Trip Reports

The Full Red Sea Monty (26-Mar-2002-21-00):
9:00 PM local time, Tuesday, March 26 (1900 March 26 UTC) 27 24 N 033 40 E. Temp. 69, Humidity 31%, Cloud Cover 0%. Abu Tig Marina, El Gouna Resort, near Hurghada, Egypt.

Warm greetings from the crew of Maverick.

We're currently tied stern-to along with a lot of other Red Sea-farers at a marina on the coast of Egypt. The marina is brand new and has offered free berthing as a promotion to boats staying a month. We've decided to take them up on their offer, and rest here for a while, attempt some fairly major repairs, and most importantly, we look forward to a visit to Egypt by Caroline and Theresa. It's a little chilly at night and we are in no hurry to get to the Med, which is still blustery and frigid from spring storms, so it makes sense to stop here at the top of the Red Sea before we attempt the final seventy or eighty leagues up the Gulf of Suez, and the Suez Canal.

The subject of tonight's dispatch is our trip up the Red Sea. As our readers know, we had anticipated this passage as perhaps the biggest test of our skills and endurance and the seaworthiness of Maverick. We had made it to Massawa without much trouble, but we had expected favorable winds up to that point anyway and the remaining portion of the trip was by reputation far less forgiving.

We left the harbor at Massawa on the eighth of March, well within the time window favored by the bible of sailors in this area, the Red Sea Pilot. For quite a long time, we had light wind, never exceeding ten knots, from several directions, just as predicted by our stateside weatherman and webmaster, Jim Mead. Off and on we ran the motor, but at very low rpm to save our ailing engine. We had left ourselves enough time for the passage and had no need to push it, so we intended to keep the motor use to a minimum and sail.

The route we had chosen was right up the middle. We had talked to a small number of veterans of the Red Sea before the passage, and they assured us that "no one does it that way anymore." I guess they were right, because aside from two very large motorsailers that could power the whole way, the rest of our colleagues chose the more common route of short hops up the western shore, stopping to anchor, rest, and check out the wonderful diving and snorkeling along the way. If the wind blew hard from the wrong direction, they could hide away until it changed, and thus limit their sailing, or more often, motoring, to peaceful conditions. We're not divers, and we wanted to leave time for the repairs that needed attending to before the womenfolk showed up, so again following Admiral Nelson, we said, "Damn the maneuvers, just go straight at them."

Five days out of Massawa we finally had a nice little breeze. It was right on the nose, NNW, but as it was blowing in the high teens we could forget the light air sails and get on up the road. It was actually great sailing. So nice was it that on the 17th, nine days out of Massawa, the Captain became a little frustrated. We had sailed half way around the world to challenge the Red Sea, and now it was just a pussycat. Some folks apparently don't consider sailing upwind in 15 to twenty knots much fun at all, and on the radio we would hear people saying they would stay anchored until conditions improved. These people are dauntless cruising sailors, but some of their boats are not very weatherly and the Captain would never, ever, think of calling them weenies. But the word "pantywaists," now there's another word. But jeez, for San Francisco sailors to cower in those conditions would be embarrassing. So the Captain, about whom it may not be correct to say, "mama didn't raise no fool," declared, to no one in particular, "Enough of this stuff. LET'S GET IT ON!!"

The Captain, as a rule, has no supernatural powers. But in this instance, within a few hours during his watch that night, the wind freshened to about thirty, still on the nose. He had reefed early and there was not much cause for concern, but the wind was still building as Mr. Shrode came on duty at 0100. An hour or two later the skipper was awakened by the stalwart Mr. Shrode, who wanted him to have a look at the conditions. Maverick was overpowered with the double reef and having trouble making headway. I stuck my head out of the companionway and said, following military tradition, "Dude, it's blowing forty." (Our anemometer is being repaired, but nearby on the catamaran "Liberator," theirs peaked at 48 knots.) Mr. Shrode went forward to tuck in the third reef and even with that, we couldn't do much in the way of sailing upwind, so we decided to heave to. Actually, we didn't heave to in the classic sense with a backed headsail; instead we sailed a bit above a beam reach with only a small amount of jib out and this way we kept our speed to about 3 knots, there was little strain on the rig, the boat was riding pretty comfortably, and had her head well up so we did not wallow in the troughs.

It was blowing a full gale. What's this like? Well, with these fairly regular seas, it's not that much of a problem. You don't like it, because even though you're reefed and the rig isn't likely to fail, the sheets are hard as rebar and the strain on what's left of the sails is worrisome, particularly when a wave changes the boat's angle to the wind and some flogging results. The seas get pretty big, and once in a while will break aboard, though that night not more than ten gallons ever occupied the cockpit. One particularly high one caught the foot of the jib and caused the furling line to part, which created a bit of a hassle for a while, but we managed to save the sail. You'd kind of stare in awe when one of the steep, bigger guys came rolling your way, like a wall fifteen feet high, looking quite deadly, but then Maverick would just sort of magically levitate herself right over the top of it, no problema. The violence of the scene and the sound is a bit viscerally stressful, but intellectually you know that you're pretty certain to be OK.

We heard a faint call on 16 to any vessel in the vicinity. It was the above-mentioned Liberator looking for some assistance. They were about 20 miles closer to the coast and had broken a backstay and lost the use of their engine. They replaced the backstay with a couple of halyards and saved the rig, but although they were in no immediate danger they had no idea how they were going to get into the harbor at Safaga, Egypt, the nearest refuge, without a tow. We responded and said we were of little help, other than offering to do a radio relay. We could not have done much in the way of towing them, nor could anyone else, until conditions were quite a bit calmer. We told them we'd stand by on 16 and that we were, in any case, slowly heading their way. By working through the night they managed to get the engine running and the following day they were reported safely at anchor in Safaga.

Although we had planned to call at Safaga to do our official check in to Egypt, morning found us, a bit surprisingly, in the position of having to backtrack some distance to approach the harbor. We elected to carry on to Hurghada, another port of entry. But that afternoon it was clear we wouldn't make Hurghada until dusk, so we decided to anchor about fifteen miles south at a protected cove. By then the wind had abated to fifteen, and we sailed between a reef and the mainland and anchored in five fathoms.

About dinnertime the wind turned around and blew from the south. The anchorage we were in was very well protected, from every direction except the south, and now we were on a lee shore. As the night wore on the wind built up to the twenties and made it pretty bumpy, so we continued our regular watch schedule instead of just going to sleep, but the Bruce held. By morning the wind was again from the north, and light, but as the southerly had blown thirty offshore, there was a pretty big swell behind us as we tacked up to Hurghada. It's always kind of cool to be hard on the wind, but surfing down the swells anyway.

Still not wanting to use the engine, we were under sail and in amongst the reefs that surround the harbor at Hurghada when a squall hit us from the northwest. I was below doing navigation and calling the tacks, redundantly by computer and by paper chart because of the close proximity of the reefs. Mr. Shrode was manning the helm and sheets. Another squall came through, again blowing, say, twenty-five, and he began to complain of the dryness of the air, and lack of visibility. In a few moments it was apparent we were in the middle of one of the dust storms for which the Red Sea is famous. We were surrounded by reefs, had a six-foot swell behind us, seas building from the wind in the twenties in front of us, dust accumulating everywhere including our mouths, noses, and eyes, and visibility was down to about two hundred yards. We didn't want to start the engine, so tacking required pretty precise navigation. We were, oddly enough, having a great time.

The most difficult and stressful part of sailing around the world, so far, that is, has not been moments like this. We felt we knew what we were doing. I had confidence in Mr. Shrode's boat handling, and he had to have faith in my navigation, as he couldn't see a thing. This is stuff we've done before. The stressful stuff is the stuff over which you have little control, like finding a part or fixing an essential piece of gear, in a weird part of the world. Oh, and the other thing is, whether the Captain can pay for it, which is a topic we don't like to dwell on. Sailing the boat has been exciting at times, an endurance test at others, but has never caused the gut-churning anxiety typical of financial worries.

Anyway, the gloom had still not lifted as we attempted to call Hurghada port control for instructions on how to proceed to the customs dock. They never answered, but our Dutch friends Jan and Susanne from Adrena-line, a boat we had sailed with in our convoy from Oman, hailed us back and advised us to come anchor near them, close to the Sheraton Hotel.

"You should see the Sheraton, Mr. Shrode, bearing 310 at a range of one mile."

"I see nothing."

"Range is now 1/2 mile."


"1/4 mile at 290. You must see it now."

"Oh, yeah; er no, never mind, that's a cloud shadow or something."

"Let's douse and motor over thereit's a bit close for comfort."

We finally saw Adrena-line through the dust and lowered the hook. Not a bad sail.

We checked in on the casual net on high frequency radio as we were sailing up here, and talked to the guys in the anchorages. One said we were an inspiration to him, about what not to do. So far, we don't think anyone we know got quite the beating we did from the Red Sea. People are reporting remarkably benign trips this year, with no pirates, certainly no sign of unpleasantness from Muslims, and now, no strong headwinds, except in the case of Liberator, and ourselves. But even our trip was a walk in the park compared to what we had in the Java and South China Seas. And now we're in a peachy marina where we have hot showers for the first time since Australia--with the exception of the Captain's night in Asmara-and we're surrounded by all the folks we've become familiar with ever since Sri Lanka. Although tonight, Ramen is on the menu, we could if we wanted get a decent steak, or a gin and tonic with real gin. There are fresh croissants and latte, workable internet cafes and even a go-cart track. I don't know what the human rights record is or whether individual liberties are suffering under marshal law, but like other travelers, for better or worse the Captain identifies the former list of things as markers of civilization, and is very happy to see them.

But you know, there are still all those repairs, that beat up the Gulf of Suez, and still a couple of more chapters to the Red Sea story.

Next report from this location: Your Camel To Bed

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