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.
Thus the beach was littered with corpses of donkeys, dogs, goats, sheep, and animals too far gone to identify.
Camels wander by. They prefer to avoid you, but failing that, taking a deep bite of your tender flesh is a delicious second option. Trust me, a spitting camel is best to be avoided if you don’t want to temporarily end up on the wrong side of the food chain.
Deserts are famous for both mirages and visions.
One morning, while I’m writing my On Watch column in the cockpit, I glance up. A human figure in billowing white is walking toward Wild Card from across the desert. He shimmers in the flickering heat waves. He is tall, very black, and carries a majestic staff. At the shore, he drops the staff and walks into the water with arms outstretched, and he only stops when the water is chest high. He’s close but utters not a sound. He’s staring at me intently, a combination of horror, fascination, and amazement on his beatific countenance.
I wait for him to do something. He does nothing. He’s a statue. I want to talk to him, befriend him, crack some nomadic jokes, but I’m scared. He’s frozen. I can’t tell if he’s breathing. Eventually, I glance at my watch and take a sip of my lukewarm tea. When I look back, he’s gone. Disappeared, without even a puff of smoke.
I grab the binoculars and scan a dozen miles of empty coast. Nothing. I can’t even make out footprints. I mentally kick myself for not snapping a photograph, but that would’ve killed the moment, a bigger crime than missing its recording.
A manatee levitates to the surface and makes kissing sounds with its bearded, macerating mouth. Pink flamingos flap past. The word “enchanted” pops into my reeling brain.
A few days later, we follow a flock of fishing dhows back through time and into Suakin, on the coast of Sudan: no electricity, no roads, no radio, no television. Just a market, a mosque, and some simple dwellings.
The first person I see is carrying a sword. Using pantomime, I convey to him that I want to buy one, and maybe a knife, too. Soon, groups of strangers are dashing up to show me their swords. By the following day, everywhere we go, we’re met with groups of young men rushing toward us with swords drawn.
It takes awhile to stop flinching, but we manage.
The villagers don’t know where we’re from, nor do they care. They sell us bread, fruits, and shriveled vegetables. We drink coffee together. They are poorer than dirt because they don’t have dirt, only non-fertile sand. Still, they survive, smile, laugh, and die.
One day, a young boy is kicked in the stomach by an animal in the market. He’s silent. He’s scared. He’s bleeding from the mouth. They rush him away on a cart drawn by a donkey. Later, I ask if they got him to a hospital in time. “Yes,” someone says sadly. “We got him home to his parents before he died.”
Life and death are hard in Sudan.
We spend a couple of weeks there and are the toast of the town. Swords in the hands of dark, turbaned men flash above our heads constantly. The local equivalent of a mayor tells us—I think—to keep an eye out for the landmark signs that, evidently, point out things of interest to the visiting tourist. Once we see one such sign up close, however, we realize we’ve misunderstood him. The signs don’t advertise landmarks—they warn of landmines!
Not all the fruits of Sudan are sweet.
The forceful northwest wind takes on a personality. We struggle against it. We claw. We power. We tack. Any progress is good. Sometimes we’re beaten back. Other times, we barely manage to maintain our place.
Yes, the nor’west wind is our enemy. We leave the safe harbor at 0200 and inch our way northward until 1000, when we seek the protection of the next marsa. Weeks go by. We measure our progress in miles, meters, and, eventually, inches. Finally the Red Sea is astern, and we begin tacking up the Gulf of Suez, playing the lifts, hiding from the currents, sneaking along the frothing reef edge. We forget all about our ultimate destination. We chip away at it; we take what we can. Our latitude increases. It gets colder.
We arrive at the modern port town at Suez. Supposedly, we’re in civilization again, but this characterization seems completely wrong to us. We’re surrounded by greedy jackals. We miss our warm, wonderful Suakin friends.
Our agent conspires with the measurer to overcharge us, then generously knocks off a few dollars when we loudly complain. We’re supposed to thank him. Everyone—every single person, employed or just laying about—at the Suez Yacht Club demands baksheesh—in addition to the ridiculously high dockage fees.
Egypt is surreal. I’m walking across a desert and a policemen approaches me on a camel. We stop. He dismounts, approaches, puts out his hand, and demands baksheesh. I angrily demand to know why he even thinks I’d give him money. He shrugs. This is how it is, he seems to say. I shake my head negatively, with vehemence, and stalk away.
The canal itself is a boring 100-mile-long drainage ditch. There’s not even a lock to go through to allow you to pretend all the abuse was worth it.
But we did it. We’re goal-oriented sailors. Some voyages are better than others, and the Red Sea, we learned, is a bittersweet ride.
With the rest of our lives before us, Carolyn hoisted the mainsail and we were roaring along under sail again. We were free of the land sharks. The Mediterranean Sea lay at our feet. I hooked up the Monitor self-steering gear, then Carolyn and I met in the middle of the boat on the starboard side for a much-needed hug.
“What do you hear?” I asked Carolyn after we’d kissed.
“The pitter-patter of tiny feet!” she said with a giggle.
Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander are presently dividing their time between their boat in Turkey and their new grandchild in Amsterdam.