Part 3: Pearls of the Red Sea
Already three months on passage, René and Edith arrive in the south of the Red Sea. They visit Sudan and Eritrea among other places onboard their classic sailing yacht, Alondra. Here’s part three, a report of an impressive sea with equally impressive countries.
We want to leave. Enough Egypt! We are now disturbed by all the scams so Sudan is a good proposition. We decided to cover the 260 miles sail to Sudan in one go. Sailing in the Red Sea is not just a ‘day out’. It is a difficult sea with many reefs, currents, strange short waves and a lot of wind. For now, the wind is still straight from our backs, so that’s not too bad. We sail for two days with the 16 yachts and with relatively few problems. Our chartplotter and radar are working great. We enter the first undisputed Sudanese bay, ‘Marsa’. Due to border conflicts, we decide to sail more than twenty miles further than where the actual border is on the map. We consciously do not seek out any problems with military personnel who are present everywhere.
The bay, with excellent reefs on both sides, lies in the middle of a flat landscape. We have to be careful, Edith is on the lookout. We sail in on the chartplotter with one eye continuously focused on the depth sounder. Everything is OK.
Immediately, the typical African trees stand out. Wow… this is Africa! We are in 25 knots of wind but sheltered from the waves with the anchor holding well. When we sailed away later, we appeared to have taken a piece of coral of one cubic meter with us. No wonder we were so stuck!
On land, we find the tents of some nomads. Very simple households, with huts made of branches and self-woven cloth. The people are more than friendly. With hardly any possession, they offer us coffee, freshly roasted over a small fire. We kindly refuse, afraid of the consequences of the water used. Disappointment everywhere but, shortly afterwards, we help change a flat tire on the only car in the “village” which makes up for it. We manually change the old tyre for a “new-old-flat tyre” and have to inflate it with a bicycle pump!
And so we sailed on to Suakin. The coast is full of dangerous reefs, several yachts running into trouble (fortunately recoverable). One afternoon we are anchored when our phone rings and are surprised to speak to the coastguard from Den Helder (The Netherlands)! “…Is it true that you are in the Red Sea? Do you have a yacht called Panta Rhei near you?” We confirm this and are told that their Epirb has gone off. The coastguard found our telephone number through the website. Immediately we check the position of the Epirb, grab the VHF radio and soon we have contact with the crew. The fearful suspicion turns out to be true as we find out that the Panta Rhei ran onto a reef 10 miles offshore. The Shab Rumi reef is where Jacque Couteau stayed and studied for two years. It is marked on the map but it has been difficult to see with the low-hanging sun.
Fortunately, the crew was picked up safely by a passing dive boat that had just started their trip and was meant to be underway for another week. We are 13 NM from their location so Edith and I offered the owner to pick them up on our route, which is planned for the next day as it was already too late to set sail. Our offer was received with enthusiasm so the next day, together with another yacht, we sailed by to pick up the crew. The wind is blowing hard and the reef is in the middle of the open sea. When we arrive the next day the situation is clear. The Panta Rhei is above water, fifty meters on the reef and is lost. Waves crash on the yacht and moments later we hear the stories from the emotional crew. Totally in shock, they don’t want anything to do with the yacht anymore and want to leave. Before we do, we take our dinghies, doing two trips to the yacht to recover whatever we can use. We get the diesel and petrol off board and try to get some personal belongings from the wreck. It’s dangerous and we can’t stay there too long. The drama touches us, in any case, it is clear that one yacht will not reach its final destination.
That night, there was a storm and we were unable to sleep. It’s pitch black and the wind keeps us on constant alert. The next day we sailed on to Port Sudan with the crew of Panta Rhei who will complete the formalities once we arrive. After that, we set a course for Suakin. Later on, we hear that a hefty fine has been imposed on the crew for damaging the reef. Rightly so, but hopefully it won’t end up in the pockets of a harbormaster…
Suakin is a strange but wonderful city found in northeastern Sudan. The harbour is well signposted and the town is particularly poor. It seems as if war has ravaged the place but the people assure us that it is just decay. Houses and buildings built of coral have collapsed, everyone lives on nothing. The market, a medley of little bits, yields some fresh vegetables, fruit, a few eggs and meat with lots of flies. So no meat for a while…
Fortunately, we are starting to get the hang of fishing which is great as fish are abundant in the Red Sea. We catch tuna and make delicious sushi and tuna salads. We hook a giant barracuda but decide to throw it back. For starters, we don’t like the taste very much but they are often poisonous due to thier diet of coral fish, which can make you quite sick. We catch a 1.5-meter long dorado and…. yes, we throw that back too. Have you ever seen a dorado? It is really a very, very beautiful fish! Bright blue with yellow and green.
Our next destination is Eritrea. We’ve read that there are a lot of Italian influences from the colonial era before 1941. That sounds interesting. Fortunately, the wind is still blowing from the north so we’re in luck with a tailwind. Everyone is excited, especially after the drama with the Panta Rhei. Careful navigation and lots of consultation, checking charts, Maxsea on the computer and on the radar. Finally, everything is OK and we sail into Massawa. The witnesses of development aid from the Netherlands are standing on the quay. Brand new cranes from Figee, tugboats from Damen and fishing boats donated by Urk that are left abandoned!
Massawa, the city itself is an experience. Impressive buildings destroyed by the war. What is left is inhabited by penniless people who suffer from the political pressure of a government that is at some sort of war with all the surrounding countries, especially with Ethiopia. Diesel is hardly available, nor is any fresh food and all the money goes to the army. Most of the NGOs have pulled out and no longer contribute anymore, so sad. Here we see with our own eyes a country being destroyed by war.
Despite everything, the people are again friendly and hospitable. Coffee, the best we’ve ever tasted, is on offer everywhere. Even though coffee is expensive and hard to get. Here and there we give away clothes and food that we have left over. We help a single woman with a child to get some stock for her shop. It’s a drop in the ocean but it feels good.
By bus, we visit the capital Asmara at an altitude of 2400m and marvel at this beautiful country. It is green, it is arid, there are plains and mountains. Never boring, always full of life and friendly faces everywhere in villages that seem to have ceased to exist 50 years ago.
Now it gets tricky. From Massawa to Aden is another 460 miles and the wind here shifts from North to South. Massawa is located in the ‘Conversion Zone’, the area where the wind turns. Sometimes the calm is a bit more to the north, sometimes a bit more to the south. It is important to read the incoming weather reports and to choose the best ‘wind hole’. From now on we will limit radio traffic to a minimum. Piracy is becoming a real danger further south and we don’t want to advertise our presence.
The group is moving. We head back out on the 28 degrees warm soapy water. The wind is gone and everything seems to be going well. But less than 15 miles from Massawa, the fun is over. The wind turns 180 degrees in 2 minutes and is suddenly 25 to 30 knots, on the ‘nose’ turning our easy sail to a real slog. Wind, waves and current against us. The normal 110-degree stroke that we can make with the Alondra is now sometimes completely gone. For 60 miles south we have to sail 160. After a full day of sailing, we finally arrived at an anchorage at 5 pm. Since Ed Bay doesn’t look very protected, we decide to sail another 12 miles to the next bay. Several other yachts are already there and tell us that it is well sheltered. We make another tack out and we shoot forward 7.5 knots. I tell Edith boldly that we’ll be there in an hour or two. I sail well in order not to get into trouble and tack…..to sail back to Ed Bay just passed. I curse, sigh, look at what I’m doing wrong, but it’s really not possible to get more than 170 degrees! We fight our way through the current and waves and finally arrive late in the evening (after more than five hours of sailing). Tired, we fall into bed. Tomorrow is another day.
The strait of Bab El Mandeb, let alone our destination Aden in Yemen, is still a long way off. The Red Sea and the old pilots prove themselves here. “Coming into the Red Sea is a nightmare, going out is impossible!”
Next month part four, Bab El Mandeb, Yemen and Oman.