The Voyage in Between
The Red Sea presents a challenging platform, with threats of piracy, headwinds from the Med, sandstorms, and corrupt Suez Canal officials. Any respite, like the one offered by this secluded anchorage off a barren, dramatic island, is welcome.
Like most sailors, I’m apolitical. I prefer to avoid the squabbles of dirt dwellers. Plus, as a long-term world cruiser, I’m usually a guest in a foreign country. I don’t believe a guest should criticize his or her hosts. If I don’t like a destination, I show it my transom. I leave. I vote with my keel.
One of the places that my wife, Carolyn, and I love dearly and keep coming back to is Southeast Asia. It’s a very exciting, very stimulating cruising destination. There are thousands of safe harbors, with the vast majority completely devoid of yachts. Most Asians are friendly, honest, hardworking, and nonviolent. The area is rich in diversity: the Buddhists of Thailand, the Muslims of Malaysia, the capitalists of Singapore, the Hindus of India, and the Chinese of Hong Kong are all vastly different people. Yet they manage to—mostly—get along just fine.
Another popular cruising area we love is Europe. It also teems with life, with passion, with history. Carolyn was deeply interested in anthropology when I snatched her away from academia. She’s still fascinated by Greek, Roman, and Turkish culture. Ruins continue to enthrall her. She’s mesmerized by ancient tombs and dusty works of art. Eastern Europe is history heaven for Carolyn.
Unfortunately, in between Southeast Asia and Europe is the dreaded Mideast. This is an unsettled, war-torn area where, in my humble opinion, racism and intolerance are glorified. I had no desire to visit Egypt, none. I had to, in order to transit the Suez Canal. This isn’t an ideal recipe for carefree, recreational cruising.
There are three major challenges to transiting the Red Sea area: the Somali pirates, the adverse winds in the northern Red Sea, and the regional politics.
Surprisingly, the threat from the sea pirates of Somalia turned out to be easier for us to deal with psychologically than the reality of the land pirates.
“I’ll drop you at the Suez Canal Authority dock in one minute, from the portside,” I told our final Suez pilot, curtly. “Be ready.”
“No, no, captain,” the pilot started hollering as he saw the dock approaching. “I must get off on pilot boat only. And you need to pay them baksheesh money, too!”
My heart sank. I caught sight of the swift, 55-foot pilot boat rushing between Wild Card and the dock. Its scarred, dented topsides were high and flared, making it impossible to come alongside without damaging our low-freeboard sloop. “Baksheesh!” the pilot boat’s Egyptian crew screamed at me as it slid alongside with gunning engine. “Hey, skipper! Baksheesh!”
“No more money!” I shouted. “I have no more money! None!”
This was the moment I’d dreaded. They’d intimidated me with their heavy-displacement vessel by getting closer and closer as they demanded money. But perhaps our pilot wasn’t that heartless. The surge from a wave pushed both vessels together. The pilot jumped. I yanked the helm over hard a’port—and at the same time I fended off the giant pilot boat as its starboard quarter slid into, and over, us. It was dangerous of me to do this, perhaps stupidly so, and it took all of my strength, but I managed to get us separated without damage to Wild Card.
There was a supply boat just ahead, and I rudely cut across its onrushing bow as its horn blared angrily. I now had some separation from the pilot boat and ducked behind an anchored freighter. I felt a surge of hope; I could see freedom ahead in the deep-blue waters of the Med.
A green fishing boat towing a long net chugged past. We slid along its starboard side and surreptitiously reached the Mediterranean Sea. We felt our bow dip and curtsy. We were free of the tyranny of Egypt. “Never again,” I said to Carolyn with a huge sigh of relief.
She concurred. “Rounding the Cape of Good Hope was 10 times easier,” she said with a shake of her head.
Now you may ask, dear reader, what tropic-loving, nearly penniless sea gypsies who hate cold weather are doing cruising northward into the expensive, chilly Med. The answer is the pitter-patter of tiny feet. That’s right, our daughter, Roma Orion, is preggers. We’re going to be (doting) grandparents. And so we decided to move our floating home closer to Europe, where Roma and her husband, Christian live, love, and play. “Excellent!” said our daughter when she heard the news. “That will make it easier for you to teach the kid to sail.”
I could almost see her beaming over the phone.
“And we’ve already acquired an infant-sized P.F.D. and a gimbaled bassinet for our first grand cruise together,” I told her. “And your mother’s so excited that she’s hyperventilating with joy!”
So we left Southeast Asia, transited the Indian Ocean, and even tiptoed our way through the Gulf of Aden, right under the noses of the napping Somali pirates. But the Red Sea transit presented an entirely different challenge from, say, the empty, wave-tossed Indian Ocean passage. Suddenly, the twin factors of politics and religion reared their ugly heads. Mideast war intruded. The U.S. State Department warned us, via our shipboard email, not to step ashore in Eritrea—just as we were about to clear into the specifically mentioned dangerous port of Massawa, where U.S. citizens were being tossed into jail without charge or trial. Sudan was under United Nations-imposed sanctions. And Egypt was, well, Egypt.
“Are you sure you’re ready for the culture shock?” asked Carolyn, who, after our 40 years of cruising together under sail, knows me better than I do myself. “The Med is filled with marinas and with rules, neither of which are your favorite things, Fatty.”
“Change is good,” I said. “We took our job as parents seriously, and I think we should be equally conscientious about raising our grandkids. They’ll need to know that everyone isn’t a shore hugger. They’ll need to learn the lessons of the sea. We’ll teach them—show them that there are alternatives to dirt dwelling and clock punching. After all, a floating playpen is the best playpen of all.”
The southern entrance to the Red Sea is a strait called Bab al Mandab; the name means Gate of Tears. It’s said that the wind, seas, and current will be against you no matter what time of year it is or which direction you transit. Our weather forecast called for a north wind; our plan was to anchor just outside, then wait for a wind shift before entering at morning.
Weather forecasting in the Red Sea is often less than accurate. Actually, that’s not true; it’s usually wrong. Or to put it another way, when the GRIBS are correct, it’s the exception to the rule. So we ended up not being able to anchor (it was a dead lee, in the southerly breeze); instead, we shot through the strait at midnight in windy, squally conditions.
Carolyn was down below, scanning our charts, watching our depth sounder, monitoring our A.I.S., and fine-tuning our radar. Suddenly, she said, “Small target, dead ahead, and very close!”
Visibility was poor, in heavy murk and blown spume.
“Within something like a quarter of a mile?” I asked.
“More like about a hundred yards,” she said casually.
Carolyn is always quite calm from the comfort of her nav station. It’s only on deck that the real world of close-quarters action is so scary to her. When I pointed our searchlight dead ahead into the blackness, it picked up a swaying Yemeni fisherman standing up in a small outboard fishing vessel; he was hauling an illegal surface net. The vessel was completely unlit. And I knew that type of net. Wild Card might sail right over it as it raked our stem or, if we were unlucky, catch it on her Max-Prop.
“Dog poop!” I said, or something similar, and jibed to starboard while releasing my permanently rigged boom preventer. I hadn’t gotten her squared away when Carolyn said with a yawn, “Similar targets, closing fast, starboard bow.”
This time there were two small, unlit fishing vessels; I hoped they were tending a different net. We were in the narrowest part of the channel. The current opposed the waves. They were all humped-up white horses. We were wallowing sickeningly in the troughs.
“Damn it!” I hissed and crash-tacked back to port. “It’s like a cautionary driver’s ed training film for yachts!”
“You’re doing fine,” Carolyn mused, as if polishing her nails in boredom. “It’ll open up soon. No worries, Fatty.”
Nothing fazes Carolyn. She’s always confident of her equipment and my abilities. I’m far more cautious. Together, my timid yin and her brave yang have managed to survive many a dark and stormy night at sea.