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Cruising the Red Sea: Coast of Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt

by Hugh & Heather Bacon 1 Dec 10:40 UTC
Cruising the Red Sea: Eritrea © Hugh & Heather Bacon

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation, Hugh and Heather went through pirate territory as they entered the Red Sea. This segment of their world cruise sees them completing their transit through the Red Sea and entering the Mediterranean Sea.

Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track.

Having run the gauntlet of piracy, we headed to an African country unfamiliar to us. Eritrea had recently gained independence from Ethiopia after a civil war. The port was littered with wrecks, the shoreline with bombed out buildings. Martyrs of the recent war were prominently displayed on posters. It was interesting to see many women portrayed. Clearly, this African country showed equal parity between sexes when it came to fighting a war!

We enjoyed the town of Massawa. Wide dusty streets and winding alleys revealed architecture dating back to the years of Italian colonization and earlier. There was active street life and many tiny rabbit warrens of shops. Women at little tables were selling a few humble wares: six eggs, a package of cigarettes, a few tomatoes. The people are beautiful; dark, slim, tall with fine features. There is a mix of Christian and Muslim and we saw western dress, veils as well as full purdah. Massawa came alive in the evening. There were many outdoor restaurants with really excellent, inexpensive food and local beer. The version of pita (empanada, arepa, schwarma) is a kind of crumpet, now available in Eritrean and Ethiopian restaurants in Ottawa! At sundown, the National Anthem was played over speakers in the main square and cruisers all stood in respect before getting back to drinks and dinner.

We traveled to the capital city of Asmara on a public bus. The passengers alone made the trip fascinating. There were tribesmen in colourful turbans, their women in brilliant robes and camel herders in flowing white. The four-hour trip was an adventure. First we crossed the desert where camels roamed and nibbled on the sparse vegetation. The area west of Massawa was littered with burned out tanks. Slowly we began to climb. At 2,325 metres elevation, Asmara is said to be the sixth highest capital in the world. In contrast to the tropical humidity on the coast, we had flashbacks to Ontario on a perfect day in May: brilliant sunlight; cool temperatures, and glorious jacarandas robed in purple blossoms!

Much to our relief, Argonauta I remained in good technical order. Re provisioned and refueled, we continued north to Sudan. Statistically, April has the lowest incidence of northerlies, about 47% of the time, May 57%. Most of the 281 NM from Massawa to Suakin, Sudan we were able to sail in easterly or north easterly winds.

The Sudanese coast is wild and beautiful. At the time, the government had beached all the fishing boats and coastal vessels to prevent smuggling and illegal emigration. Thus, yachts encountered little local traffic. At one anchorage, we watched camels browsing behind the beach. At another, we overlooked a shallow lagoon full of flamingos with a coral garden short of the fringing reef. Snorkeling among the coral formations was the best since Australia.

We checked into Sudan at Suakin. The port, though secondary to Port Sudan to the north, is the main departure point for Muslim pilgrims heading for Mecca. The ferry goes to the Saudi port of Jeddah some 260 NM across the Red Sea. The channel to the anchorage is striking as it skirts the edge of Old Suakin. The deserted ruins, crumbling coral walls silhouetted against the setting sun, are a dramatic backdrop for sundowners. The town had no electricity, running water or sewage disposal. There were few cars and most transport was by donkey cart or camel. We refueled, had laundry done and bought fresh veggies. Bedouins from the nearby countryside come into town on their camels. In the market, we wandered by the animals sitting in the sun awaiting their riders. At times we had to watch out behind us for camel riders. Squeaking saddles was the only warning. Mohammed, our agent, tall and dressed in flowing white robes, arranged a tour of the local area. We were invited to coffee by a charming local who took us to his home. Like the surrounding dwellings, it had been constructed of a few boards, blankets and slabs of cardboard. There was a Canadian flag on the roof, gift of another visitor! The owners offered their simple hospitality with pride and dignity. Heather was taken inside the single room and seated upon one of two beds.

A beautiful young woman was kneeling before a charcoal brazier preparing coffee. This ceremony is a long ritual involving a flagon, tiny cups and steaming water. Sometimes green beans are roasted in front of you and ground. Incense is sprinkled on the brazier just before serving. Guests are expected to accept three tiny cups for luck. There were two small children dressed in western clothing; the mother wore a bright red printed robe. She interrupted her preparations to untie a faded scarf from the edge of a bed and brought out a baby hitherto invisible. Although her face was semi covered in the Muslim tradition, she unselfconsciously placed the baby to her breast as she continued the coffee ritual.

Our driver took us into the desert where we visited a Bedouin encampment. Tents are richly decorated and the ladies all wear long flowing robes. The men wear kaftan-like gear and many are armed with long swords. All were interested in our presence and eager to communicate. We were not so welcome at a wedding, which our guide ill-advisedly dropped in on. We quickly got that 'no-no' feeling and made a hasty departure, not before David received a push from one of the guests!

Our passage up the Red Sea will forever be coloured by a tragic incident. One morning we heard on the daily HF net that there had been a fatality. When we realized that the deceased was a young man of thirty-one, we were truly shocked. We had met him and his lovely wife a week earlier. She was newly pregnant, they were sailing from New Zealand to the UK. He had a sudden heart attack and died in an anchorage, despite the efforts of fellow cruisers to save him. It happened in remote Marsa Wasi, off the coast of northern Sudan. The logistics of taking care of formalities across the desert, far from civilization, were formidable. The yachty community rallied in a way that would melt your heart. As well, total strangers, such as dive company staff in Port Sudan, came forward. The Hilton Hotel offered the widow free accommodation, while she awaited the autopsy and a flight to the UK. The event shook everyone. It is one of the nightmares which we imagine: illness or accident in an isolated place.

North of Suakin, it was mostly motor sailing in northerly to north westerly winds. Often, these winds were too strong for us to continue, so we had to run for cover to anchor in khors or marsas, sheltered indentations on the coast. We crossed the Tropic of Cancer and timed our overnight 160 NM dash across infamous, reef ridden Foul Bay to coincide with a rare southerly wind. We actually sailed at hull speed, winged out with the genoa poled to starboard. We had our fingers crossed as had the wind changed during the night to a 25 knot northerly, a frequent occurrence, we would have had nowhere to go. At 2000 hours, we thought the game was up as the wind switched over a ten minute period from southerly to northerly. Luck was with us. Fortunately it remained light, so we reconfigured sails and motor sailed all night. It was not until we were three hours from our destination that the northerly began to strengthen. We had a rough and slow final three hours, but we made it to Ras Baniyas in Egypt. The following day, the wind was blowing 25K plus.

Wind will be the memorable word for the Red Sea. Twice we had been forced to change our destination due to un-forecast strong northerly winds. Seas build quickly and waves are steep and close together. Once we were caught at night and had to bounce around until first light before we could make our way through a reef strewn coast to a safe anchorage. Now past Foul Bay, day sailing was possible as there were many anchorages, so we hoped to avoid further white knuckle overnighters.

Windbound yet again in a howling northerly at 27 50N/33 35.5E, anchored at Marsa Zetiya, a haven on the west side of the Gulf of Suez, we were in oil country. Egypt's petroleum resources dominate the area. The Gulf is dotted with offshore wells and drilling rigs. Navigation outside of the shipping lanes is hazardous, especially at night, as there are many inactive unlighted oil wells scattered about. Day sailing is the safer option. Crude oil collecting stations and drilling support sites were along both coasts. The night sky was alight with methane gas flares. Stark brown hills surrounding our anchorage were devoid of vegetation and a hot wind blew across the marsa, drying our skins. In short, this is an area to be left quickly behind. We could not! Prevailing strong north westerly winds forced us to hunker down.

In the previous 23 days we had progressed only 270 NM. We had spent seven days in a dusty, partially built marina named Port Ghalib, unable to move and now another four days at Marsa Zetiya. We began to run low on provisions, so we got in the dinghy and Heather traded a bottle of Scotch for groceries with another yacht. Earlier we had bargained unsuccessfully with one group of fisher folk, who took their catch away, disdaining our tea, Tang and sugar. A following boat parted with a large squid in exchange for USD $8 and a pack of cigarettes. Heather made the Mother of all chowders and announced that with daily additions of rice and potato puree, it could last forever. David was afraid she was right and began plotting ways of swimming to Suez.

In a lull early one morning, five yachts departed. We began to move too, but before we could get going, three yachts returned. The two which continued found themselves beating against a 30K wind blowing directly down track. We awaited a weaker wind pattern forecast within the next few days. By now we were gun shy. Too often we had been caught by a wind shift and been forced to motor into huge seas spaced less than a boat length apart. Without doubt the northern part of the Red Sea was the worst passage in our books. Motor sailing 30 degrees off the wind, tacking back and forth, often on the point of running for cover. Engine hours were mounting. Argonauta I was not happy. Reddish dust had permeated all exterior fabrics and lines. Deck and rigging were covered with a mixture of salt and dust. We washed the dust off flat surfaces but they were covered again within a day.

Finally, May 14, 2003, we checked in at Port Suez and then with an Egyptian pilot, traversed the Suez Canal midway to the Ismailia Yacht Club. Next day we washed the boat from mast head to deck. Red mud ran off in rivers. Salt encrusted lines became supple again and Argonauta I basked in the sun as her sails dried, just as a cormorant dries its wings. The last 200 NM of the Red Sea takes its toll of most cruisers as well as many yachts. We were fortunate. As a crew, we had no serious difficulty other than fatigue both mental and physical. Argonauta I stood the strain of the passage without developing any serious problem. Those yachts with technical issues resolved them successfully, relying on ingenuity, local help and Fedex/DHL. Pollux, whose young skipper died tragically in Marsa Wasi, was ferried to Cyprus by a crew made up of the yachty fleet. Perhaps the absolute highlight of our Red Sea passage was being a part of such a strong, dynamic, traveling community. Many of the yachts had come together for the first time; many of the crews became firm friends. Camaraderie, much of it developed over the HF radio with reinforcement at a variety of anchorages, was a major support.

A Few Statistics

Bab el Mandeb to Port Said is about 1305 NM. We passed Bab el Mandeb, which marks the southern entrance to the Red Sea on March 19, 2003. On May 29, we arrived at Port Said at the entrance to the Mediterranean. Of the 73 days enroute, we spent a minimum of 20 days wind bound and another 14 days traveling inland. The remaining 39 days were spent either under way or at anchor. The distance we actually covered was 1383 NM, the GPS measurement of our rhumb lines. We either motored or motor sailed 236 hours. We made some good distance under sail, but once we neared the northern part of the Red Sea, it was almost all motor sailing.

Our passage through the Suez Canal from Port Suez to Ismailia went without incident. Essentially the Canal is a long narrow ditch through the desert, with no locks. A few brackish lakes, such as The Great Bitter Lake, are situated south of Ismailia. North to Port Said, the ditch is unbroken. It is roughly 85 NM from Port Suez to Port Said. The Canal forms the boundary between the Sinai Peninsula and the Continent of Africa. Ismailia, on Lake Timsah, is midway and a normal stopping point for yachts doing a daylight transit. Our section-one and section-two pilots were pleasant people to have on board. Both enjoyed steering, so we sat there and enjoyed the ride. We followed convention in offering gifts and experienced no difficulty. Most other yachts had a similar experience. Only those who had difficulty with the custom of baksheesh ran into problems. Culture shock manifests itself in many ways. The baksheesh thing is particularly difficult for some cruisers. Not for us! We had a supply of tax-free cigarettes bought in Australia especially for the Canal.

At the secure, comfortable Ismailia Yacht Club, we left the yacht, bused to Cairo and traveled by train southbound along the Nile to Aswan. Visiting antiquities as part of a Nile Cruise, we went northbound again as far as Luxor. Some highlights: Tutankhamun's tomb in The Valley of the Kings, and The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, site of a 1997 tourist massacre. We also visited The Temple of Philae, rescued from the rising waters of the Nile upon completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970. At Luxor, we took the train back to Cairo, this time visiting the Pyramids and Sphinx at nearby Giza. With Gulf War Two raging, tourist presence was limited, which meant we had most of the sites to ourselves.

We arrived back in Ismailia and early on May 29, collected our pilot and headed up the Suez Canal. It was one day of motoring to Port Fouad just across from Port Said. This was our last night in Egypt. On May 30, 2003 we entered the Mediterranean and set course for Ashkelon, Israel, just eight miles north of the Gaza Strip. We were to spend the next two seasons sailing westbound through the Mediterranean, eventually reaching Gibraltar before entering the Atlantic, the third ocean of our circumnavigation.

If you are interested in the current security outlook, routing and other advice for a Red Sea/Gulf of Aden passage, Noonsite offers lots of information.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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