THAILAND to SUEZ CANAL
We’ve stopped long enough once again to update all of you on the movements and whereabouts of Sea Witch.
We left Thailand in February for the Maldives. It was a nine day passage during which time we put Sea Witch and her crew through their paces. Tacking into squalls instead of out of them trying to capture as much speed as we could. We were traveling with – and trying to keep up with - Heartsong III a bigger and faster boat. It was like a nine day race.
We spent a short three days at the island of Ulugan in the Maldives. Just enough time to fuel up and turn the boat around for the next passage. We did find enough time to enjoy a quick snorkel in the tropical blue waters and a quick visit to the pristine village.
After our quick stop we headed for the mid-ocean meeting point. A place chosen in the middle of the Gulf of Aden where we would meet up with five other boats to form our pirate prevention flotilla. Since all of the boats were of different sizes, we all left at different times and planned to meet up days later.
With absolutely no wind for days we found ourselves at the meeting place on a flat glassy ocean. We had spent days watching pods of whales feeding, spy hopping and spouting. Dolphins played on our bow and thousands of jelly fish floated by. This and our daily game of trivial pursuit via radio kept us all entertained.
While gently sailing along one evening, just before dark, we was down below and it sounded and felt like the bottom of the boat had fallen off. The noise and vibration was awful. Then the autopilot stopped working. We thought, oh my god, we’ve lost the rudder. We jumped up to look behind us and found we were trailing a very large (about a mile long) fishing net. We couldn’t believe it. We lowered the dinghy and Jeff got bashed against the boat while cutting the net away. We were exhausted by the time we got things back in order and underway again. By this time, it was very dark.
We were hundreds of mile out to sea. About an hour later we heard the noise again. In an ocean so big how could we be so lucky to hang ourselves up again? Well we had but this time we were really stuck. Out of the distance we saw a fishing boat approaching us and we figured they would be pretty mad that we had messed up their net. After trying to communicate with them and nothing happening, they said, “cut net, cut net”. Easier said than done. While dropping the dinghy in the water and getting a knife ready they motored off into the dark. Must not have been their net. No wonder they didn’t care if we cut it.
We tried to cut ourselves free but we just couldn’t . Jeff was getting fairly well beat up in the dinghy and a bad case of road rash from the net. We spent a couple of hours hacking at the net cut away enough to free the boat. We decided that the best thing would be to wait until daylight when Jeff could get in the water. We sailed slowly all night with a big piece of net and floats clunking against the hull. In the morning Jeff went in the water and cleaned up the remains. A bit of bottom paint was rubbed off but no real damage.
Six boats had chosen a longitude and latitude at which to meet and then travel as a group through the high-risk pirate areas. We decided on a particular formation and a distance of no more than ¾ mile between any two boats. This was to be a whole new way of sailing for all of us. Synchronized sailing. A test of skill, patience, and tolerance for one another. We traveled this way for almost 800 miles.
At the rendezvous point we did some mid ocean fuel swapping. After motoring for so many days we decided to even out the fuel between the boats so that if we found ourselves with out wind in the piracy areas we would all be able to motor on. Quite a bazaar sight to see six boats in the middle of nowhere passing jerry jugs full of fuel around.
This was the point when the formation sailing started. It wasn’t too difficult while motoring. Just like driving a car, but once the wind kicked in it was another story. We had boats of all shapes and sizes. Boats trying to speed up, slow down, and stay in position. Eegadz, this was really going to test the friendships. After a couple of days things started to fall into place.
Our little flotilla traveled along using only had held radios on low power, and used them as little as possible. We didn’t want any pirates to know we were out there. We also ran our low running lights instead of mastheads at night and had a plan to rally the wagons should any one of us be approached by anything.
Our well thought out plan worked. One morning our group was approached by three boats. Everyone dropped sails and gathered together as tight as we could. The three “would be pirate boats” must have decided we were force not to be messed with, or possibly they were simply just out fishing. 24 hours later in the same area that we had been approached (between Somalia and Yemen) a boat traveling by itself was boarded and robbed of thousands of dollars of cash and equipment. No one was harmed, thank goodness. In the days to follow we would hear of numerous attempted and successful attacks. We felt lucky and grateful that we had had a plan ahead of time and that we were now hundreds of miles from the pirate area.
There were numerous ships headed for and coming out of the Gulf and the Red Sea that we would be communicating with over the next several days. Six boats makes a big target. One night the radar became obliterated with huge targets. They were all around us and we had no path through them. It was a group of warships. After several attempts to contact them with no answer we decided they must be maintaining radio silence and we better let them know who we were. We showed every light we could, and let them know we were good guys. Still no answer, however, a pathway opened up through the middle of them. Then came the whoop, whoop, whoop of the helicopter.
I think we would all agree that our favorite radio communication was when our call was answered with “This is a Coalition warship”. It was music to our ears and we all felt a little safer out there.
The wind and seas increased until the seas were reaching up behind us and showing their faces over our stern and growling. We just hate that. After a few days it was becoming the norm. Our flotilla was becoming experts in synchronized sailing and we were still talking to one another. Imagine six boats sailing wing on wing, 35 knots of wind, huge seas, it’s dark and someone says “it’s time to jibe”. An amazing feat. No splintered boats, no broken bones and I believe everyone is still married.
We made it to the narrow Straights of Bab el Mandeb (The Gates of Sorrow) – the entry point to the Red Sea - at night with horrific wind and seas. Then the current kicked in and we went flying through like we were shot out of a cannon. We were officially in the Red Sea. A couple hundred miles later, we all started to relax and spread out. We were safely through the pirate areas and in a few days we would be able to stop for a well-deserved rest.
Our first landfall on the continent of Africa was at an island just outside of Massawa, Eritrea. As we approached we were greeted with a diminishing sun silhouetting a line of camels (dromedaries) on the crest of the island. We were indeed in Africa.
We traveled on up the coast after refueling and visiting the capital of Eritrea. Our next port was Suakin in Sudan. As we approached the little bay, we were transported back in time thousands of years. The desert sand was barren and vast, the water and sky vivid shades of blue - all a backdrop for the ancient ruins rumored to be the summer home of the Queen of Sheba. We anchored only feet away from stonewalls and minarets of coral and limestone which were still standing amongst the rubble. An occasional camel strolling through, and old sailing dhows in the background added a splash of color.
The next day we visited the “new city” of Suakin. I say new tongue and cheek. Men in long white robes, ladies covered head to toe only their eyes giving away their smiles as they greeted us. Donkey carts at the market, a man loading his camel to travel to perhaps one of the nomad Bedouin tent villages in the. The fish market with happy cats, sacks of grain and beans, and many goats pleased to nibble away at whatever struck their fancy. If we hadn’t sailed half way around the world we would have sworn it was the back lot at Paramount Studios. This was no old movie, it was here and now and we were in the middle of it. We even bought an authentic sabre from Ali Baba’s long lost brother.
We did a quick trip to the Port of Sudan by bus with a number of other cruisers. In the marketplace, our bust was boarded by police and taken off to a police station where two members of our group and a camera were taken inside. They did not like the idea of anyone taking pictures in “security areas”. The two members of our group returned along with the camera and the police officer and we thought all was over until we were escorted to the next police station. This time the memory stick for the camera was confiscated and our guide were arrested. The rest of us were shooed out of town. Mohammed, a giant of a man with a melodic African accent and our agent while we were in Suakin, assured us that it was all a silly misunderstanding and a good experience for our guide. I’m glad it was a good experience for someone. We found it a bit un nerving as the war had started only the day before.
Next, we found ourselves anchored at a reef called Shaab Rumi to do some scuba diving in the famous Red Sea. It just so happens that this was the location of Jacques Cousteau’s underwater habitat built in 1957. We swam through the remains of the submarine garage, the habitat (mostly intact) and shark cage, all the while imaging what it would be like to live amongst this incredibly beautiful reef system.
Our next unusual experience would be after entering our first Marsa in Egyptian waters. We were greeted by a dilapidated navy boat manned by 20 very official navy men. Then it happened. We were hit with our first dreaded sandstorm. The wind came up with a vengeance and hit the surrounding desert. There was red dusty sand everywhere. It was even hard to breath. But, one of the little navy guys stood out there the whole time with his flags doing signals to someone. I just can’t figure out how they could see him through the sand. We couldn’t see the beach 50 yards away. Sea Witch was covered stem to stern. We closed everything and still the red powder found it’s way inside.
Another stop at a beautiful reef in the middle of the Red Sea for a few days of diving and then onto the marina. We had safely transited the hardest part of the Red Sea.
We are safely tied up in the El Gouna Marina in Egypt. It is sort of a Marina del Rey, Lawrence of Arabia style. Beautifully done, and spotlessly clean except for the occasional sand storm. The people are treating us fabulously and taking very good care of us.
We have just returned from an incredible land trip. From the marina we took a bus, in a convoy escorted by tourist police, to Luxor where we boarded the M/S Odessy which would be our floating home for four days as we traveled the Nile. We visited Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel. Then, we boarded the overnight train for Cairo. Pinch me. Am I really seeing all of this?
We have now visited what seems to be the beginning of time. The Valley of the Kings, Temples of Karnak, Ramses II and Queen Nefetari’s temples, obelisks, vivid ancient colors, hieroglyphs, and stories of Pharaoh’s and Queens. We are armed with knowledge of Gods and Goddesses, ancient beliefs and legends. We have sailed on a felucca along the Nile and around it’s cataracts. A visit to the mummy room at the Cairo museum gave us goose bumps thinking about how old all of this was. Riding a camel (dromedary) at the Pyramids of Giza. Imagining the immensity of the task undertaken by thousands to create these wonders. The Sphinx. We can’t find words that can do justice to what we have seen and experienced.
We have shopped in the maze of alley ways called the souq in old Cairo. Have a good understanding of Baksheesh (bribes), have dressed in the traditional Galabiyyas and have had a most fascinating time with the Egyptian people.
We have patiently waited for good weather windows so our trip up the Red Sea has been less taxing then some have experienced. We have met many wonderful people and colorful characters along the way, all of which have greeted us with warmth and friendliness. We have felt safe and comfortable all along the way.
The Southern Cross is gone and the Big Dipper is back. The water is getting colder and we are digging out warmer clothing. We are back in the Northern hemisphere.
That brings us to where we are today. Waiting for weather to transit the Suez Cannel. As of today it looks like the weather will be a go day after tomorrow. We are ready to go just as soon as we clean the sand of Sea Witch one more time. They had the worst sandstorm in 10 years at the marina while we were visiting the Pharohs.
We’ll be in Cyprus in a week or so and spend some time in Turkey and Greece. We haven’t had time to add to our website since February but we do keep our position up-to-date via the ham radio so you can always find us.
Jeff & Gail