“Ultimately, our voyage south from Port Massawa in Eritrea proved to be a truly defining part of our lives. Our way of thinking changed, we never really realised that we were slowly morphing into long distance sailors… vagabond type adventurers who just keep going for some unfathomable reason. We were ‘turning native’ as our friends Peter & Dagmar later told us. The way of the sea got into our blood, the horrible kicks we’d both suffered in our previous lives started to fade to be replaced by something else we couldn’t at first understand, something neither of us could explain in any words that make sense. Even today we both find it difficult to talk about what it is that sailing the ocean does to you, only those of you who are yourselves long distance ocean sailors know what it is I’m trying to say…” Marie
We left Port Massawa not really knowing what was going to happen. We departed the harbour under sail with a nice fresh wind across our stern to preserve the diesel we had in our tanks. As soon as we cleared the harbour breakwater the wind straightaway turned on our nose when we cautiously turned south by southeast.
Mike told us there might be diesel in Port Assab, we didn’t turn on our engine to motor into the wind just yet, instead we tacked our way southwards along the Eritrean shoreline. It was slow progress. At first we enjoyed the continual tacking, the gentle wind cooling the intensively hot desert air. We had more than enough freshwater from our watermaker. But the prevailing current driving through the Bab Al Mandab Straits two hundred miles to the south began to turn against us, our overall progress slowed markedly. We tacked the sea miles back and forth but when we measured our actual miles made good towards Port Assab it was depressingly small: the current and our leeway were slowly working against us. Then the wind began to gain strength, soon averaging around twenty five knots – our gentle sublime sailing began to take on a different note. Nevertheless, we slowly made our way south. Two days later we’d only made seventy miles from Port Massawa and were tiring from the relentless tacking, changing direction every five miles or so across our intended course to make good. The sea by this time was short and steep although there was no ocean swell, this type of sea is a depressing feature of the Red Sea that sailors who’ve sailed it know well. During the night, tired from a lack of sleep from the constant need to be on deck to tack our sails through the wind, we finally turned on our engine in frustration then hugged the coastline to get what shelter we could from the by now driving sea. We pointed Sänna’s nose towards Port Assab, covering the remaining one hundred and twenty miles in a little over twenty four hours. Frustratingly and alarmingly, there was no diesel for us in Port Assab.
Now we were in trouble. The prevailing wind from the south, straight through the Bab Al Mandab Straits, was by now a constant gale blowing thirty knots and more. If we had enough diesel we could somehow power our way through the heavy sea into the more benign Gulf of Aden beyond the Straits and then make for French Djibouti or Aden in Yemen, both major ports which without question would be able to supply us with fuel. And if the wind had been from a different direction than full on to our bows then we could easily have sailed without the need to worry about fuel. Luckily we did not need to rely on our diesel generator or our engine to charge our batteries because our solar panels provided enough power from the relentless desert sun: our wind generator too supplied enough power from the hot winds so we had no worries about powering our instruments and autopilot. More concerning though, was our eventual need to run our diesel powered generator to power our watermaker… but for now we had ample supplies of fresh water.
We sheltered for two full days behind a remote breakwater just beyond the rather desolate harbour of Port Assab, we rested to think about what to do. We were now even further south than we intended – we knew we could easily run with the winds to return north but when those winds died out, which they invariably would in the no-wind zone that existed between the differing prevailing winds regions of the northern and southern Red Sea known as the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, we would by then be in among the intensive reef systems with potentially no engine power or any wind power either. Now we realised why there were huge numbers of wrecked ships scattered along the many reefs. Our only other option available was to tack our way through the gale force winds and big seas of the Straits which often endured for many days. We could sit and hope for slack winds but we only had around three or four days of fresh water if we couldn’t run our watermaker. We could maybe double that with strict rationing but there was little fresh water in Port Assab either – this was truly a desolate desert wilderness. Our food supplies were OK, though our limited fresh food stocks from Port Massawa were already low or turning foul. Fortunately we always carried around six weeks of dried or canned food supplies. There was no western supermarket quality to be had here.
We decided that we had no real option but to bite the bullet and tack our way out of the Red Sea. It was going to be hard, but we had little choice. So we raised our anchor and slipped our stern lines tied to the breakwater. We didn’t bother to unfurl our headsail, we wouldn’t need it and instead hanked our storm staysail to the inner forestay to ready it for use. We set two reefs in our mainsail then headed out towards the straits, which were by now a little over seventy miles southeast. It could be done. Straightaway we could make out the relentless line of cargo ships heading both north and south through the designated Traffic Separation Zone more or less in the centre of the seaway – at least if we got into trouble there would be ample maritime help available. Our only other major concern was that the opposite Yemen shoreline and the forlorn Perim Island that guarded the entrance to the straits, were restricted Yemen military zones with strictly no access allowed to any vessels which, we’d been told in Port Massawa, was rigorously enforced.
The Red Sea narrows significantly towards its southern entrance. At first we tacked Sänna back and forth between the Eritrean shoreline and the Traffic Separation Zone, but we seemed to be in the worst of the strong winds and the adverse two to three knot current that flowed in the same direction as the winds. Although we were sailing quite well, Sänna was heavily heeled over with breaking seas pounding our bows and windward topsides. We were tiring quickly, we’d previously worked out that we had at least two to three continual days of this ahead of us, nothing would change much. So, on about our fifth or sixth starboard tack towards the relentless line of cargo ships we decided to head straight through the traffic zone, first between the line of ships heading south, then through the ships on a northern heading to see what conditions were like on the far side towards the Yemen shoreline. We powered our way through by now fiercely steep seas still breaking on our bows and found conditions just a little easier on the other side of the separation zone. But the distances between the Yemen military zone and the traffic separation zone were much shorter, so we were changing our tacking course through the wind much more frequently. We decided our best course of action would be to make even longer tacks between the Eritrean shoreline and the Yemen military zone, which meant continually passing through the relentless line of cargo ships but which would reduce the number of times we tacked our sails – meaning we could each rest a little longer below deck. I believe those of you who are sailors know only too well what we were going through and just how tired we were.
Darkness on our first day descended, we worked out from our charts and GPS plotter that we’d knocked off around twenty five miles of course-made-good of the seventy odd miles we need to cover. Not much considering the tremendous effort the two of us were expending. Although I’d sailed in lots of high winds and steep seas, Marie had only experienced relatively brief periods of full-on gale conditions back in the Mediterranean. She was learning fast, I have to say that Marie was magnificent. Darkness came quickly, we then had to rely upon our radar to time our transits between cargo ships – trying to work out distances and times to closest-point-of-approach became a nightmare as the calculations from our plotter varied wildly as we were tossed around in by now huge seas. The winds were by this time touching forty knots and seemed to be increasing. Sänna was handling things well enough, she clearly relished our storm staysail – usually we made around seven or eight knots into the wind before a breaking wave across our bows slowed us down or stopped us dead. However, we were fiercely heeled over, harnessed on to our life-lines, decidedly scared for most of the time… especially as we sailed our way through the traffic zone which strictly we weren’t supposed to do. Occasionally we received a ship-to-ship call over our VHF radio warning us of approaching dangerously too close, usually in some unfathomable language but sometimes in a cool, calm and collected English voice that invariably asked if we were ok. We also received a call in Arabic which we didn’t understand at all, which we assumed was the Yemen army threatening us when we seemed to have sailed too far towards their restricted military zone.
By now we were having to ignore our radar, in the darkness we had to visually sight the ships we needed to sail between. We easily knew their course and the direction they were heading but working out the distances just from their navigation lights was hard going. Twice we crash-tacked to reverse our course, to narrowly avoid a fatal collision in the horrible dark. Marie did a sterling job though, rustling up some hot food and refreshing tea, because by now we’d not slept for nearly twenty-four hours. We again figured out that we’d need at least forty-eight more hours of this before we sailed through the straits. We then still had a hundred and fifty miles or so to make to the safety of Aden in Yemen, which was now our favoured destination rather than Djibouti because Aden was closer. There also seemed to be, according to our charts, an anchorage of some sorts on the Yemen coastline, around fifty miles through the straits, perhaps there we could lay-up and rest… but it was at least three days away by our reckoning.
Dawn came magnificent. We continued in an exhausted state all through the next day, although the gale and sea had eased a little. We began to make more reasonable progress. By now we relied upon our autopilot because we were just too tired to keep taking the helm – the autopilot seemed to work fine, I was really quite proud of our stupid sailboat I’d purchased four years before. At this point we both genuinely began to think the worst of the storm had passed – but as darkness again descended on our second day the wind and seas increased considerably. This was, I tell you now, the night that nearly killed us.
First, our storm staysail began to give us cause for concern. The hanked luff had a small tear that was beginning to grow larger. So we made our way onto the foredeck, through the cold breaking seas that washed across our bows to drop the sail, then we temporarily unfurled our main headsail which would need three heavy reefs so that we could use it whilst we inspected the staysail to see what we could do. The smaller storm staysail was undeniably our best prospect, this sail controlled our sailing performance so admirably that I was loath to lose it. Disaster then struck – whilst reefing our now unfurled headsail I inadvertently let out too much sail, a wind gust of around fifty knots caught it viciously and the sail instantly blew out, tearing along the clew. I was simply too exhausted, I had now made a bad mistake. We immediately tried to heave-too, but without the head or staysail to steady our bows we simply turned one hundred and eighty degrees with the wind. We straightaway dropped the wildly out of control headsail, making it fast as best we could whilst we headed back northwards, losing around five miles of hard-earned distance-made-good. Marie hurriedly made a make-shift repair to our staysail. To avoid losing too much of the hard-earned distance we’d toiled so tirelessly for, I quickly turned on our engine to turn and hold our proper course… and it promptly died as we ran out of fuel. Marie, who’d never signed up for this type of survival, was an absolute star, her incredible grit and determination, her ability to take charge when things got bad made me realise she was a natural leader. We got the patched-up staysail up once more whilst we were both harnessed onto Sänna’s foredeck, which was again being constantly battered by breaking waves. We then turned back into wind to resume our course towards the Yemen shoreline. It was pitch-black dark, the seas by this time seemed mountainous in their terrible extreme. Back in the relative safety of Sänna’s cockpit I saw our wind instrument measuring nearly sixty knots. We were in deep trouble. Then things got much worse.
We were having big problems holding our course and by now making many mistakes in rapid succession – I nearly lost my hand when the headsail sheet line slipped from the winch while stupidly trying to furl the sail away. Marie spotted the danger and pulled by hand free before it became entangled in the tightening noose of rope. We were not reacting rapidly enough, not seeing quickly changing events because we were both by this time exhausted. Then, way off course once more, we caught a huge breaking wave directly upon our beam. Straightaway the wave knocked us down flat. Sänna’s mast hit the sea, our sails floundered in the wild boiling black foam. Although both securely harnessed to our lifelines, we flew across the cockpit, landing on top of each other in a tangled heap. We heard everything crashing and flying below decks, we were completely helpless, lying there in abandonment to our fate. There was nothing we could do, both of us demoralised, aware that we were in now in danger. We couldn’t possibly survive a capsize in these conditions, in the darkness I could see Marie crying in absolute frustration. I really didn’t know what would happen next. I calmly thought that Sänna would continue to roll over and that would be it, we would end our time together in each others arms. I held Marie tightly because I’d long suspected that Sänna was too heavily loaded to come upright again once she was rolled upside down. This sea would rapidly pound her into submission with her upturned hull the only mark of what had happened.
But it wasn’t to be. Instead of rolling over Sänna came upright under her own endeavours, we straightaway scrambled to get control of what we could. Sänna, still recovering from her near capsize, somehow turned herself to run with the wind, which on hindsight was a natural manoeuvre – everything became much calmer as we ran with the sea rather that fighting our way through the waves. Even though we were once again heading northwards, quickly losing even more of the distance we’d made through the previous day and the stormy night, we were too frightened and bruised to do anything about it. We didn’t give a damn, we were both on the verge of giving up because neither of us had anything more to give. We sat around for a while relishing our survival, realising how lucky we were to be alive, knowing that we respected each other more than anything. Then we saw the dawn begin to show its head over the Yemeni shoreline.
The Yemen Army
Once we got ourselves calmed down, we saw the sun was fully up. Running with the wind was all well and good, but we had lost all the distance we’d made since leaving Port Assab – what else could we do? What we’d attempted since leaving Port Assab was too much for a short-handed crew of two and, on hindsight, all of our plans to sail south from Egypt were perhaps misguided. Now we needed a miracle, or fate to at least work its way in our favour because we were in dire trouble. Our headsail was torn, everything onboard was a disorganised shambles since our knock-down, we had nowhere to go. What were we going to do?
Something strange then happened, something I know you will say is freaky and wild beyond belief, something you won’t accept because it might perhaps turn your mind inside out. On Sänna’s bows I saw the image of a young girl standing defiantly against the raging sea. She stood like an angel in such a way that I could only stare in disbelief. She smiled and pointed towards the Yemen shore, with angelic white blond her blowing uncontrollably in the wild wind. Of course, I was shocked in a way that’s difficult for me to describe, I shouted in panic to Marie who was still trying to clear things below. The young girl, she stood there with the grey sea towering all about, trying to say something to me which I could not hear in the wind.
It’s wrong that I tell you what happened next, it’s between myself and my unstable mind – which I’ve long suspected plays cruel and horrible tricks. There’s no logic to what I’ve told you, neither do I have an obligation to explain. Nor do I owe an apology for what occurred or offer any comprehensible reasoning for what I saw, suffice to say that a short while later we turned Sänna back into wind and pointed her towards the Yemen shore. Soon, quite quickly in fact, we found ourselves a long way inside the restricted military zone. By this time we didn’t much care. We were at the end of our tether and our ability to keep going. Our vessel was battered, we had to get ourselves together so that we could deal with our immediate situation. Something infinitely unexplainable had occurred that seemed to give us a way out, something uniquely strange that we didn’t need to reason or figure out. Once closer to the Yemen shore the big sea suddenly receded, we found much less wind. Marie pointed to a location on our charts that seemed to show shallower depths, a possible sheltered anchorage, just off the small village located on the desert shore…