It's early morning and still dark aboard Lady Coppélia, a 52-foot Daglass Fleur de Lys. Paul Shard, producer of the Travel Channel's voyaging series, Distant Shores, calls for permission to proceed northbound up the Suez Canal from Ismâ'ilîya, Egypt. He and his wife, Sheryl, are filming a documentary on voyaging in the Middle East.
For the second day in a row, permission is denied. The previous day, permission was denied because a warship was passing through the canal. This time they're told they can't proceed because 53 warships are transiting. As Paul tells the story, "We wondered what was going on. Finally we realized that it was the Med-Red Rally transiting the Suez. The canal agents must have feared that we'd object to being held up a second time, this time by recreational boats. The warship story worked the first time, so why not a second?"
The 2006 Med-Red Rally, consisting of 86 boats, sailed from Israel to Egypt and back. The itinerary included visits to such places in Egypt as Bûr Sa'îd (Port Said); Abu Tîg Marina, in El Gouna; and Sharm el Sheikh. It was estimated that the rally hosted more than 500 cruisers from 14 countries, including the United States, Holland, Germany, France, Canada, England, Russia, Switzerland, South Africa, New Zealand, and Belgium. There was a racing contingent, a mini rally, and the full-blown rally. Although the official start of the rally was in Tel Aviv, Israel, it had a feeder leg from Turkey. Of the total of 86 registered boats, 53 boats from the full-blown rally and some from the racing contingent ventured beyond Port Said and through the Suez Canal, as did my wife, Karen, and I aboard Dakare, our Hylas 54 cutter-rigged sloop.
The number of foreign-flagged boats in the rally had increased from the previous year. Even so, most participants were Israeli. "We don't want this to be thought of as an Israeli rally," says Easy Swissa, one of the two rally organizers. "We very much want it to be international. This is an exciting event for Israelis, too. Most of us could never dream of going to Egypt on our own because of the past difficulties. This rally is a landmark in Israeli/Egyptian cooperation. The support of our Egyptian partners and the enthusiasm of the participants helped us to decide to turn the rally into an annual event, with the view of opening the sailing area between our two countries to as many international sailors as possible. This is why we used the slogan 'Sailing for Peace' in 2005. This rally transcends national issues, boundaries, and cultures."
The 2006 rally had timelines and destinations that differed from the 2005 rally. "In 2005, we had a three-week layover in Elat, Israel," says Eitan Friedlander, the other rally organizer. "This was difficult for most participants, as they had to juxtapose work requirements with the rally schedule. This year, we eliminated the leg from Sharm el Sheikh to Elat, which proved to be the most difficult segment of last year's rally, and shortened the time to three weeks. This seems to be better for participants who have jobs, but it provided too little time for those who wanted to spend more time visiting."
Indeed, several participants would've liked to rally longer. Peter Page, an Aussie, had recently purchased a gulet, a traditional Turkish wooden sailboat, with plans to enter the rally, but the boat wasn't ready, so he crewed on both Dakare and Fancy Dancers, a Bavaria 42 sloop. "It was a long way to go for such a short time in the Red Sea," he says. "We spent a lot of our limited free time visiting the historic wonders of this country, with little time remaining to enjoy the Red Sea itself or to go diving and visit other areas."
"We're experimenting with the format of the rally," Swissa says in reply. "It's proving difficult to satisfy the disparate desires of such a large, diverse group, and we're soliciting input from this year's participants on how we can make improvements."
Despite such organizational issues, most people were happy to have participated. Two powerboats that joined in, Odelia, a 56-foot Grand Cayman, and Cloverleaf, a 61-foot Custom Krogen, were both American flagged.
Odelia's skipper, Rick Thompson, spent time in Egypt as a consultant a few years ago, and he has many fond memories. "I wanted to go on this rally because this was an opportunity for me to share my Egyptian experiences with my wife, Tsipy," he says. As for cruising in company with sailboats, Rick says, "We constantly had to slow down. Going so slow isn't something we like to do. But dealing with slow boats was a small price to pay for something we enjoyed so much."
One of the first activities coordinated by the rally was directed specifically at foreign-flagged boats. All non-Israelis were invited to celebrate Passover with an Israeli family. The Israeli hosts were all sailors participating in the rally, and they all spoke English. Meir Givon, one of the Israeli hosts, sailed as a crewmember aboard Lady Senna, a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 39 DS. "We like the idea of sharing our holiday," he says. "It provides us with a chance to share our culture over dinner-the Seder-and to get to know others in the rally." All the cruisers interviewed who participated in the Passover celebration said it was an unexpected highlight.
Besides the Seder, the rally sponsored a wonderful party in Tel Aviv. Food and drink flowed as the rally organizers set the tone and agenda for the next few weeks.
The rally entered Egypt at Port Said, renowned for its bureaucratic hassles involving customs and immigration. Unfortunately, clearing in took an inordinate amount of time, as it had the previous year. And on the morning of departure, the paperwork materialized, and a very slow, single-file queue caused the departure to be delayed. On the positive side, while in Port Said, many participants hopped aboard a bus and toured Cairo and the pyramids.
Most participants enjoyed the experience of going through the Suez Canal. There are no locks, so the transit was painless. Some participants were surprised to find that this year's rally shared the canal with commercial shipping. Mandy Mitchell, an English subject sailing onboard My Mermaid, a 43-foot Monte Carlo sloop, worked along with her Israeli husband, Yair Gingi, this year as shoreside support. "Last year, the Egyptians closed the canal while the rally transited," she says. However, sharing the canal with large freighter traffic proved not to be a problem.
The rally boats were split into seven groups, and the canal authority assigned one Egyptian pilot to each of the lead boats. "The biggest problem for us," says Rick of Odelia, "was the canal pilot assigned to our boat. We could never figure out just exactly what he was doing. His erratic steering took the boats incessantly and unnecessarily from one side of the canal to the other."
Israeli Haim Hershcoviz is the skipper on Xanemo II, a Nauticat 44 motorsailer. "It was fun to wave hello to the Egyptian soldiers standing guard on the canal," he says. "As an Israeli, that meant a lot." Haim wasn't so kind, however, about the constant request for baksheesh, which is a tip or a bribe paid to expedite service and a common practice in the Middle East. Some in the rally were so put off, in fact, that they vowed never to return. Others voiced a more philosophical position on the practice and simply accepted it as part of the culture.
Malcolm Fancy, a Brit and the skipper of Fancy Dancers, said he especially liked the sound-and-light show in Luxor, Egypt, and his tour in Jerusalem. But "the rally was too short," he says. "There was no provision made for weather. It was an endurance course. In fact, I think it was a test to become an honorary member of the Israeli commando force."
Twelve-year-old Onri Givon, who would celebrate his bar mitzvah immediately after the rally, was aboard Lady Senna. "The best part of the trip was sailing in the Med and on the Red Sea at night," he says. A talented individual, he played guitar for everyone while we partied on the Egyptian island of Tawîla, our first anchorage in the Red Sea.
Israeli Sami Jacobovitz was the skipper on board Foxy Lady, a Beneteau Oceanus 440. "We were glad to reach Tawîla," he says. "It was a great and relaxing break from all the rush." Rick from Odelia adds that Tawîla was the closest thing to the Bahamas that he'd seen in this part of the world. "Beautiful blue water and white-sand beaches" is how he describes it.
Abu Tîg Marina, in the town of El Gouna, was a highlight for everyone. They call the area around El Gouna the "Riviera of the Red Sea," and it's well deserved. Swissa likes to bring the rally here because "Abu Tîg Marina is by far the most beautiful marina in the area," he says. "It has great hotels and fantastic restaurants. All that, and belly dancing on the quay!"
Indeed, Abu Tîg Marina is delightful. Canals lace the area, nearly everything is accessible by water, and buses run continuously from the marina into town. Conveniences include two swimming pools. While some people didn't like the sand that blew constantly into the marina from the surrounding desert and beaches, others considered it part of the local charm.
Shabtay Levy, skipper of Linda, a 50-foot homebuilt yawl, was once the commandant of the Israeli Red Sea Command during the last Israeli-Egyptian war. "I haven't been here since that war," he says. "For me, to see the vast development and fruits of peace is heartwarming."
Next on the itinerary was to be Sharm el Sheikh. However, the rally never made it there. At first, our departure was delayed due to adverse winds, but while waiting, we heard that terrorists had set off bombs in Dahab, less than 40 nautical miles away. For security reasons, the Egyptians cancelled our visit.
Peace in the Middle East is a tenuous thing; terrorist attacks are a part of life, and the rally wasn't insulated from them. So security, naturally, was tight. Turkish, Israeli, and Egyptian security forces, meanwhile, coordinated to help ensure the safety of the rally. Many of the rally participants welcomed the cancellation because even though the winds were abating, the steep, choppy seas would have made for a difficult trip. As my wife, Karen, put it, "No problem. I can deal with being stuck here!"
In a new event for the rally, participating sailors were able to race on local vessels called feluccas, which are lateen-rigged sailboats. Found chiefly in the Mediterranean, their design hasn't changed since the time of the pharaohs. Because the Nile is shallow in spots, these workboats, meant to carry heavy loads of goods, have a shallow draft and a shallow rudder. First place in class and the overall winner in the racing portion of the rally was Mike Sciouse, a Kiwi sailing on board Wind Sea'n, an Elan Impression 434 sloop. He really liked the felucca sail. "These boats are amazing!" he says. "The shallowness of the rudder puts tremendous strain on the steering, so it takes a great deal of effort to turn."
Haim Krauz, skipper of Agapi, a Jeanneau 45, admits steering was a challenge. "We didn't let the Egyptian felucca captain steer the boat. We tried to maneuver the boat ourselves, so we came in last!"
Another new addition to this year's rally was the Israeli Independence Day Yacht Parade. This was the culmination of the rally's activities in Herzliyya, Israel. The weather was perfect, and the parade fleet of around 200 boats had 15 knots on the beam. The Israeli navy turned out for the event, too. It was a great experience, and it looks like the yacht parade will become a permanent part of the Med-Red Rally and Israeli Independence Day celebrations.
Despite the difficulties that can be expected in any undertaking of this magnitude, there were plenty of good experiences. And we got to see places that we'd never have visited on our own; even better, someone else spent the hours doing the planning and paperwork. So three cheers to the rally organizers. May they never tire.
Captains Dan and Karen Sehnal (www. Dakare.com) have been cruising for the last seven years. Currently they're in the Med and making plans to complete their circumnavigation, albeit slowly.
Eastern Med Rallies
The Black Sea Yacht Rally (www.bsya. iuf.net) has been held every other year since 1998. Cruisers visit Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia.
The Eastern Mediterranean Yacht Rally (+90242-814-1490, www.emyr.org) has been held annually since 1990.
Participants sail to Turkey, Turkish Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt.
The Levante Basin Rally (www.dakare.com) was first run in 2005, but its future status is uncertain. The rally makes stops in Turkey, Greek Cyprus, Turkish Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.
The Med-Red Rally (www.med-red-rally.com), held annually since 2005, visits Israel and Egypt.
The Vasco da Gama Yacht Rally (www.vascodagamarally.nl) was begun in 2005, but its future is also uncertain. Boats in this rally visit Egypt, Eritrea, India, Jordan, Sudan, Turkey, and Yemen.
Rally Costs Actual Med-Red Rally costs are difficult to pin down because so many of the expenses and scheduling of the rally are in the hands of the Egyptians, and agreements reached beforehand with policy makers don't necessarily play out as planned. We were aware of some costs, but we didn't know the magnitude of the canal transit fee. And we had no idea that we'd be asked to pay many of the remaining fees listed below. Fees are in U.S. dollars. For more information, contact the Med-Red Rally.
Rally entry boat fee: $245*
Per-person on boat fee ($152.50 x 2): $305
Canal transit fee (round-trip): $630
Egyptian visa per person ($25 x 2): $50
Port Said clearance: $19
Agent fees in Port Said: $100
Handling fees in Abu Tîg Marina: $50
Abu Tîg Marina fees: $54
Port clearance in Suez: $10
Agent fees in Suez: $75
Mooring fees in Port Said and Suez: $56
*Discounted for payment in advance