Part 4: Alondra in Yemen and Oman; an unknown part of Arabia
During the penultimate stretch for Alondra, Edith and René sail along the south of the Red Sea, via the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb towards Yemen and Oman. In the fourth part of their journey from Turkey to Thailand; a story about Pirates, Khat-chewing Yemen, and how a Sultan got his country back on top.
We are anchored near the southern port city of Assab in Eritrea. The weather is not good, 30 to 35 knots of wind over the water, and the anchor chain is tight. The island behind offers protection but it doesn’t feel right. And most importantly, there seems to be no end to it. We download the GRIB files daily and hope for the weather to improve. Five days pass, we explore the small island from one end to the other and then again. A single fisherman brings delicious fish, and the last fresh vegetables go into the pan.
It was quite a struggle to get here. There were no nice sailing days, it was hard work that brought us here. Now we have to go through the “hole”; the Bab-el-Mandeb passage into the Indian Ocean about forty-five miles from here.
All of a sudden, the wind is gone. We leave immediately in the middle of the night and navigate between the islands and reefs of the Red Sea. Radar and plotter are working overtime, and the light of the moon helps. Where 30 knots seems to be the norm so far, it is now windless. We enjoy it and pretend it’s normal. We sail on the motor and cross straight in the direction of Yemen to follow the coast from there. Watch out now. When the wind dies, piracy rises. Nobody knows where they come from exactly, but it is clear that we have to be careful.
A little after noon, we pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb and leave the Red Sea behind us. With a light breeze, we continue on our way and drink to our arrival in the Indian Ocean, more precisely, the Gulf of Aden. An impressive coast of mountains explodes out of the water. They put their heads in the air majestically, and they tell their story to the sea in a foreboding way. Wow!
We arrive in Aden at about two in the morning. It is a relief to find that everything works here. The buoys are in place, port control answers our VHF call, and we sail to an anchorage under the escort of the Coast Guard. After a drink, we go to bed tired. The next morning we saw a real city for the first time in a long time. We go ashore and soon find ourselves a super supermarket.
A supermarket! “Look! Oranges! And look here, milk and even Coke!” Like small children, we marvel at everyday things we missed in Sudan and Eritrea in the past months. We leave laughing with full bags and refresh ourselves in an otherwise shabby but fun and busy city. Striking are the women, who are all and without exception covered by their Burkas. They greet us with heavily made-up eyes and hands painted with intricate Henna patterns.
Yemen also has a problem, and that problem is called Khat. Khat is a plant whose leaves are chewed for their hallucinatory effect. As a result, every Yemeni is hardly approachable after two in the afternoon. Like a kind of a zombie, they are scattered here and there in the city, behind their desks or in their shops completely wasted. The head of security at the Port Authority acts like nothing is wrong, but talking to him is like talking to someone completely drunk. Once again, we are in a country where everything doesn’t quite work out.
We leave for the North-Eastern city of Al Mukalla, and this stretch, actually as far as Salalah in Oman, we take possible piracy even more seriously. From now on, we sail in a convoy of five yachts and keep eye contact. VHF traffic commences on 1-watt low power, and positions are given in code, referring to fixed points we call “Alpha” or “McDonald’s”. Everyone is on edge.
On the second afternoon, fast motorboats approach us. I am shocked to see that the men on board are wearing black balaclavas! Edith and Nadia, our crew, go down below immediately while I stay outside and accelerate Alondra. One of the other yachts comes closer, and the motorboats approach us fast. At five meters from us, they continue sailing and make a move with their hand towards their mouth. They want water. I toss them a bottle and friendly wave them away. It works, they are leaving. Later we see more, but they turn out to be fishermen covering their faces from the sun!**
The wind in this part of the Indian Ocean is dominated by the monsoon or prevailing trade winds. This time of the year, the northwest monsoon reigns, and it is generally calm. Just under the coast, there is often a nice sailable breeze, but there is often no wind further out to sea.
Mukalla is a must-see if you are in the area. Deliciously Arabesque with narrow streets, overcrowded markets with hundreds of sellers and pleasant (Khat-chewing) people. The anchorage is good, and we come across a number of yachts that are on their way from the Maldives to the Mediterranean. Here you can stock up again, as diesel and water, albeit with jerry cans, are cheap.
After Al Mukalla, we sailed towards Oman. Along the way, we caught tuna, which makes delicious sushi. On the morning of the third day, having sailed more than 260 miles from Al Mukalla, we arrived. Again a surprise. It is busy in the super equipped and pretty new port.
Although the facilities for yachts are lacking, the anchorage is good, and container ships come and go. Here we have to arrange our visas for India. We will end up staying there for 19 days, enough time to look around. Oh yes, and they have a bar! A real English pub called Oasis with real English draft beer(!) which makes for a great night out.
Oman is a reasonably modern country. Things go fast after Sultan Qaboos (pronounced: Kaboos) took over power from his father in a palace revolution in 1974. Educated in England, he reformed the country and brought it up to speed with Western wealth and a tight organisation. As a sole ruler, he came up with some weird but nice laws. For example, every Omani must keep his car clean or face a fine of over 5000 euros. Under the guise of “if you can have a car, you can wash it too”, the general scene is therefore tidy and clean.
He also waived some mortgages (always good) and demanded Omanis to be hired for every position, so there is a lot of involvement from everyone. The country’s nature is varied with mountains, deserts, beautiful oases, breathtaking beaches and modern cities. Tourism in Oman is growing, and that is not surprising.
The journey is almost over for us. After 19 long days of waiting, the big crossing is just about to begin. We stock up again, fill Alondra with water and diesel and set out for 1200 miles across the Indian Ocean. The wind forecast is zero to a little and that in the back. Wonderful after that stormy Red Sea. Holiday!
** Edith and René sailed in the Red Sea and Indian ocean in 2007 and 2011. At the time of writing this article, the situation was still quite stable. On their way back in 2011 of course it was a completely different story. Piracy exploded, many boats came under attack, and Paul and Rachel Chandler, sailing in the same group on this part of the journey, had been hijacked with their yacht Lynn Rival and held hostage for over 13 months. The Arabian Spring was in full swing, and most countries fell into turmoil. Nowadays, the cousin of Sultan Qaboos, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said is the new ruler of Oman, and Yemen is currently suffering from a large civil war.
Next month part five, India!, arriving in Mumbai and sailing along the coast.