Maldives to Egypt
Arabian Sea, pirate alley and up into the Red Sea
When considering a circumnavigation, one doesn’t consider or understand the natural pinch points that occur en route.
The first we encountered was in the Caribbean, where if you head West, you are committed by the prevailing conditions pushing deep past Cartagena and on to Panama with all the associated rough weather off the Columbian coast. The second was in Fiji, where decisions must be made about routes to either New Zealand or Australia. The third in Langkawi, where again tough decisions must be made about routes back to Europe or towards South Africa. At each of these destinations boats can be found for sale as cruisers take the option of finishing their travels rather than tackle the hazards ahead..
Having cruised through Indonesia, we arrived in Singapore on 22 Oct 2010. I think it was in mid October that I started worrying about our future plans, and slowly the reality of fact began to dawn.
Having been far from home for 2 years, the prospect of being in the Mediterranean in spring was very appealing. However the logistics of achieving that goal were quite daunting. The route would take us up through Malaysia, and on to Thailand for Christmas, shortly after making passage across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka and then West to the Maldives. It would be in the Maldives that our course would change, either across the Arabian Sea with all its dangers or South to Chagos, Mauritius, Reunion Island, and in the following November on to Richards Bay, South Africa.
The Southern route has its merits, but also its disadvantages. Of primary concern was timing. The weather would dictate the schedule, which seemed to be a 3-month stop in Chagos, leaving there in early June and heading to Mauritius. We would then have to wait until early November to make the passage South of Madagascar, across the Aghulas current and into Richards Bay. At that point we would head for Cape Town, and be prepared to leave in mid January to get up to the Caribbean. A quick run N would see us ready to leave again late May for the transatlantic back home via the Azores. In effect we would need to sail 2200 miles between March and November, followed by 8000 miles between November and June, followed immediately by 3500 miles in June and July. A demanding and daunting schedule with just the four of us.
The alternative was to sail from the Maldives to Turkey, some 3500 miles between February and April, leaving us to make the onward journey home, some 2850 miles at our leisure. The southern route would effectively be twice the mileage and take another year.
Having considered both options we decided to hedge our bets, feeling that a decision could be made sometime early in the New Year. We received our permits for Chagos in early December, and in late December signed up with the Thailand To Turkey (TTT) Rally, an organised convoy from, as you would expect, Thailand to Turkey. As the holiday season took hold our leaning was firmly towards Europe, but it appeared that the whole Pirate issue in early 2011 was on a different footing…the game had changed!.
Over the past few years the Pirates had been working the N coast of Somalia, along the Gulf of Aden (GOA), with few attacks in deep ocean. This year seemed to be different. The strong la Nina conditions in the pacific had made for unusual NE monsoon winds and the brisk NE wind which traditionally set in around Christmas had not materialised. With calm conditions in the Arabian sea, the pirates had ventured deep into the NE and were attacking ships a 1000 miles from their traditional hunting grounds. With the use of pirated mother ships and investors to finance their operations the Pirates were causing havoc across their sphere of operation right up to the Straights of Hormuz. The whole Arabian Sea and North Indian Ocean was a danger zone with attacks on shipping from 3N to 22N and 43E to 73E., effectively Djibouti to Muscat to Maldives to Seychelles. This had changed everything, even the safety of the Southern route!.
Although we had signed onto the TTT rally as the last entrant, number 30 of 30, it was apparent after the first meeting that it would not be straightforward. We had initially thought that we would meet the rally in Salalah, Oman, and then proceed in convoy to Aden, through the Bab El Mandeb and up into the Red Sea.. This part of the journey had always been considered the most dangerous, and so we thought we had a solution in place.
This year, however, the action was en route to Salalah and throughout the whole area, with the GOA, at that stage, looking relatively clear. To compound the issues, the organiser of the rally had their own problems with debilitating equipment failure and alternative communications to the standard Single Side Band radio (SSB) which most of the rally participants were using for contact. Coordinating vessels over a 1800 mile route was going to be virtually impossible..
By the time we arrived in Sri Lanka it was apparent that the TTT rally was more of a good concept than anything that was actually going to work. As we were leaving Galle, the organisers arrived, already a week behind the rally. They had a serious gearbox failure and torn mainsail. This would delay them at least another10 days….the deadlines were slipping. Compiled with a conflict of characters and the issues with communication, even at that stage we were all seeing the rally structure as more of a liability rather than an asset.
By 1st February the majority of rally participants, including ourselves had arrived in the Maldives, and with pressure building on our documentation and status, it was clear something had to happen.
Oligamu is a delightful spot, and the authorities made us all welcome. However, officially we were only allowed to stay one week without purchasing a cruising permit at $650USD. Not something most of us wanted to do. That said, the authorities understood our situation and allowances were made.
Vessels and crew that had already been on station a few days were discussing various options at daily meetings held ashore. I had been working on my own plans and had developed 3 course options. At the same time the Blue Water Rally (BWR) was meeting in Cochin, India and everyone was concerned about the change in the modus operendi of the Pirates. After plotting all the various attacks and incidents over the previous 6 weeks, I saw 4 clear areas of operation, and 3 possible tracks to Oman and the GOA.
The general consensus was that a route N along the Indian coast to 22N then across to Muscat was the safest option. However this option was weighted by support from the BWR and their insurers, and being an easier route to protect, accepted as an option by the security forces.. It still took all vessels very close to the main area of Pirate operations at 20-22N and then along the coast of Oman, through Salalah, and on to Aden. The distances were huge and the length of time exposed to danger was far greater than other possible options. It was also a very long way under engine and against prevailing winds, with many hazards, fishing boats and nets off the Indian coast. In addition the majority of us had no Indian Visas, so refuelling .on route would have to be done in a very discreet manner. I really felt uncomfortable with the whole plan.
It was my belief that the pirates would hold their windward positions until the NE winds strengthened, then head back to the GOA to their traditional hunting grounds. I proposed a course heading W from Oligamu to about 10N 60E and then making for Socotra Island, keeping a good 100-150 miles offshore, with a lazy curve to the E end of the international corridor and pushing on to Aden, staying 10-15 miles N of the corridor in the wind belt. There had been no attacks on that route this year and I felt it a fairly safe bet that the Pirates would not be looking behind them. In addition, the proposed course was shorter, put me further W and through the danger zone more quickly, allowing sailing in trade wind conditions rather than motoring into the N winds prevalent along the coast of India at that time.
The third course, that was a slim possibility, was a route from Cochin to Salalah, fairly direct which would run in a narrow band between the 2 shipping lanes coming S from Hormuz and SE from the GOA.. I discounted this as impractical early on as there was no need to go to Salalah to meet any convoys, and I was keen to get the whole process completed as quickly as possible. It also ran closer to areas of activity than the southern route that I had proposed.
The only opposition I heard from my proposed route was that BWR participants would not be covered on insurance taking that route and that there was a concern that pirates returning home had to cross that track. As my insurance stopped at Sri Lanka that was not an issue, and with it being early in the season I suspected that the Pirates world hold their NE positions as long as possible before coming back downwind to resupply and operate in the GOA.
That was the logic, but in reality we all knew any route was just a game of chance.
Groups started to develop, and like boats and skippers tried to make plans together…usually over drinks on board. Routes were discussed and plans made so by 4th Feb the first convoy of 10 boats left Oligamu, taking the S route.
That night I had a terrible dream. We had been taken by Pirates, and while driving along at speed; they were holding Louis by one ankle over the side, with his head in the water. The bandit was looking me in the eye waiting for me to react. Louis was screaming…I woke up.
I went up to the pilothouse and fired up the PC, found 3 flights to the UK from Male for Monday 6th February and made reservations there and then. The following day I organised transport from Oligamu to Male on the local supply boat and Amanda set to in the galley making industrial quantities of Bolognaise and curry for my upcoming journey. Our plans were set and we were committed, however daunting for all of us.
On the appointed day I travelled with the family to an island 10 miles S where they would pick up the supply boat for the 18hr Trip to Male. It was a terribly sad moment, saying goodbye to the family, with all of us wondering if we would ever see each other again. Pegasus was a ghost ship on my return. It was the first time that the family had been split since February 2008, but we all knew deep down that it was the only thing to do.
It was all getting a little tense in Oligamu. Daily conversations and discussions had people debating various options. There were phone calls with UKMTO and the other authorities talking about proposed routes and options. Some vessels had already left.. At least 2 other convoys started to organise their schedules, while 10 boats were not signed up with anyone and were waiting for options to develop.
I was not happy about sailing with many boats. One convoy had 10 vessels, ranging from a 28footer to a 55 footer. It would be very difficult to keep those vessels together over a long passage. (Remarkably they all stayed in convoy together and arrived in Al Mukallah in convoy 14 days after leaving They took the southern route).
There were 2 other English boats at anchor, one a club member After discussion it was agreed that we would all sail together in a loose convoy. I felt comfortable with 2 other boats and felt that I could keep pace with them over the distance.
One issue with Pegasus is that we don’t really motor well. We may achieve 4.5kts in flat seas with 1 engine on, or 5.5 kts with 2 engines, but as soon as there is any wind we can sail much faster than motoring, and if its blowing we can see 190-220 miles a day. That makes sailing in convoy with monohull’s a little difficult.
We discussed our plans over a very good dinner and it was agreed that if there was an incident, the other boats in the convoy were to act in a reporting function only, contacting the authorities on behalf of the pirated vessel.
The yachting community has guidelines on how to handle a pirate attack, and having done my own research I understood, but really didn’t agree with their advice. They suggested that no resistance should be offered and that one should leave the authorities to effect a release. Everything I had read from attacked vessels stated that firing weapons at the approaching pirates thwarted the attempted attacks. The success rate was astounding. Even my friend who had had his vessel delivered from the Med to Phuket was advised to carry weapons and fire warning shots at any approaching vessels. As an insulin dependant diabetic I really couldn’t see any Pirates keeping my insulin cool in their fridge over the following years, so assuming that I would be quickly dead if I left Pegasus. I decided that, in my case, it would be better to face the demons there and then…whatever the consequences…and had been trying to buy a weapon since Thailand, with no success. I was resolved to sailing without protection.
A stroke of luck. A vessel at anchor had decided not to proceed and was heading back to Thailand. They offered me their gun with 15 rounds, which I heartily accepted I knew that if I used all those rounds then I would either have won or lost. The gun had been given to them, and it was its 3rd trip through the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden. I felt extremely lucky.
That same day the Organiser of the TTT rally was towed into Oligamu. He proposed a meeting, during which he mentioned that he had been approached with an option to transport vessels and had a price. His quote of $650 per foot inclusive sounded reasonable to many, and as a buzz of excitement spread through the anchorage it was as if the fairy godmother had arrived. As a catamaran at $1000 per foot it was not an option for us.
That afternoon, some 15 hours before our planned departure, both of my travelling companions decided that they would ship their vessels. I was a little shocked, but we only had a loose arrangement and all parties had to choose the solution that suited them best. In fact it was a blessing in disguise, but I did feel sorry for my club colleagues who felt that they had really let me down, which they hadn’t. Asked what my plans were…..I was leaving in the morning, alone and singlehanded.
I made a last minute attempt to rally a few new arrivals and sound them out about their plans, but the cards had been dealt and I was off.
I considered my position, and felt I had a lot going for me. For the past 2 months I had been trying to calculate the odds on being pirated. It was just a game of chance. You were either going to be lucky or not. To put it in perspective, the area of operation was equivalent to the whole of N Europe, from Greece to Spain to Norway to Russia with 10-20 muggers operating. I just needed a moving circle of 25 miles to remain hidden. I had a passive radar unit, allowing me to hear when I was being interrogated, I had a weapon, and I could travel as fast as the conditions would allow…. Speed and stealth would be my tools.
In addition the security forces were fully aware of our plans and we had all registered with the UKMTO and other agencies. IN the event of an attack, it was possible that some help would be available, depending on the location of forces at that time. Any alert could be transmitted via EPIRB or VHF if in range. In essence, all I had to do was keep the buggers off Pegasus until the cavalry arrived… which could take anywhere from an hour to not at all!!!…some consolation at least.
The morning of departure came, and having cleared out the previous day, was ready to get going. At 0900 on 10th February 2011 I pulled up the anchor and motored slowly out of the anchorage. I was quite excited. I had wanted to sail Pegasus single handed for some time, and the Arabian Sea passage is one of the great trade wind passages of the world, which when you look closely, you realise are fairly few and far between.
The Grib weather files looked good, and I would have a few days of light winds before things picked up. Full sail was the order of the day, and with one engine on to boost speed, I made good progress on a course of 285 degrees in NNW6-8kts of wind. In the light conditions I busied myself with a range of maintenance jobs that seemed easier to achieve without the family on board. After servicing both heads and trying to solve the raw water pump issue on both engines, I considered I had had a good day.
First ship contact arrived at 2300, alerted through the Collision Avoidance Radar Detection system (CARD) and confirmed on the Radar. No lights, no AIS. Looked like they were in stealth mode as well. It seemed that the merchant vessels were practising a 24-hour radar watch, looking for small boats just like Pegasus. I judged I could rest, secure that I would hear any radar contact and needn’t worry about other shipping. I too was travelling without lights and with the AIS transmit turned off.
The morning saw no wind so down main and engines on. We had organised a net on the SSB at 0800, and with a reference point in mid ocean, vessels checking in could give a distance and bearing from that mark. It seemed a good way to monitor the progress of our friends on passage, and their current conditions. I was conscious of keeping any transmissions from Pegasus to a minimum, but enjoyed getting E mails from Amanda at home and knew that they were watching me.
The wind picked up after lunch, and by 1800 we were making 7 kts under sail, flat seas, wind close to. Pegasus likes close hauled light wind sailing and in 8kts of breeze can make 7kts boat speed. There was action about with Indian military aircraft talking with shipping but I saw nothing, and settled down for another beautiful night at sea.
The morning of the 3rd day saw the wind shift to the NE and with the kite set started clocking miles. It was short lived and over the next 24 hours had a mixture of kite and engine to make a daily run of 131 miles. It was at 2000 hrs that night I saw my first ship. In the darkness before moonrise I saw white over red approaching dead ahead. Was this the moment I had been waiting for? Both engines on, and time for a getaway. I was making a staggering 6 kts on both engines…pathetic. This huge ship came along my port side and took up station some 300 yards astern. No response from the radio, and I could now see it was a warship of some description. At the same time I noticed 2 targets on the radar some 10 miles astern. I had no idea who they were, but as I moved off into the darkness the Warship just sat between Pegasus and the targets, and that was the last I saw of any of them. I was now getting pinged on the CARD every minute or so, as I had been occasionally during the afternoon. I guessed that there had been coverage over the horizon all day!!
The next few days past quickly as with little wind I was concentrating on domestic issues. Bread was made, maintenance completed and every few hours I would get 1 ping on the radar detector…I guessed they were still out there.
The wind set in on the 15th and I altered course at 10.30N, 60E to make for Socotra Island at 315 degrees. My mileage increased from an average of 135NM per day to 190NM per day and it was great sailing. Steady reaching conditions in 10-16kts on the beam and full sail. Beautiful.
The wind stayed with me and I was making good mileage, aware that there was more merchant traffic around and, I knew the military was still with me, although nothing was seen
As I made my way up to Socotra Island I was definitely in the “zone” I was getting a various array of pings some homing, some so strong I had to turn the unit off. I guess I was being seriously watched. By the 18th I had made Socotra, and maintaining 100 miles clearance was looking forward to bearing away. As I approached the International corridor the following day I came across an 18-vessel convoy being guarded by a Chinese warship. I was instructed to alter course to starboard, which was just a little inconvenient as it had me goosewinged by the lea, but all was well and after an hour they had passed, so I made N 15 miles and broke out the kite for a fabulous run down the GOA.
Over the next 3 days I carried the kite in steady winds of 12-15kts and made good mileage. The days were beautiful, and the moon bright, the only worry the dreaded bandits. I saw 4 warships, and was over flown by 2 helicopters and an Orion type surveillance aircraft. It was during this period I heard American yacht Quest had been pirated and all 4 crew taken as hostages.
Having been on alert for the passed 11 days I was getting a little tense. I wanted to get into Aden and out of the war zone. Having listened to the BBC I knew that things were not exactly stable in the Middle East. Egypt had had a revolution, Bahrain was up in arms, people were being killed in Yemen and Libya was just kicking off. I was keen for the experience to be over, but was unsure where Amanda and I could get back together.
At 9am on 22 February I set the anchor in Aden harbour, glad to stop for a few days before heading up the Red Sea. In the 12 days at sea we had covered 1792 miles, put 65 hours on the engines and used 120 lt of diesel. The only real reason to stop was to get some cash, and possibly diesel. I had left Oligamu with just $6 so needed an ATM before heading into the Red Sea and knew Aden was the last chance before Egypt.
There were 2 other boats at anchor, but on inspection they had been left by their owners and were both in quite a sorry state. It looked like I would be on my own. I checked in with customs and immigration who retained my passport, and in return issued me a dock pass. I had a few jobs to do, as well as the usual fuels and laundry, so set off with a driver in search of USD, Sim cards and Lunch.
I sorted out a price with Whalid, and off we went in his rather dusty old car. I’m sure that it would never have passed an MOT, but it seemed appropriate in Aden. Heading up into town we found a bank that dispensed USD as well as Yemeni Rials. Ahh, no USD available. That was going to be the story of the day. After trying a number of ATM’s we finally went to the Bank of Yemen. I went to see the manager who insisted I sit while he saw a succession of different people. After 10 minutes he asked what he could do. I explained that I wanted some USD and he said “ 1000, no problem” then took his next visitor. After a further 10 minutes I interrupted and asked if he had a plan to get some USD. “Yes” he said, I asked how, “by putting some USD in the ATM!” You’re a genius I said and went outside when prompted and withdrew 700USD. I only got 700 because another Yemeni jumped in and withdrew 300 before I had my card out. Clearly USD were being withheld from the populace, but at least I had some operating cash.. Over the next few days I managed to withdraw a further 500USD, but with the intermittent GSM coverage at the ATM machines, found I had actually had a further 1000 deducted from my account. An E mail to Amanda would sort that out.
I bought a sim card for data and Internet and after a frustrating 24hrs finally got it to work with the purchase of a new 2G dongle. I now had comms with home, which was just great and could also study the weather for my next leg up the Red Sea.
After a trip to the supermarket and a great lunch I returned to Pegasus, alone at anchor off the customs wharf.. Not a bad first day. Tomorrow some maintenance and get the laundry and diesel sorted. I still had plenty of water and with the fresh supplies and money was well on the way to being able to get going again.
That evening I walked the 200m back to the restaurant and ate a few shawama while chatting with a Yemeni who sat opposite me. Over tea I asked him about the current situation and was surprised to hear that 16 people had been shot over the past 2 weeks. I had heard the students marching and protesting and seen many different uniforms, everyone with a Kalashnikov, but had no idea that there was blood on the streets. While withdrawing money, I had been told to be careful of the students. I was advised not to be out at night, and to cross the street if I saw a gang of youths or I would be stoned. All the Yemenis I met seemed so nice and friendly, it seemed strange that when the sun went down there was such violence about.
There were a number of jobs I needed to do before setting off up the Red Sea. I could expect some windy conditions with short, steep seas and some hard windward sailing. I wanted to make sure Pegasus was ready, so I went up the mast and checked the rig and fittings. I do this before every punishing trip, and it was well worth the effort as I found 2 loose shackles that could have caused some serious issues if they had ended up on deck! I also had to start servicing the winches which is a job not done too often but one which must be done in the course of maintenance. I spent a lovely morning scrubbing winch parts in diesel and regreasing, and by afternoon had completed the 4 most important winches. Only 4 to go, so a good start. In the afternoon Whalid and I put the laundry in and arranged to pick up diesel the following day, Friday.
That evening I returned to the restaurant and after ordering food started chatting to another Yemeni English speaker who just happened to sit opposite me. We talked vague politics and about the situation, unemployment and the unrest. At 7pm I decided it was past my bedtime and left for home before sundown. Sitting in the cockpit I could hear the student protests and some small arms fire and was starting to get concerned that the situation was worsening.
I had been in touch with my Father in law, who was trying to get a visa for Yemen to join me on passage up the Red Sea. It was apparent that it was not going to be straightforward, so I thought that I could try and get Immigration to issue him a transit pass and escort him to the boat, sidestepping the need for a visa. On the Friday morning I went to see immigration, who told me that I should go to the head office on Saturday morning. They gave me my passport, as I would need it at head office. After thanking them and being hit for baksheesh, I got in the dinghy with fuel cans and made my way to the bunker wharf.
Fuel was quite an involved process. Coffee with the accountant, pay for fuel, get a release chit and stamp from another office and present that at the pumps. The attendants, keen to get away early for their weekend, filled all my tanks quickly.
Great I was ready to get back….. Not quite that simple! The attendants then proceeded to wind back the meter and issued me a chit for a refund. I then went back to the accountant…more coffee…and returned with the refund, of which 75% went into their pockets. There’s nothing like a bit of baksheesh to make you happy to get back on board, and with the diesel, costing 0.93USD per lt, it felt good to have full tanks and be ready for the off.
After lunch I wandered off to find Whalid, who I had paid to pick up the laundry. Of course he was nowhere to be seen. I found Salim who took me to the steam laundry instead, and after paying, returned to Pegasus with the most fantastic cleaned and pressed laundry.
In Aden that day I had noticed a lot more armed men about. As I sat in the restaurant and ordered shawama, another English speaking Yemeni sat opposite me. This was becoming a regular occurrence. We talked and while sitting on the sidewalk I noticed a few army utility vehicles pass, each with 6 men on board and large guns on the back. Heavy weapons, not a good sign. I finished up and went back to Pegasus not keen to be out after sunset.
I sat in the cockpit listening to the prayers in the Mosque. Things were heating up. I thought of all the chance encounters I had had over the last few days, the warnings, the guns, and now the marching on the street. By 10pm I was hearing regular small arms and rifle fire and it all seemed to be getting closer. As the only westerner around I was starting to feel a little nervous. I had been there 3 days and that’s enough time to become a target. What was I doing there? I had my passport in my pocket, Pegasus was ready, nothing’s stopping me so I pulled up the dinghy and prepared Pegasus to leave, finally pulling up the anchor at 11pm. By that time the gunfire was regular and I was sure I was doing the right thing.
Of my withdraw from Aden I wrote to a friend on Imagine some 200 miles astern sailing along the corridor with a warship in sight.
HI Mark, great that you’re with Roger and a warship...excellent news. I left Aden last night midnight as mass protests on street and gunfire around. Army out with 50 cal on back of jeeps...i was the only boat there and feeling like the last tomato in a salad. I managed to get my passport back from immigration in the morning, and just thought..im going...stopped by a port control launch with Kalashnikov bloke on front...port control ordered me back to anchorage 5 times I refused, saying that there was gunfire on the street, I’m a uk boat and I want to leave now. After half an hour he called off the dogs and gave me permission to leave and asked if i would please come back to Aden and its not always like that!!!! Decided to get on and head N... in Bab el Mandeb now,...sat 1500 blowing 30 and big waves, 4 reefs main, slip of staysail but fine, making 10-12 on the rolercoaster...don’t know how far i can get in this window will see. I didn’t like the thought of stopping in Djibouti as too many spies around, so not possible to make a stealthy exit and thought I would be the only boat there!! Also its just 5 miles to the boarder with Somalia. didn’t want am and boys turning up there. Just takes one crazy guy and there over the boarder!!. Take care, watch your back. see you up the track. I’m going as far N as possible, then will find an anchorage where people aren’t trying to kill me and wait for the weather.
Leaving Aden in a hurry I couldn’t finesse the weather, and knew it would be rough ride through the straight of Bab el Mandeb. That suited me fine. The rougher the better, and very much harder to board a boat in those conditions. I had just 200 miles to go until I was in the clear.
Sailing down to the Bad el Mandeb I saw a few fishing skiffs tied together and kept my eye on them, but they didn’t follow…just fishermen. I Crossed to the African side of the straight and was in the Bab by 1500 Saturday. I pushed on. With the winds picking up all afternoon to hit 40kts and large steep seas. I wrote
17.30 Seas bigger now at 3.5m, wind 35-40kts, 4 reefs in and dinghy jib!! Quite nasty but at least its behind us. There are some really big waves here, short and steep…starting to move away from sailing and more towards ”Survival”
By 2000 the wind had eased to 25-30 and the seas were more regular. I was seeing shipping and had to gybe downwind to miss Islands, Reefs and shipping. The wind picked up again and with the 4th reef still in I was making good progress. By 0845 on Sunday I was well past the Hanish Islands, out of the official danger zone and with every mile I made, the Pirates were a mile further astern. I was being pushed up the Red Sea like tumble weed and quite happy about it.
By 1300 the wind eased to a comfortable 20kts and I took out 2 reefs to keep pushing on while the wind was astern.
Feeling like stopping for a rest I found an anchorage behind a large rock and dropped sail and hook at 18.30, pored a glass of wine and put dinner on the table. As I lifted my knife and folk the anchor drag alarm went off. I couldn’t believe it. The sun was down, it was a dark night and we were drifting off out to sea and into 18kts of breeze. I decided that the best thing to do was finish dinner then pull up the anchor. I drifted down wind until dinner was over then pulled up the hook and cruised down wind on course for Massawa, Eritrea. Under headsail alone we were making 6kts in 20kts of breeze and all was good, with no shipping about, and seas easing. Overnight the winds died to 10kts.and by morning the seas were flat.
I was really looking forward to Massawa. I had heard great things about it and was thinking of spending a day or two up in the capital, Asmara, which by all accounts is a remarkable place. I was just 20 miles off the entrance when I picked up my e-mail.
Some American friends had sent out their consulates advice on the situation in Eritrea, containing a state department warning. In addition a report from a cruising friend of ours warned of 2 boats being under arrest in Massawa since December 2010, with no consular access.
Well it was just getting better and better. No way was I going into Massawa, alone as I was. Fire to frying pan came to mind!
I altered course to some islands some 30 miles ahead, and by 17.30 on 28th Feb I dropped the hook in 7m under the lea of a small flat island, and went for a walk ashore.
The general advice on areas like Eritrea and Sudan is not to venture off the beach. Many Islands and beaches were mined during the various wars and no one really knows if there are land mines or not. I thought it best to stick to the beach, and had a long walk round the island. The only thing I saw was a beautiful eagle which had nested somewhere on the Island, and a few shells which I picked up for Amanda. There was obviously conch there as the fishermen had shelled them on the island, and the mounds of broken shells were apparent on shore.
No longer in the danger zone, I took the opportunity to disposed of the gun and ammunition, glad that I had it and very glad I had not needed it, That night, after a hearty dinner, I slept like a baby with Pegasus hidden in the anchorage, and awoke refreshed, ready for the next haul up the Red Sea.
With the water temperature still at 27 degrees I spent the morning scrubbing Pegasus, removing weed and any hard marine growth. I wanted Pegasus as fast as possible for the next leg as soon the winds would be from the N and the going much tougher.
It was that morning of 1st March when I heard from my friends on Imagine that a Danish Yacht “ING” had been pirated with all crew taken. Just terribly unlucky for them. It could have been any of us. Our tracks had crossed in Langkawi, although we didn’t know them.
I pulled up the anchor and headed N at Midday, and with light winds made good progress. With mixed conditions, sailing and motor sailing overnight I tuned in on the SSB for the morning net to find out where people were. Early that morning, 2nd March it had been Imagines turn. Flares sighted, skiffs seen, Mayday called , an attack in progress some 5 miles from them…A US warship on close support, helicopters and tense frightened crew. Luckily they got support so no damage was done, but it certainly put the woollies up poor old Marc and Mike on Imagine and Roger and Kali on Lapalapa.. Really not very pleasant, and as they were just 20 miles from Aden when it all happened, they altered course and headed in for fuel and a rest.
I was heading for Khor Narwarat, the first real anchorage in Sudan, and looking forward to stopping for 2 nights while friends caught up for a “We all made it” party on Pegasus. There were 2 boats some 100 miles astern who had left on the large convoy on 4th Feb, and we had been in touch by e mail. The plan was to meet in Khor Narwarat and for them all to come on board Pegasus. I had caught some Trivially and half a Tuna (along with 3 barracuda which I had thrown back) and they would bring some bits.
I spent the day on the beach and swimming. It was overcast and grey, but the rest was welcome. I planned for the next leg, through the reef and into deep water and on up to Egypt and Port Ghalib, some 500 miles N. This was going to be the tough leg. Looking at the weather files I had to move and push N to get into a light air window where I could motor the last 200 miles in calm conditions. That meant sailing hard upwind for 3-4 days to make Port Ghalib before Amanda and the boys were due to arrive on 9th March. We had discussed many options about joining in Djibouti, Eritrea and Sudan, but visas were just not available so it was decided Egypt, and the purpose built resort of Port Ghalib, and with direct flights from London it couldn’t be more convenient.
We had a great party on Pegasus with Bill, Lisa, Max and Gina from US vessel Glide and John and Vera on US vessel Amante. Just great fun, everyone enjoyed themselves and the food was fantastic. Guests left at midnight, which in cruisers terms is like dawn.
The others planned to stay a few days and cruise up to Suakin and on. I had debated stopping at Suakin, but my heart wasn’t in it. I really didn’t want to be cruising when Amanda and the Boys were in Port Ghalib. At any rate, I had a gate to get there and if I missed it I could be waiting in some Marsa somewhere for 10 days while the wind howled.
No, I wanted to be back with the family….err in addition, Amanda had booked into a small hotel opposite the marina. Because of the tourist situation in Egypt after the revolution on 25th January most of the hotels in Port Ghalib had been closed with all guests relocated to the Intercontinental. I was really looking forward to a hotel, bath and days by the pool with the family, so there was motivation to push on. Cruising just isn’t the same on your own.
I had a late start and by 10.30 on 4th March I was on my way. I pushed on hard so by 2100 I was through the Suakin reef system and into deeper water. That was a relief. The charts were slightly out and the quality of the charts were not great, being derived from old surveys. I didn’t want to be anywhere near a reef system at night. With light winds I motor sailed but by 0700 I was getting concerned about using too much fuel too early. I wanted to keep my fuel for the last push.
Sailing to windward there was a nasty short chop and was disappointed to note that my usual 86 degree tacking arc was looking more like 110 degrees. That would cost me dear over the coming days.
With the wind due to strengthen I tried to make an anchorage the evening of the 5th. It seemed close, but even with both engines full bore there was no way I could make it before dark. I resigned myself to a windy night offshore. I was tacking in a 30 mile corridor between the shipping lane to Starboard and the reef to Port. By 01.30 on the 6th it was all a bit dull. I was cold, it was windy, there was shipping about and I was making slow progress, feeling like I had something around the keels. At dawn things improved as they often do, but there was still plenty of shipping, and I was close hauled in 30kts of breeze with a 3,5m sea on the port bow.
To compile issues there was a learner driver in a merchant ship not too keen on giving sea room. You find that occasionally, no response to the radio, no acknowledgement of your position, only dumb refusal to answer or give any way. The trick is to call them by their MMSI number, that way all open channels can hear and identify the culprit. You usually get a course response then, even if no voice comms.
Another windy day tacking into the shipping. I was getting tired. Not only was the sailing physically demanding, but having to be constantly alert for shipping was draining. The wind started to ease at midnight and by 03.30 we had the last reef out, and at 06.30 the engines on.
I was having trouble with the raw water feed on both engines and if the conditions had been rough, I would usually have to manually prime the pumps in the engine rooms before starting. That is a boring procedure, but Amanda was bringing new pumps to Egypt so I wouldn’t be doing that much longer. The only real implication was that you had to start the engines early, before committing to any manoeuvre incase they overheated and you had to shut down. No issue if you have sea room. Difficult and dangerous if you don’t.
I had reached my weather window and motored hard all day on 7th march, so that as the breeze filled in at 0300 on 8th March I set on starboard tack and sailed close hauled in 15-18 kts of breeze towards Port Ghalib. I had no idea of the lay out of the entrance, but knew I would be arriving at night. Luckily Amanda had been in touch with them and I had a lat and long of the Fairway buoy. I suspected that as with most Marsa entrances, of which I had been in none, the entrance faced due E. I approached the fairway buoy from the E at 22.30, and after arriving at the spot picked up the port and starboard channel markers.
I didn’t see the fairway buoy that night, but she was quite a beast when I saw her in the morning, as was the narrow entrance between the reefs!!!
At 23.20 I was alongside the customs wharf with some quite excited officials waiting for me. Come on board, Come on board, what documentation do you need? After half an hour they were satisfied I had no stowaways and I moved Pegasus on to the adjacent quay. I would complete formalities in the morning…and yes….. I have come from the Maldives.
I was delighted to have arrived and planned to meet Amanda and the boys at the airport the following afternoon. Pegasus was in great shape and would have a well earned rest, followed by some needed maintenance.
I sat in the cockpit with a rum and water thinking of the hard sailing I had just completed and wondering if I would ever be back in the S Red Sea again. Its such a shame that I had to push through so quickly, but our journey on Pegasus is about the sharing of experiences, and relating the old town of Suakin to Amanda would mean nothing.
I love the sailing, and I was lucky to have had 3052 miles single handed, some in fantastic trade wind conditions and 600 miles of hard windward passage making.
It had been 31 days since we waved goodbye to each other in Oligamu, and we were all really looking forward to being back together as a family. We had 2 weeks booked in the hotel, Pegasus in the Marina, a stones throw away, and life is good.
Whilst I was on passage 4 Americans on SV “Quest” were executed by Pirates and a Danish family with children on SV”ING” were taken and remain hostage….. I was extremely lucky. !
Below are our photos of Maldives to Egypt. .
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