FEEL FREEs Voyage Into the Red Sea

9/1/2010

By Liz Tosoni

Killarney, Ont.

Feel Free is “up on the hard” in Curacao and we are working in the Boathouse at Killarney Mountain Lodge again for a short spell (gotta fatten that cruising kitty) so, time to regale you with a couple of memorable stories from the not too distant past. You may recall from an earlier log our Gulf of Aden (“Pirate Alley”) passage? Well, after enjoying the sights of the colorful Yemeni town and surrounding area, more than 1,200 miles of Red Sea lay ahead and we were psyched for it. All the years of imagining and thinking about sailing the Red Sea and finally it was about to happen.

Even though it was early March and the most popular time for a northbound passage, this stretch of water is notoriously difficult but we were chomping at the bit to get going. The weather forecast from the Grib files was favorable for the next three days so, after taking on fuel, fresh provisions and water, we left Aden at 1230 on March 9, Tom’s birthday. Liz: “Let’s stay another day and have a party.” Tom: “I don’t want my birthday to interfere with our departure.” OK, let’s go for it!

The plan was to make a dawn passage through the famed “Gates of Sorrow”, narrow Bab El Mandeb, some 90 miles distant, separating the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea, the next morning.

After Aden in Yemen, there are 1,200 nautical miles of Red Sea to cover with two straits- a small strait to the east and the larger strait for big ships, to the west. Luck was with us and we enjoyed lovely sailing with ESE 15 knot winds all day long, Tom’s birthday gift from the wind gods. At about 2300 they increased to about 18 knots so we decreased sail to a reefed main and no jib to slow down, with a gorgeous half moon and wind off the quarter, arriving at the straits at 0600.

Again the gods smiled on Feel Free. Winds were only 18-20 from the SE and seas a bit lumpy but nothing serious. Just past the straits is where winds are reputed to seriously honk and seas build especially if wind is from SW, but thankfully, they remained at about 18 kn., SE, the seas only a bit boisterous. The traffic in the shipping lanes wasn’t too heavy and once we saw a break, made a beeline for the west side and started making our way, sailing fast, along the African (Eritrean) coastline.

Bab El Mandeb or “gates of sorrow” at the south end of the Red Sea, is notorious for strong winds especially if from the southwest, and big seas, but luckily, we experienced good conditions when we sailed through.

We dropped the hook at Ras Terma later that day, and took in the enchanting view: a series of low lying, camel colored, silken hills topped by huts, sand dunes and glistening black rocks like sleeping seals along the shore, under a pure benevolent sky. Then, happy hour and dinner, and while relaxing in the cockpit after the sun had set, we could hear the distinctive sounds of tribal music: beating of drums, clapping of hands, singing and chanting, off in the distance.

Weather

Since childhood, I’ve dreamed of Africa and there we truly were. The winds died down and we had a calm and peaceful night in our first Red Sea anchorage.
The Red Sea is notorious for its weather and everyone heading there has heard countless stories of head winds, rough seas, sand storms, poor visibility, rapid and unpredictable changes and uncharted reefs. The prevailing wind all year round over most of the Red Sea is from the north and let’s face it: after months, even years of trade wind passage making, you get spoiled. You forget what it’s like to sail to weather with strong headwinds and short steep seas! The Red Sea Pilot states that “on average you will be fetching, sometimes close reaching, into about 20 kn. of wind during daylight hours, easing during the night. Every few days, a considerably stronger blow will come through.”

The weather in the lower portion of the Red Sea is under the direct influence of the two monsoons. And, when the northeast monsoons are well established from December to early April in the north Indian Ocean, the mass of air blowing toward the Red Sea turns easterly when funneled through the straits, carrying a strong west setting current with it. Also, as the winds hit the high mountains of the African coast, they become southeast and blow in great strength through the Straits of Bab El Mandeb, sometimes reaching as far as the latitude of Port Sudan, half way up the Sea.

Feel Free was lucky to benefit from that phenomenon, being able to sail with mostly moderate SE or light NE winds most of the way to Sudan. Here’s a note from our log .... “Again we had perfect 15- 18 knot SE winds all day, with no traffic, no fish boats, no fish nets, just beautiful, open, watery highway for our wing/wing sailing.” Tom and I felt truly fortunate.

After Port Sudan, and all the way to Egypt, we experienced winds mainly from the NW, anywhere from 10- 25 knots and 2 short periods of 30 knots. We followed the rule “hunker down when it’s blowing hard, move when the forecast is for lighter winds”. Most boats regularly received Grib files which were fairly accurate and usually quite helpful for forecasting. Sometimes they were spot-on, but more often than not, winds predicted were much stronger in reality. We learned from repeated and bitter experience that we needed to add 10-15 knots to most grib file forecasts. Seas were flat calm during light periods, choppy when winds were strong. In winds stronger than 20 kn., seas became square and forward progress made difficult.

The later in the season, the stronger the winds become and the longer they last. The previous year, friends, a couple and their teenage daughter, were sailing up the Sea in Sept., considered very late in the year to be making the trip. Day after day, they got 30- 35 knots of NW winds, tacking back and forth from the African side to the Saudi Arabian side, making good only 25 miles a day, their best day, 54 miles over the ground. They were at sea for 12 days without stopping and finally were able to drop the hook and get some rest in an anchorage after making good only 354 miles. At anchor, they got pounded with 35 knots for 6 days, their boat hobby horsing with the seas, 2 snubber lines breaking each day, before they could head out in easing conditions.

This is what all sailors fear in the Red Sea, so they tend to move fairly quickly and cover a lot of ground when conditions are good. We observed that most cruisers including ourselves, felt a certain anxiety about getting too comfortable anywhere. If you stopped too long, you might lose your “weather window”, and be pinned somewhere for days on end. You enjoyed every stop you made, but you had to always be on your guard, thinking about the next leg, the next anchorage, the next “window”. After finally making it to the Suez Canal, many reflected “I wish we had spent more time in the Red Sea. We missed so much.” This is the quintessential Red Sea cruisers conundrum. You have from about mid January, when the NE monsoons begin in the Indian Ocean, to about mid May when the really strong northerlies in the northern Red Sea start to blow, to get to the Suez Canal. That’s a distance of some 4,600 miles to cover in a period of 4 months. And of course, any mechanical breakdowns can seriously hinder the operation as facilities are simply not available.

Besides beautiful sailing conditions, we caught plenty of fish in the Red Sea. The first one is a dorado or mahi mahi, the other is a queen fish.

We entered Eritrea at Masawa, a well protected anchorage. Checking in with Customs, Immigration and Harbour Master was very easy, officials friendly and there are no fees. You are given a shore pass which has to be shown at the gate to the Port each time you enter or leave.

Our Eritrean port of entry was Masawa, a war torn, dilapidated town.

The war with Ethiopia ended around 1994 but you’d think it must have been more recent. The streets are clean and tidy but sadly in need of repair. The Italianate architecture would have been splendid in its heyday. The Italians were in power from 1889- 1941, then the British from 1941-1952, then the 30 year war from around 1964- 94. People continue to live in the broken dwellings and seem proud of their independent country despite the mess it appears to be in. “How like Eritrea?” they asked with big smiles displaying beautiful white teeth. They are tall, dark and statuesque wearing varieties of Muslim, Coptic Christian and western dress.

The Eritrean women are statuesque and beautiful with white teeth and many fix their hair into hundreds of miniature braids.

The town is has a very peculiar layout with pockmarked, shelled buildings, an odd assortment of shops, small local restaurants and outdoor cafes serving good Italian coffee, beer, bread and local dishes. Beach’s Restaurant is upscale with good western and local food, owned by Angelo, a local who is also Canadian. Mike is the local who caters to yachties- has a cafe, does laundry, changes money, you name it. He’s a good guy but a definite businessman with a family to feed. There is limited fresh produce and fuel was not available during our stay.

We took an overland trip to the capital, Asmara, high into the verdant mountains, a delightful, cool change. A group of cruisers hired a minibus and Debusay, our gentle Eritrean driver, enlightened us on the history, culture and economy of his country as we passed through villages on terraced slopes, cactus, olive and eucalyptus trees, nomad camps, working camels and even baboons beside the road.

After Aden, Feel Free stopped a total of 14 times over a period of one month, including 7 “marsas”, 4 ports and 3 small islands, before reaching Abu Tig Marina in Egypt. Next time we’ll sail through some of the stunning marsas.