“I think it’s fair to say that passing through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea was like dropping through a trap-door. No longer were we in the relatively comfortable confines of the Mediterranean basking in western culture, we were now in a completely different world – given that we’d only made a two hundred mile passage through the Canal…” Dave
Southwards down the Red Sea
The Red Sea is not like the Mediterranean. The countries and cultures that border the Red Sea are beyond recognition when compared to the European countries of the northern Mediterranean. Here was warm Arabic culture, poverty and starvation. We came into the Red Sea in our posh sailboat representing a degree of wealth that we ourselves didn’t immediately recognise. We don’t consider ourselves rich… we pride ourselves in our ability to live our own simple way of life on a sailboat. The people of Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen didn’t see things this way at all.
From the Suez Canal we stayed in the relative comfort of El Gouna in Egypt with no real plan to head south, we naturally thought that at some point we would head north back through the canal once we’d had our fancy out of Egypt. Southwards, through uncharted reefs and countries racked by war and famine didn’t really occur to us.
Before we made any plans to return north we decided to take up scuba diving, mainly so that I could deal with problems beneath the boat. So from El Gouna we signed up to a PADI diving course, we had a wonderful time onboard the live-aboard dive boat diving pristine coral reefs before passing the final examination. Then we met and became great friends with Peter & Dagmar, a young German couple normally living and working in Saudi Arabia, who kept their French built aluminium sailing ketch Iltis in El Gouna. Peter, a geologist specialising in water exploration, knew the barren wastes of the countries bordering the Red Sea in great detail. At first we didn’t know them well in El Gouna… the friendship came later…
Peter & Dagmar left to head south but not before I’d talked with them on the dockside. That set me thinking that we too could at least head down to Port Sudan, maybe a little further to Eritrea if we felt a little more adventurous. We could navigate ourselves through the reefs because we now had possession a cruising guide for the Red Sea in which the suggested anchorages looked stunning. So, a couple of weeks after Ilits left, Sänna headed south too. Leaving El Gouna after nearly three months was a wrench but we simply had to go. Henry had returned to England to be with his dad and Marie was down in the dumps. Of course, at this stage we were not ourselves experienced ocean passage makers, our four day non-stop sail to Port Sudan was our longest period at sea yet. When we arrived in Port Sudan… well it was a shock.
I considered myself an experienced traveller. I’d before backpacked around fairly remote regions of the world, climbed mountains in harsh environments, I had pride in my ability to adapt to not-so-easy cultures. Port Sudan was different to anything either of us had experienced onboard Sänna, we were unprepared. Firstly, we had to make our own way into an extremely ramshackle harbour, there didn’t seem to be any port authorities of note although we later found there were. Then, whilst attempting a stern-to tie up between two rusting fishing boats, I threw a line to a man onshore who was squatting beside the mooring cleat we needed to use, only to discover to my horror that he had no legs. Two laughing soldiers took our line instead then secured us to the dock. Later, when we made our way into the poverty stricken town we saw much worse.
Even dumping our black plastic bin-liners of rubbish caused a major stir, a large gathering of people quickly went through our rubbish bags hunting for scraps of food… shamefully there were significant amounts of edible food we’d simply thrown away uneaten without thinking… as is normal for ourselves and probably with most other westerners. We moved out on anchor into the harbour to free the mooring space we were using so that there was space for refugee vessels, we stayed out in the harbour for five days. We decided there was no scope to travel inland to explore what is surely a fascinating country, because the war and bad famine still raged in the south of the country. Interestingly, whenever we walked through this lovely ex-colonial Italian town we were continually invited to join families and share their meagre food… we were encountering the side of Arabic culture we would grow to respect and admire.
Leaving Port Sudan we threaded our way south through the extensive reefs which were themselves desolate and littered with wrecked vessels of all descriptions. Southwards we anchored inside incredible desert anchorages, El Fajib for example and found ourselves in a fascinatingly surreal world. We quickly gained real live experience of reef navigation, climbing the mast to spot our way through intricate entrances because we soon worked out that our charts were sometimes as much as one mile out. But we got ourselves south. We sailed across the border between Sudan and Eritrea, after yet another four day passage we made our approach to Port Massawa, arriving at dawn to time our passage into the harbour. It was a comparatively easy entrance, we were directed over the radio by an enthusiastic harbourmaster who was genuinely pleased to have a foreign yacht visiting his harbour. We loved Port Massawa.
Eritrea and Port Massawa presented another aspect of poverty and famine. Eritrea is not a Muslim country, it’s mainly catholic following many years of Italian occupation – most things are different to Sudan and Egypt. The locals were immensely friendly and helpful. We met the local fixit minder, a guy called Mike who introduced himself as the fixer who looked after the few foreign sailing vessels that ventured into port. He sorted all our import and immigration procedures, procured the supplies we needed… these were not the choices we were used to… and introduced us to local food and culture. He also owned his own mango juice bar, we dined in nice style on freshly caught fish and mango… surprisingly excellent given the local poverty. Port Massawa is still massively war-ravaged… their war of independence with Ethiopia only recently ending, the scars are plain to see. Even so, we ourselves experienced no problems whatsoever other than being unable to replenish our supplies to continue south. We did face one problem though, one which eventually played a large part in our future situation.
We were followed into Port Massawa by an American yacht Pipedream 9. The skipper of the vessel was friendly enough, he had onboard four American passenger crew who were each paying him a large fee to sail around-the-world. The skipper said they were low on fuel, because they had been unable to purchase diesel in Port Sudan with fuel also rationed here in Port Massawa. Could he possibly buy fuel from ourselves? We too were dangerously low on diesel though we did have back-up supplies onboard in jerry cans, we were also hoping to replenish here in Port Massawa. But if this American sailboat was in dire trouble then I would have no hesitation in giving up some of our meagre reserves. I told him we could spare no more than one hundred litres, that this would be a problem to ourselves if no supplies of diesel were available in Port Massawa. However, Mike informed both of us that he was trying to get a permit from the harbourmaster to buy the marine diesel we needed, which was strictly rationed. Then the skipper of Pipedream 9 let slip he needed the diesel because they were down to their last eight hundred litres, they were unable to run their four air conditioning units – his crew were complaining about the intensive heat. Eight hundred litres was far more than we could carry in full tanks. On learning this I was more cautious, I told him we’d have to wait and see.
The next morning Mike informed me that we had received permits to buy diesel, we must present ourselves to the harbourmaster to get the permits signed. The American skipper was there too. The harbourmaster told both of us we could buy three hundred litres for each vessel and no more… it was all he could spare under the rationing rules. The American skipper exploded in temper, saying it was his right under international maritime rules to buy the fuel he needed, he would contact his embassy to register a complaint. The harbourmaster, who we ourselves thought was a reasonable fellow, responded by telling us that, in view of this American skipper’s ranting objection, he would issue no fuel permits to either vessel – we could ‘go to hell,’ he said. Marie and I had sat at the back of the harbour office, we said nothing, now we were in some trouble.
Outside of the harbourmaster’s office the American skipper again asked if he could buy our fuel, I told him to fuck off. He clearly had enough fuel to get south to Aden, the next major port, we ourselves did not. We would have to rely purely on the winds – and the prevailing winds we were now encountering as we sailed further south down the Red Sea were contrary to our course and invariably blew more and more on our nose. Neither did we have enough diesel to make our way back north to Port Sudan though the winds would at least be in our favour – but we knew there was little diesel available there either. We now had a tough choice to make.
Really, there was little choice. Our best chance of fuel was either Port Assab, a small port further south in Eritrea close to the border with Djibouti, or Port Al Hudaydah – although closer it was a notoriously difficult harbour on the Yemen coast located on the opposite northeastern shore of the Red Sea beset by piracy problems – or Aden in Yemen, a long way further south through the Straits of Bab Al Mandab into the Gulf of Aden. The closer ports of Saudi Arabia were out-of-bounds for foreign vessels – even for vessels in distress. There was Djibouti, the country southwards bordering Eritrea which was also in the Gulf of Aden beyond the Red Sea… but both Aden and Djibouti were close to Somalia, the piracy problem there was already showing its ugly head. There were grave security issues in Yemen’s Al Hudaydah, Mike told us not to head there under any circumstances.
Our big issue was that our ongoing plans did not include sailing out of the southern entrance of the Red Sea, through the infamous Straits of Bab Al Mandab. We’d be facing prevailing winds, more often than not gale force – which would almost certainly be against us. Our original plan was, after venturing further south to explore the desolate anchorages, reefs and islands of Eritrea, we’d head back north to the Suez Canal then congratulate ourselves on our wonderful Red Sea adventure. And so we departed southwards from Port Massawa knowing full well that everything was changing – we felt far more adventurous, we now fancied ourselves as really intrepid sailors. Undoubtedly, we relished this more basic lifestyle having to live by our wits to get by and simply feed ourselves.
We were changing too…