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by John Barker
(previously published in the 1999 Multihull Yearbook)

“Where the hell is Djibouti?” This was my first question when asked if I would join “Gaia” for her passage up the Red Sea. A few days later I was flying in to this dusty French colonial piece of East Africa aboard an Air Ethiopia jet via Addis Abbaba.

Red Sea - Arrival at Safaga Egypt

“Gaia” was anchored off the run-down Club Nautique and after spending a day provisioning and sorting out my transit visa we motored over to a nearby island with a beautiful shallow lagoon to scrub the bottom. The crew, James Wharram, Hanneke, Jamie, Alexa and I, had an enjoyable day swimming and scrubbing before heading out for the day sail to Bab el Mandeb - the Gate of Tears - the forbiddingly entitled entrance to the Red Sea. The pilot book makes it clear that in March boats can expect following winds for the first half of the passage and headwinds for the second. However, we got strong headwinds in the afternoon and decided to put into Obok, a small port on the Djbouti/Eritrean border. We anchored along with four other yachts and waited a day until the wind died down and turned around. Our first afternoon was enlivened by a visit from some local men offering, for $20, to cook us dinner ashore and bring it out to us in the evening. We and several other boats took up this offer and after an anxious wait - they were over an hour late - we were given a whole roast goat which kept us fed for the next three days.

After leaving Obok we entered the Red Sea with a following wind and had six days of gentle sailing until off Port Sudan. When this happens there are two tactics; coast hop between numerous whaddi anchorages during the morning calms or stay out and keep beating. We chose the latter as we were limited on time. As soon as the wind started blowing hard, “Gaia’s” six year old sails all started showing signs of age; seams beginning to give all over. A day and a half was spent hove-to, hard at work with the sewing machine re-sewing the three working sails. The next 12 days were spent beating to windward in winds of between Force 6 and Force 8 with only one morning and one afternoon where the wind dropped away and we thought the worst was over. Only a few hours later the wind was back howling in the rigging, kicking up short, steep 3m to 4m breaking waves which would regularly slam the boat hard, causing the beam lashings to creak and sending spray flying up through the slatted decks. Under deep reefed sails we kept the speed down to around 4 to 5 knots, tacking through 120 degrees and making a good 55 miles a day. “Gaia” could easily have gone faster but above this speed the noise, spray and feeling of strain on the boat made life unbearable.

Those days are now a blur of clear blue sky and flying spray - the crew huddled together in the cockpit, glimpses of the high, barren desert coasts and long dark nights spent dodging ships with mysteriously only appeared after dark. Finally, we reached Egyptian waters and decided to put in to Safaga, the first port of entry. Unfortunately our timing was wrong - late in the afternoon and the approaches are tricky with several unlit reefs. We were getting close as the sun set but could make out lights ashore. Suddenly the wind dropped so we tried to start both motors. After two weeks of inactivity one refused to start and the other would not provide any drive. Suddenly the wind sprang up again, blowing hard and forcing us to spend the night hove-to offshore. In the morning we made sail and tacked into harbour, the wind still howling.

Safaga harbour is a bay with an island in the middle. The old port, where boats check in, is at the south end of the bay and the yacht anchorage off the hotel area is to the north, through a narrow, shallow channel. We sailed up the old port and dropped anchor having followed a large monohull, which turned out to be the Swan 65 “Tangaroa”. We checked into Egypt along with her and the sloop “Halcyon”, who kindly towed us through to the anchorage which was full of sheltering yachts. It turned out that both of these powerful monohulls had had just as rough a time as us. The next morning was calm and many boats raised anchor and headed north. The crew of the “Gaia” however, had a thoroughly lazy but well deserved day lounging around the pool of The Holiday Inn eating hamburgers and ice-cream.

After having spent a while working on the engines - one starter motor had seized and we adjusted the gear cables on the other - we decided to take a trip to Luxor, a three hour bus ride away. This turned out to be a four day highlight of the trip taking in visits to the tombs of the Pharoe, the Luxor Museum, the Karnak Temple and, my childhood dream - a Feluca ride up the Nile. Due to the massacre of tourists by Muslim extremists the previous year, the city which thrives on tourism, was very quiet and very cheap.

Back aboard “Gaia” the wind was still blowing from the NW but after a couple of days we awoke to a calm day and the sound of boats raising anchors. We decided to follow suit but took a while to get going. Another port, Hurgarda, is only 25 miles on so we thought we could make it there for the night. The wind was light and on the nose so progress was slow. Come sunset the lights of Hurgarda were in sight but the wind started blowing hard, so in a repeat of our first approach to Safaga, we spent another uncomfortable night hove-to at sea. In the morning it was still blowing Force 8 and rather than attempt to beat into Hurgarda we decided to run back to Safaga, wondering how long we would be stuck there.

After a couple of days wait, one afternoon the wind dropped and turned to the South. We immediately raised anchor and motored through the night, through the islands and reels of the Strait of Gubal into the Gulf of Suez. From here the wind was light north westerly so we sailed during the day and anchored at night. After several days of easy sailing and deserted anchorages the hustle and bustle of Suez was difficult to take so we decided to stay only one day to re-provision and sort out a pilot to take us through the canal. Our dreams of drinking and telling sea stories at the Suez Yacht Club went unrealised, as being a Muslim country, the club has no bar!

The two leg canal transit - boats anchor at the town of Ismalia overnight - was enlivened by two things - the arrival of Peter (a potential Pahi 63 builder from Australia), ant the reoccurrence of our port engine drive problem. During the second morning after having been joined by our rather surly pilot in Ismalia, the port engine suddenly started racing but not providing any drive. Immediately our speed dropped, the wind again being a brisk headwind. Our pilot indicated he wanted us to moor up to a floating bridge at the canal side. This done, after an unintelligible ‘phone call at a nearby ferry station, our pilot disappeared. Our agent had made it clear we should contact him if we had any mechanical problems so we decided to go ashore to find a ‘phone but found our way blocked by a pair of armed soldiers who refused to allow us ashore. Despite our attempts to reason they continued to guard over us as we struggled to diagnose our engine problem which turned out to be a sheared prop. Meanwhile, Peter tried radioing passing ships in an attempt to get in contact with the agent to arrange another pilot. For Peter time was running out as he had a flight booked out of Cairo at 1600hrs the next day.

By next morning we had repaired the prop but had still not got through to the “Prince of the Red Sea”. Finally Peter did get through to a very helpful German ship who put us through to the “Prince”. He told us to go to the nearest pilot station, which was visible about half a mile up the canal. Why our pilot hadn’t taken us there the day before we still cannot understand. By midday we were joined by a third pilot and were underway again. Peter was desperate to make his flight. Despite protests from everyone in the pilot station, who insisted he stay aboard “Gaia” to Port Said, he stayed ashore. We learned later that he was escorted to the airport under armed guard and did catch the ‘plane.

Meanwhile we motored on to Port Said where, minutes after dropping the pilot, our prop repair failed but by then we were in sight of the Mediterranean. So, with full sail and one engine we were able to clear port safely gliding along on a gentle breeze. Two days later we were safely berthed in Ashkelon Marina in Israel where “Gaia” was left.

Comparing stories with other cruisers, all agreed that the Red Sea was a tough sail and that this had been a particularly tough year, possible affected by the El Nino. A number told distressing stories of their treatment by the Suez Canal pilots, the worst being a yacht rammed by the pilot boat after the crew refused to pay the “Baksheesh” demanded - we had been advised beforehand that the going rate for this was US$5 and a packet of cigarettes, and despite being asked for more we didn’t have any problems.

Thanks to PCA:

Heavy weather sailing
March 2009

"I have been capsized, foundered, run-down and placed in more survival conditions than I can remember"


A Voyaging Canoe for Tikopia
March 2009
A project to build a sailing double canoe for Tikopia.

Tikopia is a tiny remote Polynesian island in the Western Pacific, which has maintained self-sufficiency for 3000 years.

Using a Parachute Anchor
March 2009

Peter Clutterbuck, MOCRA Safety Officer, examines the benefits of carrying one on board, and compares with the conventional anchor.

Budget charters in Thailand
March 2009

We sailed "Veni Vidi Vici", one of Siam Sailing's Tiki 30's for two weeks in January

Read on...

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