Red Sea Sailing


By Liz Tosoni


Killarney, Ont.

Feel Free is still high and dry in Curacao, waiting patiently for her owners. This gives me a little more time to think back on some of our (not too long ago) exotic cruising. Soon enough, the work will be done and we’ll be out there on the water again. Last log, we were sailing up the Red Sea, and had finally made it into marsa country. It was time to do some marsa hopping.

Right, so what are marsas anyway? Well, they are quite a remarkable geological phenomenon, and each one is unique. “Sharms”, narrow, very deep and often winding, streams or rivers sometimes penetrating several miles inland, often with vertical coral walls, lead into a well protected blue lagoon, a “marsa”, sheltered from the seas and often nestled into the edge of mountains. Marsas are lovely natural bays found, very conveniently, almost every few miles along the Sudanese and Egyptian coasts.

Entering Marsa Salak was a bit hair raising as the sharm is extremely narrow, a deep blue ribbon, easily seen with good light, snaking into the rather tiny lagoon (marsa) with little swinging room but great snorkeling and good protection from the seas.

Khor (another name for “marsa”) Shinab’s entrance is hard to identify at first but once you have it, it’s long, winding and wide, feels like a river with raised, deeply cut shorelines of sand appearing like sponge toffee. This marsa is very large and picturesque, big enough for a fleet, enveloped by rounded hills and sculpted mountains like protective shoulders. Here, we are in the anchorage, watching our friends on Red Herring sail in (notice the white sail).

While there, we got an early start before breakfast to hike Quoin Hill. It was like walking on the moon, feet crunching on the dry, crusty barren landscape.



Little Marsa Umbeila has an easy entrance with camels sauntering on the north shore and long, pristine beaches. Snorkeling was exquisite, on an enormous wall of coral; it’s just one of the many secret and surprising isolated places with world class diving to be found as you move northwards.

Foul Bay can be one very nasty stretch of about 100 miles of water, considered the worst on the west side of the Red Sea- reef strewn, with poorly charted or unchartered hazards. You can poke along and stop in the many possible anchorages but we wanted to get it behind us. The area has never had a detailed survey- a couple of Commanders of the Indian Navy (1834-36) seem to have been the last to do any charting there. We had read harrowing accounts of cruisers from previous years running into horrendous conditions, clawing their way in 30 knots of wind and steep seas, but those were the days when weather forecasts were based on radio reports from yachts 100 miles ahead- “what’s up ahead is what you’ll get”. They went out “like lambs to the slaughter” (Tom’s words).

In our case, the two day run of 253 miles from Marsa Umbeila to Port Ghalib in Egypt couldn’t have been much better. The Grib file weather forecast for four days was ideal when we departed- light northerlies for a couple of days followed by a day of southerlies and then very strong NW winds were expected to fill in on the 4th day. The first afternoon we had 15 kn out of the NNE. By 2200 winds were light and westerly. They backed around to the SW for perfect sailing conditions the second day, flat calm seas and 12- 15 kn from the S, lightening up in the evening.

In the late afternoon we noticed a large black cloud in the sky. We sailed until around 2300 when the winds died and the iron jenny was called to action. Just after midnight, a friend called by VHF to report a weather update: “you can expect winds to come out of the NNW at 10-15 knots shortly after midnight”. Sure enough, that’s what happened within the half hour! The weather change was quite abrupt and well defined, with a sudden warm wind. It seemed the four day forecast had been accelerated. We headed directly for Port Ghalib in Egypt to arrive at first light. By then the winds were truly 15 NNW and strengthening and seas getting very bumpy so we got in just in time.

Suakin, Sudan: A narrow, shallow inlet, sailing dhous darting here and there, the ruins of the last slave trading post in the world close on the starboard side: this is the entrance to the well protected and most unusual anchorage of Suakin.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, shares a border with 8 countries and is a microcosm of Africa. They say that all the African races and religions are represented in the Sudan, three of the four major African languages are spoken here and that Sudanese civilization preceded Egyptian civilization.

Tall, dark, handsome and deep voiced Mohammed, the one and only agent, comes to the boat by dinghy with one official. A paper is filled out, and then the passports, one picture each, and 5 crew lists are handed to Mohammed along with $140 US which covers all fees. He returns in a couple of hours with shore passes. If fuel is needed, he takes your jugs and returns them later (@ $.70 US/liter. He’ll also collect and return jugs for drinking water at a minimal cost, and laundry, exchange money, organize trips. Well water for washing is available on shore free of charge.

Suakin is a natural marsa, very trippy. We felt as though we’d been transported back to biblical days. The remains of the ancient trading post are on an island in the middle of the harbor and a causeway leads from it to the old town.

You can find good local swords and knives with sheathes, whips, walking sticks, coffee pots and prayer mats, a very good produce market and delicious bread made daily but no alcohol. Donkey carts are the usual mode of transport.

Men are shrouded in white or brown with Aladdin-like turbans and swords or knives in their belts; women, the few you see, are fully covered in flowing garments: bright reds, oranges, yellows, purples, some with faces showing, others not.

Port Sudan, the capital, is an hour away by local bus and also fascinating. The road is good, the countryside dotted with plastic bags, nomad camps, the ubiquitous camel, goats and shepherds, sparse shrubbery. Having coffee (strong), the local way, is a must. Everywhere, the men are drinking tea or coffee. They must have trouble sleeping at night, I can’t help but wonder, all that coffee!

At Port Ghalib, Egypt, Port Control first directs you to a Customs wharf where clearance procedures take place. Customs comes aboard to inspect lockers and drawers, and Mohammed (another one) takes passports, copies of ship’s registration and crew lists to be processed. Egyptian visas cost $15 US for 1 month and 2 months are given for the boat. Then you are directed to a spot in the Marina, which was still being constructed during our visit. In fact the whole place was a construction site- eventually this beautiful Marina will have 1,200 berths, the largest in the Middle East.

There’s a small supermarket and a small restaurant nearby where you can buy provisions including cheese and flat bread. The first evening, we got pizzas delivered to the boats from the “Tweety” restaurant. The owner is “Honey” and through him we arranged for a 14 seater mini bus for the next day to the small town of El Quseir, traditional and quaint, 70 miles north. On the trip back, we stopped at a market for fruits and vegetables. We found Egyptian oranges to be sweet and succulent, strawberries luscious.

Boats have to take turns entering Abu Tig Marina one at a time with very competent Marina staff helping with lines and Med style moorings. The Marina is a huge posh complex- a mini city really, like a movie set, El Gouna, a complete contrast to the impoverished third world countries we’d been visiting the last few months.

What a luxury to be in a beautiful Marina, not to worry about the weather or the next destination as the wind howled in the rigging, to use copious amounts of fresh water, luxuriate in hot showers. But cold at night and dry! At Lat. 27 N, we were in long pants, socks, shoes, sweaters, foulies and wool hats during night watches, and using tons of moisturizing cream. A lovely climate but well and truly out of the tropics.

At Abu Tig, we took stock and realized we’d reached another milestone. It had been 3 intense months since our departure from Thailand and overall, it had gone very well- no major breakdowns, no severe weather, no piracy, not TOO much stress, lots of good sailing, snorkeling and scenery, good fishing, fascinating landfalls and cultures, 7 countries visited in all.

We figure there are 4 hurdles to get through in the Indian Ocean/Red Sea/Med journey: 1) Gulf of Aden 2) Bab El Mandeb (“Gate of Tears”) 3) Foul Bay and 4) the Gulf of Suez. We’d accomplished 3 of them without incident. It’s all very manageable, one step at a time.


There, it was time to fix things, dust the desert sand off ourselves and Feel Free, relax, see some sphinxes, pyramids mummies and temples in this oldest tourist destination on earth, and get ready for the next one. At this point, we realized that we were actually going to make it to the Med.