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.
The Red Sea is a puzzle. We transited northward in March and April, which is considered prime time. The longer you wait, the harder the north winds blow as you close with the Med. So there’s a tendency to rush northward with good tactical reason. However, the marsa anchorages—lovely, lonely pots of water suspended between the vast emptiness of the desert and the unending combers of the Red Sea; marsa is an Arabic word for bay—are among the best, most stunning anchorages in the world. And the diving is superb. So you want to linger. But you’re always torn in the Red Sea, torn between hope and dread. This cruising area is full of surprises: I expected to hate primitive Sudan, and it turned out to be one of our finest stops ever.
Yes, we wanted a change from the tranquil tropics—and we certainly got it. Sailors of old always hugged the eastern shore of the Red Sea while working north to avoid the worst of the wind and adverse currents. But they currently shoot at you if you poke your bowsprit into some of the harbors in northern Yemen, and the Saudis don’t welcome yachts, to make an understatement. So politics plays a role in almost everything in the Red Sea.
Security is an issue as well. One of our first Red Sea anchorages was in the lee of Suyul, a small but dramatic island just off the larger Hanish island. We expected it to be deserted. It wasn’t. There was a makeshift, primitive army base perched precariously on the lofty cliff—whose army, we weren’t sure. As we attempted to anchor in the narrow shelf of shallow water below, the thin, tattered soldiers stared down at us with hard eyes. We waved gaily and sang out hello in a variety of local languages. They continued to stare down, to frown, to refrain from responding. So we put on our sail cover and nervously hid below.
The following day, we learned that at that moment there was a pirate attack on a southbound freighter not five miles to the west of us—within sight of the garrison.
The Red Sea isn’t a place to grow lax.
Our game plan was simple: Sail northward on a south wind, then tuck into a safe harbor on a northerly breeze. The problem was that each step north meant more and stronger nor’westerly breezes. By midway up the Red Sea, the wind was almost always directly, relentlessly on the nose.
This nor’wester became our implacable enemy.
Just to add spice, there were sandstorms. Our first took place in Khor Nawarat, in the lee of Bushy Island. With a deteriorating weather window, we pulled into the large, deserted bay that was completely surrounded by desert. The wind quickly rose to 35 knots, and the air turned orange—that’s right, orange, from all the suspended sand particles. Soon our decks were covered with sand. I noticed it clinging to the grease on our winches, windlass, and roller chocks. Our Monitor windvane’s delicate plastic bearings were clogged with the sharp, gritty abrasive. It gathered on the spreader tops and cascaded down when the rig shook in the wind. I couldn’t look up—sand was raining down into my eyes.
Each piece of running rigging became tubular sandpaper and began wearing away at whatever it ran through.
It made me ill just to think about it—a minute in the Red Sea is like a month of normal wear and tear. I never thought about it, but having your vessel sandblasted 24/7 is a rather expensive way to wait out a blow. Within a few days of arriving in the Red Sea, you want to get out. Now. Soon. Immediately.
But scattered amid the misery of the sand and the relentlessness of the headwinds are the breathtaking marsa anchorages. There were hundreds of them, each more beautiful, lonelier, and more visually stunning than the previous.
I’ve never loved the desert. I’ve read books written by those who have. I know that it’s possible to feel about the desert as I feel about the open sea, but the passion wasn’t in me. Then. Now it is. The sea and the desert are very similar—both empty and full, both dangerous and supportive, both welcoming and threatening.
Picture an empty sea alongside an empty desert—and a single pot of dazzlingly clear water punched into the coast. Our first lovely marsa in Sudan was like anchoring betwixt and between two completely different but almost identical worlds.
Forget time—nothing has changed here since the birth of man.
Animals frequently come upon the marsas after they’ve wandered across the endless desert sands, gradually dying of thirst. They see mirages and probably hallucinate water all the time. Here in the marsas, the shore is low. There’s a beach. The thirsty, wobbly creatures wander down, can’t believe their eyes, and can’t stop themselves. They gorge on the salt water. The water is delicious, for a moment or two. Then they cramp. Fall over. Paw the sand—frantic at first, then more feebly. Then they go dim.