water - and the wreck of a small coaster sitting in the middle of it!  As we made our way homewards just before sunset it was relatively calm, and we agreed to set alarms for midnight or thereabouts in the hope of getting away at last.  The wind was blowing up to 18 knots again by 01.00, but after consulting Francis by VHF we decided to go for it anyway.  Conditions were relatively comfortable for the first couple of hours as we cleared the Abail Islands, then it was the usual bash into the wind and short seas as we headed down past the Fanaadir group and closed Ras Terma - slow and uncomfortable progress, with “Decibel” sailing out on a long tack but closing the coast again only a little way ahead of us before starting their engine.  The anchorage under the cape was comfortable enough, though, and just after sunrise on Wednesday we actually sailed eastwards for half an hour before rounding the headland and butting into the all-too-familiar chop and wind.  We had only 20 miles or so to cover, but the last few miles into Asseb were hard work even for the larger “Decibel”.  It was a pleasant surprise to find a lady speaking good English giving directions on VHF to the anchorage in the port, and we settled down to wait for immigration to turn up and check us in.  The afternoon wore on, and several calls to Port Control failed to get any information - finally we were told that immigration had gone home.......  The four of us went ashore to see if there was some way of getting out of the port area:  there wasn’t, though we did at least run into the immigration officer, who explained that he’d had us paged earlier on VHF (we’d heard a call but hadn’t identified it as for us!) and would be available from 0700 next morning.

Since we intend staying only long enough to refuel and get some water we’ve managed this morning to persuade Mr Amonil of Immigration to let us have temporary shore passes (25p rather than $25 for yet another visa!).  We didn’t, of course, have any local currency to pay for these, but Amonil immediately lent us the necessary, and soon afterwards we were on our way to find a petrol station and a bank.  Jerry-canning diesel down to the port and out to the boats didn’t take all that long, and there was time to go out again before midday to do some food shopping.  The shops and market were poorly stocked compared with Asmara (or even Massawa), no doubt due to Asseb’s relative isolation.  Despite a fair amount of activity in the port there seemed to be lots of people hanging around with nothing to do (people kept latching on to us offering help, and it was fairly obvious they were after a tip), and what we saw of the town seemed pretty run down - it seems the bickering with Yemen over the Hanish Islands has hit the place quite hard.  Still, we had a good lunch of goat stew and cold beers, and later we’ll be able to restock our drinks cupboard a bit from the duty-free shop in the port (it doesn’t stock beer, though, and we ran out three days ago.......).  Meanwhile we’ve jerry-canned 200-odd litres of good water from taps on the quay, so we feel much better equipped to tackle the Straits.  The engine seems to be holding up OK (though there’s a slightly worrying noise from the prop shaft somewhere), and the only new development is that the main VHF aerial has disintegrated at the deck gland - fortunately we do have an emergency aerial as well as our handheld set.

Sunday 27th October, Ras al Arah, Yemen

At last we’re out of the Red Sea, and with luck we’ll be in Aden tomorrow morning.  We almost didn’t leave Asseb on Friday, as the wind picked up to 25 knots late on Thursday afternoon and sent a nasty swell into the anchorage.  We had a farewell drink with Francis and Ginette, who are heading for Djibouti:  they have been good company even for Julie, with whom they’ve only a few words in common, and we are sorry to have to go our separate ways.  We have arranged to keep in touch once a week by radio, and perhaps we may eventually meet again in Yemen or Oman.  (This radio is a wonderful thing:  Nigel had a chat with Andrea on”Shelley” the other day, last seen in the Med and now somewhere SW of Madagascar!).  By daybreak the breeze was still quite fresh, but the thought of having to get a third visa to sit longer in Asseb was sufficient incentive to get going, and we’d also made a date to meet “Before the Wind” here at Ras al Arah.  To get round the shoals and reefs to the E of Asseb we had to head almost NE out of Asseb, so we enjoyed the unaccustomed treat of sailing for three hours.  There was no escaping the eventual slog to the SE, though, and to our dismay we hit a foul current as well as short seas and a fairly steady F6 as we came round the Scilla shoals, and over the next three hours we logged a bare ten miles and made good a bare five.......  The wind and sea didn’t moderate significantly through the day, but we did lose the current and start to make slightly less snail-like progress.  By nightfall we were across the shipping lanes and in sight of Perim Island light opposite Bab el-Mandeb:  in bright moonlight navigation was easy, and the conditions seemed to ease the closer we came to the Small Strait, the wind backing slightly so that we got some shelter from the Yemeni shore.  At 2300 Nigel celebrated our arrival in the Gulf of Aden with a tot of rum in a mug of cocoa - whereupon we came out of the lee of Bab el-Mandeb and met the wind and swell on the nose again!  Still, with only 25 miles or so to go to our anchorage the conditions didn’t seem quite so bad, the engine was behaving itself and we were able to make good almost 4 knots until we raised Ras al-Arah just before dawn yesterday. 

There is a quite busy little fishing village here, spread along the east side of a low sandy headland, with mountains behind to the N.  Clumps of palm trees can be seen in the distance, and in the dunes just opposite where we’re anchored there are three abandoned tanks, their guns pointing out to sea (at what?).  Boats come by to inspect us at fairly frequent intervals, but the natives seem friendly enough.  Soon after our arrival police and military turned up in succession to check our papers, each barging in alongside without troubling with such refinements as fenders:  there was a general rush to scramble on board, but we managed to keep visitors down to two or three at a time.  Even less welcome was a visitation from a boat-load of kids demanding cigarettes........      We spent the day cleaning up until “Before the Wind” arrived in mid-afternoon: they turned out to be Stuart and Lorraine from South Africa, with small son Cameron and two young lads as crew on a big steel ketch.  We lost no time in getting together for a very useful exchange of information and charts, though our meeting would have been even more pleasant if we’d had a can or two of beer between us!  “Before the Wind” left for the Straits after dinner, and we’ve spent only our second night alone at anchor since we left Safaga.  Julie’s been under the boat this morning to adjust the rope stripper - there’s nothing obviously amiss there otherwise - and the engine seems to be in reasonably good shape, touch wood. 

Monday 28th October, Aden

We arrived here early this morning after a relatively easy overnight passage from Ras al Arah - we even managed to sail for a bit!  We’re anchored off Steamer Point, where the liners bound for the Far East used to disgorge their passengers into the world’s fourth-largest array of duty-free shops.  The anchorage is notoriously oily, thanks to nearby refuelling bunkers, and we have already acquired a coating which will take a lot of cleaning off.  “Argos” is anchored nearby once more, but Uwe and Gaby have flown back to Germany to look after Uwe’s ailing father and won’t be back for another week or so.  From what we’ve seen so far - quite a lot, thanks to an extensive search by taxi for our pump spares - Aden is dreadfully run down these days, as well as infested with immigrant Somali beggars.  Still, the locals seem friendly and helpful enough, some of them more so than we can actually do with!  The only obvious relics of colonial rule are the bold-style pillar-boxes (now painted yellow), but everyone seems to have a bit of a soft spot for the Brits in spite of having thrown us out so violently. 

We made a good start to our stay: formalities were easy, and the Customs officer who checked us in turned out to drive a taxi in his spare time.  Before the end of the morning Suleiman had taken us to a bank to get some local currency (wonderful to see great wads of cash being tossed about with not the slightest concern for security - nobody, it seems, would dream of stealing any!) and had tracked down our water pump repair kit to the airport.  Meanwhile we’d picked up our mail from the post office and made arrangements to have a load of laundry done.  After a good lunch at the “Sailors’ Club” along the road we were beginning to feel that our fortunes were on the mend, but on returning to the dinghy we found half of it collapsed and the outboard motor underwater.............  We got both back to the boat and have managed to clean up and restart the outboard, at least, but our dreadful dinghy (Korean-made rubbish bought in Spain when we lost or original Avon) is steadily disintegrating and will have to be replaced.  It remains to be seen whether this afternoon’s repair will last long enough so that we aren’t left inconveniently dinghy-less, since the nearest place we can even hope to organise a new one in Muscat.

Thursday 31st October, at sea 200 NM ENE of Aden

We left Aden soon after midday yesterday and so far it’s been an easy run, though unfortunately we’ve had to motor in light (or no) wind most of the way.  Our stay in Aden was quite successful in spite of the dinghy problem (still not 100% fixed), and we are managing to make some reasonable headway at last after 400-odd miles of slog against wind and current.  This evening we’ve acquired two stowaways, a pair of weary swallows who are snuggled up together on the bookshelf in the main cabin, and for a couple of hours early this morning we ran through the biggest congregation of dolphins we’ve ever seen - dozens of schools cruising about in a flat calm sea which was obviously teeming with fish.  Earlier still we’d been expecting to encounter “Dawn Treader”, a Kiwi yacht coming down from Al Mukalla, but neither of us spotted the other and it was not until the 0830 radio sked that we realised  we’d “passed in the night”.  Later in the morning petrol and Fairy liquid got most of the Aden oil off the dinghy and deck, and with luck the hull won’t be too difficult a job when we tackle it tomorrow at Bir Ali.

Our second morning in Aden was mostly spent shopping at the excellent central market in Crater - the best selection of food since we left Turkey - and at a surprisingly well-stocked small supermarket in Khormaksar.  Nigel rang Jo on the way back, and then Suleiman proved his worth by helping us get permission from police and Customs to get diesel in cans from a service station instead of going round to the notoriously dirty (and more expensive) Aden Bunkering jetty.  Ferrying the jerrycans out to “Gladlee”  was quite a delicate operation in a dinghy which threatened to go soggy on us at any minute, but we got it all on board safely and settled down to an afternoon of letter-writing and more engine checks.   Julie cooked a superb roast lamb dinner, washed down with our last bottle of red wine - it seemed a very long time since we’d eaten so well on board!  Yesterday morning we collected 20 gallons of water from the quay, the pressure being so low that we had plenty of time for a chat with an English voluntary worker at the only Protestant church still functioning in Aden.  Mr Mason and his wife have been there for three months, helping to set up a clinic and restore the church building (it was conspicuous, when we passed it later, for its relatively fresh coat of paint).  They are sponsored by their local parish for travel and lodging but pay for food from their own resources.  Life must be quite hard, but Mason obviously liked the people and was delighted to have found a disused golf course to practise on on his weekly day off!  Next we set about checking out, but unfortunately we half-listened to Suleiman’s advice instead of consulting “Red Sea Pilot” pilot, which would have prompted us to get a chitty from Immigration before walking three-quarters of a mile to get clearance from the Port Authority.  Rules are rules, so there was nothing for it but to walk back and start again.   Eventually, though, we were cleared to leave (no charges at all, for a change) , said our goodbyes to Suleiman and his buddy Omer and got under way.

Aden has left few memorable impressions except for its friendly people.  It’s a pity that the striking natural features of its harbour and rugged mountainside are largely obscured by ugly and/or derelict buildings and harbour installations, though the southern side of the peninsula, with a couple of fine sandy beaches, is still largely unspoiled.  Our last view of it from the east was spectacular enough, though, silhouetted against a dramatic sunset.


Monday 4th November, Al Mukalla

We’re by ourselves this evening in the rather rolly anchorage opposite the centre of Al Mukalla, which is spread out along a narrow strip of shore beneath a steep volcanic mountain-side.  We arrived on Friday afternoon to join “Companion”, “G Force”  and a couple of French boats in the anchorage, but the others have all left today - we had a most welcome drink on board “Companion” (nice young Swiss couple) yesterday evening after a frustratingly unsuccessful attempt to refill our gas bottles.  Apart from the swell and the occasional fishing boat bombing past it’s a pleasant enough spot to be in.  The waterfront is picturesque, with its homogenous style of four-square three- and four-storey mud-brick buildings huddled closely together between the shore and the mountain:  these have regular rows of narrow windows on each floor, with more or less elaborately painted wooden frames.  Two rather fine mosques just back from the shore have minarets looking like lighthouses (they show green and red lights at night), and there are only a few ugly modern buildings and the new sea wall to offend the eye.  Almost all shops and services are concentrated on a couple of streets running the length of the town parallel to the seafront:  behind them steep stairways lead up between buildings clinging to the lower slopes of the mountain, where precarious-looking boulders threaten to roll down and wreak havoc in the streets below.

Al Mukallah in Yemen

It’s certainly a lot more picturesque than Aden, but somehow we don’t feel altogether comfortable.  There’s constant movement in the anchorage even in the relatively calm conditions, and the problems we continue to have with leaks in the dinghy don’t make life any easier.  We also feel a little over-reliant on Sikander (“Alex”), the local fixer, for anything except basic shopping - our lack of the most basic Arabic is more of a problem here than it has been anywhere else on the trip so far.  Still, people have been as friendly and helpful as they can, and it’s interesting to see a more characteristically Yemeni town.  One thing that doesn’t appeal at all is the sight of virtually all the women wrapped up as “black bottles”, but we’ll obviously have to get used to this (a few have the forehead and nose of their head covering picked out in gold and silver embroidery, the result looking disconcertingly like a mediaeval soldier’s helmet!).  We’ve walked all the way along the waterfront to the main fruit and vegetable market (not particularly impressive) and the nearby fish market, where we bought sardines and some kind of tuna for virtually nothing.  Otherwise there are dozens of little shops selling a variety of goods - it’s just a matter of peering in and seeing if they might have something you need.  First thing this morning there was hardly any swell, so we finally managed to scrub the hull more or less clean of Aden oil.  No sooner was that done than a boat turned up to deliver 50 gallons of diesel in an assortment of jerrycans - surprising how long it took to decant that much into the fuel tank (and our own cans) without spilling too much into the cockpit.

Al Mukallah from the port

We broke our journey from Al Mukallah for a few hours at Bir Ali, but swell into the anchorage prevented any cleaning of the hull and forced us out soon after midnight:  we had a minor fright on restarting the engine when no cooling water came out (a burst in reverse eventually cured the problem).  Bir Ali is quite an attractive bay and has some historical interest:  it was once the main shipment point for frankincense exported to the Mediterranean and beyond.  However with the dinghy still unserviceable we couldn’t go ashore, and in mid-afternoon we had a visitation from a cantankerous old policeman who appeared to threaten Nigel with arrest (Julie was in the shower) unless he paid over an unspecified sum in mooring fees!  Nigel stood his ground and eventually saw the fellow off,  the embarrassed interpreter remarking with apologies that Bir Ali and its inhabitants were bad news and best avoided (he was from Aden).  Meanwhile our ailing swallow sadly hadn’t survived the night, but Julie did have the consolation of sighting a whale, and we also spotted a trio of sharks in our wake as we approached Ras al Kalb.

The swallows resting below



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