April has been dominated by the Red Sea Experience – challenging, frustrating - and also marvellous. We had been warned that, unless of a very seriously head-banging disposition, we should allow plenty of time for the Red Sea - a counsel of perfection in our case, given the setbacks delaying us at the beginning of the year. Instead of the eight weeks advised, we planned on a bare six from Aden to Suez, which we optimistically hoped would include some land travel. All had gone well for the first leg up to Massawa last month – but that was the southern Red Sea. The northern half is something else. Dominated by strong north west winds – right on the nose – it proved an enormous struggle to make progress the 1,000 or so miles to Suez. It was not as we had anticipated – which was hard sailing into the wind in short day hops, inching our way gradually northwards. What we got instead were periods lasting up to four days or so of totally unsailable conditions – not so much the strength and direction of the wind – which were bad enough - but because of the steep short choppy seas created, making progress northward completely impossible. These periods would be interspersed with briefer interludes of lighter winds or calms during which we could motor-sail for a couple of days. The pattern developed – finding shelter during the strong blows, trying to assess the timing of the next ‘weather window’, then having judged the time to be right – or just before if possible – we would go at full steam to get as far as we possibly could, before scurrying for cover before the next onslaught from the north.
We travelled up the west side of the Red Sea past Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt, avoiding the coast of Saudi Arabia which does not welcome yachts. The coastline is riddled with hundreds of islands, reefs and ‘khors’ or ‘marsas’ – extraordinary inlets into the desert. It was among these that the marvels of the Red Sea gradually began to reveal themselves during our enforced stops for shelter, in the form of fabulous snorkelling and a great social life. Although the wind blew hard, the hot sun kept shining at each of our exotically named and beautiful refuges. Sheik el Abu was a tiny low lying reefy islet behind which we sheltered for several days and enjoyed the first of several beach barbecues, together with yachts from Sweden and Australia. Another 190 miles on to Talla Talla Saquir another reefy island where, with two other British yachts we enjoyed snorkelling the most beautiful coral we have ever seen – incredibly diverse and fantastically colourful. The fish were pretty spectacular too – and we ended up eating quite a few, as one of our mates had a spear gun! The next dash was a satisfying 243 miles to Khor el Mar’ob on the mainland coast of Sudan on the outer edge of the Nubian Desert. The scenery was awesomely beautiful – low lying desolate hills in subtle colours changing during the day from silvery to golden tones – stunning against the bright sparkling turquoise water. Every now and then a camel train – a herd of 30 or more camels plus ‘camelboys/camelherds?’ would pass by. The snorkelling was tremendous and, as a bonus, we finally caught up here with Vagabond – last seen in Thailand at Christmas – and had a grand reunion meal together with another British yacht.
The final stop before Suez was somewhat less satisfactory. We were euphoric when we arrived after another 360 miles of hard slog into the port and resort of Safaga. With only 210 miles to Suez we really thought we’d cracked the Red Sea – and it was also my birthday! However, the euphoria soon turned sour as, the next morning while still tied up in the commercial harbour we were smothered by a slick of thick crude oil. It was distressing to say the least, to see Perdika’s hull covered up to deck level by this thick black gunge from bow to stern. It took an enormous amount of work, diesel and detergent to remove it. We then ran into the most protracted spell of strong northwesterlies yet, waiting an interminable eight days before being able to get on the move again. Safaga is not a particularly appealing location – a tourist resort masquerading as a building site – or maybe vice versa – catering largely for German windsurfers and divers. The wind blew relentlessly straight from the direction we wanted to go, day after day – far stronger than forecast. Eventually we thought we could see a ‘window’ sufficient to get us up to Suez – and made it, just - the final six miles taking nearly three hours as we were clobbered by yet more northwesterlies which immediately created waves which had our bow dipping regularly into the water – the final sting in the tail of the Red Sea.
The Red Sea is a tough place – supplies of any kind – including food and especially alcohol – are hard to come by, and there is even less in the way of boat repair facilities. Not a good place for anything to go wrong. Perdika had a good trip – the rig and sails took a battering without sustaining damage, the engine was hammered hard but never faltered, and the whole boat has been encrusted in sand and salt. Others were not so lucky. Casualties of the Red Sea included Bohey a German catamaran whose crew we met just as they were leaving Aden. The next we heard of them they’d been dismasted, lost their engine, been air-lifted off and lost the boat. Grace a Dutch yacht we encountered in Oman suffered engine problems way beyond any expertise in Sudan and are arranging to be freighted to the Med. Nordstar a Danish yacht lost the use of their engine other than for occasional half hour bursts. They sailed valiantly several hundred miles, often making less than 20 miles a day towards their destination, sometimes hove to in heavy weather making no progress at all. At least four others which we had previously encountered foundered on reefs. This number probably represents about 8% of the all yachts transiting the Red Sea this season – a scary thought. The most disturbing incident from our personal point of view – though luckily the least serious – was news from Vagabond that they had gone on a reef at 2am one night and had to be hauled off after an hour, by fishing and dive boats. Intact - albeit with superficial damage to the hull - they feel very lucky.
You would think that an area so dominated by difficult weather conditions would have a decent forecasting service. However, official marine forecasts from Jeddah radio were inaccurate and virtually useless. The Cruising Guide suggested some rules of thumb: dew on the deck in the morning means southerly or light breezes; conditions 100 miles ahead will arrive with you in 24 hours; if the wind is more than 10 knots by 8 am, it will be blowing up to 25 knots by lunchtime; the strongest winds are during full moon; and so on. We did keep in touch with boats ahead which was very useful. However, by far the most helpful forecasting came from mates back home in the Bristol Sailing Association. For the whole of the Red Sea, and some time before, they dutifully checked a website providing worldwide weather every day, and relayed a forecast on to us by email. Given the paucity of any other information we relayed these forecasts on to an
ever increasing audience of yachts on a radio sched each day. This weather slot became a vital and eagerly awaited item. We cannot thank you enough Jock, Tony and Mike.
Arriving in Suez was a fantastic relief, and with the Red Sea behind us we decided to go off and explore something of Egypt other than the coastline. Our first foray was into the Sinai Peninsular. We took the bus 5 hours down to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Katherine which nestles right under Gebel Musa – Mount Sinai. The scenery of Sinai is stunning – an incredible dual geological system of mesa-like sandstone formations, backed by rugged mountains in dark reds, mauves, browns and greens. The land is barren, other than a couple of oases of dense date palms and the odd dry scrubby bush – of a type one could well imagine bursting into flames à la Moses! We climbed Mount Sinai before dawn in the silvery light of a beautiful full moon – a wonderful experience – but were quite relieved not to be given any tablets of stone to carry back down again!
Then to Cairo – both wonderful and dreadful. We were surprised at how clean and smart a city it is – not at all what we had expected. There is a series of massive restoration projects currently in progress on large numbers of ancient and beautiful mosques. The sheer density of ancient domes and minarets on the Cairo skyline is simply breathtaking. We ‘did’ the Pyramids on horseback, approaching them across the desert - far more romantic than being off-loaded from a coach. They are of course an unearthly and overwhelming sight – but we kicked ourselves for not having done more boning up on Egyptian history. They are such a familiar image, yet we know so little about them. The other highlight of our visit was the Egyptian Museum - a beautiful storehouse of the most fantastic and wonderful treasures. Apparently it would take nine months were you to give each object one minute’s attention. Again, we wished we had paid more attention to our Egyptian history homework, and were reduced simply to relishing the exquisite beauty, antiquity and sheer profusion of the exhibits – especially the extraordinary Tutankhamun section – rather than taking a more systematic or learned approach. In Cairo we found an interesting new take on the Moslem attitude to women. We jumped on to a metro train on one occasion to find ourselves in a ‘women only’ carriage – where a delightfully peaceable atmosphere prevailed! We also discovered, too late to be of use, that women are allowed to go straight to the head of any queue! However, much as we enjoyed the sights of Cairo we were relieved to leave after a rather fraught three days.
Egypt has a terrible reputation for hassle and corruption. We always try hard when visiting a new country to dismiss any reputation and see for ourselves – and have always been very pleasantly rewarded. Not so in Egypt. We have been routinely cheated - by bus and taxi drivers, shopkeepers and restauranteurs – not all, but enough. Almost any system we have encountered seems at best impenetrable and at worst corrupt – and we usually end up paying more than we have been told. Whatever - this lack of straightforwardness causes maximum frustration, resentment and distrust. Then there is baksheesh – we found the constant demands for ‘presents’ distasteful and tiresome. We were even asked for money by a policeman, for giving us unsolicited directions to where we were going! Undoubtedly we also met many helpful and undemanding Egyptians, but our experience of so many of the other type caused us to become cynical and suspicious whenever we met someone who seemed friendly – which we don’t wish to be. The culture of money-grabbing certainly brought out the worst in us, in the course of several heated exchanges, and soured our experience of Egypt.
Finally the Suez Canal – a complete contrast to the Panama Canal in every way. In Panama the canal is complex and the administration professional and straightforward. In the Suez Canal it is the exact opposite. Every vessel transiting the canal must be measured individually in every conceivable dimension to calculate an idiosynchratic ‘Suez Canal Tonnage’, by a formula so complex and opaque that it is impossible to predict the result. On this the fee is calculated, with astonishingly differing results for apparently very similar boats. The whole ‘system’ is guaranteed to cause maximum discontent, and probably as many as 50% of yachts challenge the figure demanded. This seems invariably to result in a considerable reduction. Obviously the figure is not only discretionary but also negotiable! In fact we were quite happy with our figure – British yachts seemed to do well – certainly in comparison to the Americans! Uncertainties as to when and whether a pilot will arrive and where he should be dropped off, and far too many ‘baksheesh’ opportunities in the system make the administrative process more than frustrating. The canal itself is entirely straightforward. 90 miles long, 22-28 metres deep including stretches through a couple of lakes through buoyed channels, few bends and no locks. Hard to see why a pilot is needed, but they are compulsory. The standard procedure for yachts is a two day transit with a stop in Ismailia. After the initial excitement of being in the canal – the focus of our struggle up the Red Sea - it is actually rather boring. High sandy banks, a few palm trees – just what you would expect – though undeniably it is very curious to be ‘driving’ through the desert in a boat. The main excitement is passing the southbound convoy of ships. Big ships transit the canal in a day, in a one-way system involving two northbound and one southbound convoy each day. We had heard varying reports about the pilots and were feeling optimistic. However, neither of ours spoke very much English at all which made the gleaning of information, and 7 hours each day of small talk, very hard going. Both started nagging about their ‘present’ from lunchtime onwards and asked for extra cigarettes, more dollars, a hat, a shirt, beers to take home and girlie magazines – none of which they got! It is quite hard to respect such behaviour simply as a cultural difference. By the end of the canal we were not unhappy to be leaving Egypt, and by the time you read this we will be in Rhodes – inshallah!