Aden - Yemen Tuesday 9th March to Sunday 14th March 2010
Having settled the anchor we were just relaxing when we realised a large fishing vessel close by had broken from its aft mooring and was swinging too close, so moved nearer to the very modern quay. There is an impressive building with a large archway which was built as the arrival point for cruise ships in days gone by. The photographs inside the building shows black and white images of Italian cruise liners from the 50's and proudly displays photos of the Queens visit in 1954. I am not sure that the recent addition of flashing Christmas lights to the outside of the terminal building really adds anything.
Prior to departing Oman, myself and Sally from 'Astra' had taken the responsibility of organizing a 'survivors party' on reaching Aden, so, being a military run base, we contacted the authorities for permission to hold a BBQ on the quay. No sooner done than a pilot boat came out to 'Equinox' bearing Colonel Mohammed Tarish Al-Hamady, director of Aden Maritime Security and Coast Guard. Quite intimidating at first, but after orange juice, several cigarettes and a chat, he turned into an affable party animal who granted permission. However he said no alcohol of course and we could begin at 7 pm since his English classes did not finish until then. I hadn't remembered inviting him, but what the hey!
Sally and Jeremy went around ensuring other boats were informed and asking them to bring a sharing dish and no alcohol etc. We managed to source three BBQs and some charcoal and duly went ashore to prepare. The Colonel had phoned me at 5.30 to say 'come now'. Apparently he had decided to forego his English class. It was difficult to explain that everything was now organised for 7.00 pm. However when Sally and myself went ashore as advance party, we were greeted not just by the Colonel but also the press and many locals. We had not realised what a big thing our arrival was. When we arrived in Aden we discovered that the Vasco de Gamma Rally (goes from Turkey to India bi-annually) was still sitting in the harbour, now a couple of weeks behind schedule, and that is usually the biggest event here, but they seemed to think our arrival was equally, if not more important, and promptly christened us 'The Christopher Columbus Rally'. Our attempts to inform them that we were not an official rally fell on deaf ears.
Things got a wee bit scary for me at the party, since I realised that I was being seen as some kind of leader, when in fact I had only organised the party. I spoke with Joost (our actual leader) and kept bringing him into the conversation, but he did not want to have any more responsibility. Who could blame him? In any case the Colonel refused to deal with anyone else. (This was very strange in such a fundamentally Muslim country where women can still be stoned for misdemeanours!)
Things became even scarier when the Colonel announced that they were going to hold a civic reception for us on Saturday 13th March, with the presence of a government minister. Yikes!
So we ate and drank, Gordon and I on diet Pepsi, many others on strangely frothy decanted substances, had many press photo's taken and mingled with the Yemenis who came to the quay to sit and chew massive cheek full of 'grass', the local mind altering substance. Even the Colonel sat on the ground with the people and proceeded to fill his mouth, hamster like, with said leaves. All the men have brown stained teeth from chewing this stuff. Some of the sailors joined in and pronounced it 'foul tasting giving a slight buzz'. (Just like most alcohol really.) Speeches were made and we told Joost we were not reclaiming our 50 Euros convoy deposit but presented this as thanks for his work. Much deserved.
Next morning we had many people come on board for coffee and to find out more about the civic reception. Most boats had planned to move off again but decided with one or two exceptions to stay for the event.
On the morning of Saturday 13th March we all duly presented ourselves on the quay. In addition to press we found ourselves faced with a film crew from Yemen TV. Having now been appointed as official spokesperson I was ushered to meet our VIP General Mohammed Gabary, Director of Security and Tourism. Through an interpreter we exchanged greetings and the General made much use of the word 'democracy'. Hmm! The TV director positioned the General and I for best light, which meant squinting into the sun, and with no other preparation we were filmed being questioned by the 'roving reporter'. The General made a very lengthy, probably quite political speech and when my turn came I simply thanked the people of Aden for their warm welcome we had received and the Colonel and General for allowing us to move about their city so freely. (Normally not allowed.) I said we would tell all those we met about the kindness we had been shown. Next thing I knew I was presented with a blue velvet box containing a depiction of the curved Bedouin dagger on one side and a relief of Aden on the other. I accepted this on behalf of the convoy. He told me that when I came back next year - when not if - he looked forward to entertaining me in his home. (Hope he meant Gordon too.) I said 'Inshallah' which met with great approval and responses of 'Inshallah' from the gathered crowd. We were all then ushered through the town, traffic being halted for our procession, to Victoria Park where we were filmed and photographed under a statue of the Old Lady herself. On the way back we were allowed into a locked folk museum where my 'new best friend' and I sat crossed legged in a replica Bedouin tent for more photo opportunities. Then back to the quay where we shook hands, exchanged more best wishes and the General was whisked away in an official car with outriders. I was knackered and gasping for a ciggie!
The convoy members decided I should keep the plaque for doing the talking. I call it my 'Big Mouth Prize.'
Back to reality, in the afternoon we provisioned up once more ready for departure tomorrow.
This seems like a country with a harsh regime although the individuals appear happy and extrovert. Micca and I went to the home of Jamal's (a guide) sister to have our hands henna'd. The house was perched in the volcanic hills with steep narrow paths. The lady was wearing a sleeveless flowery long dress, her hair and face uncovered and face made-up. At home she is the boss, but outside must wear the burka and full veil, only eyes showing. She smoked and seemed very relaxed in our company. The house was a work in progress, one room serving as sitting room and bedroom with very elaborate velvet hangings at the windows echoing the tents of old. Rooms were being constructed all around the house, but probably won't be finished for years. She showed us wedding photos on her mobile phone with pictures of all the gold bangles her husband had to give as dowry. Marriage is so expensive here most men are in their late 30's or even 40's before settling down. The brides are much younger and he can have up to four if he can afford it. The Colonel married at 16, being from a wealthy family, his wife was 14. They had 20 children, 8 of whom died in infancy. He was now only 42.
The local watering hole is rather unimaginatively called 'Sailor's Bar'. It is really aimed at the crew from large vessels and has an air of seediness and subterfuge. The lighting is very dim, mostly so that locals who frequent the place can hide in corners, since alcohol is not permitted. We were told that the two girls sitting quietly in the corner were prostitutes and as the night wore on they got up and danced on the spotlight dance floor. Gradually some men joined them and dropped money over their heads to land on the floor. The girls did not pick it up but continued dancing, a slow rhythmic march which seemed to be formally choreographed. The floor became quite crowded with men dressed in Afghani style waistcoats and turbans, some with curved daggers in their waistbands. They dance either with the girls or alone in a sort of tribal 'slosh'. When the music ended everyone sat down having neither touched nor spoken. All of this was made even weirder by the appearance of the girls, short shorts, brief revealing tops, high boots, all topped off by black veils hiding their hair and faces!
Suddenly the Colonel appeared beside me and he ordered a half bottle of gin which he drank very quickly. I decided it was time to go back to the boat.
Jamal, the guide, offered Gordon an AK47 plus ammunition for 600 USD and seemed surprised when he refused.
On Sunday 14th March we departed Aden at midday for Massawa in Eritrea, approximately 400nm.
Massawa - Eritrea Wednesday 17th March (day 630) to Monday 22nd March 2010
We had a couple of wee faults on the way. First the engine room fire alarm went off even though the engine wasn't on. Discovered that the jubilee clip had corroded and the automatic fire extinguisher had fallen off its bracket setting off the alarm. Phew. Also our bow light went, which was concerning since we were trying not to use the tri-colour since still minimal risk of approach by pirates.
On Monday 15th the wind got up considerably and the Red Sea did its thing. Being a long narrow stretch of water the 'long fetch' effect soon builds up to a choppy uncomfortable sea and when it came time to cross the shipping channel we turned into a beam wind and very big waves. We reefed in the sails and gunned the engine, held on and went for it. A hairy 40 minutes later, having almost lost the Hydrovane rudder, we were across. The channel was really crowded with container ships doing 20 knots so no time to hang about. Our maximum speed on the four-night trip was 9.44 knots and wind speed 40.1 knots.
We tied up against the wharf to check in then moved to anchor in the harbour. Delighted to see some well kent boats already here from the convoy, with a few more due in the next couple of days. We had a lovely dinner on board 'Stream Spirits'.
The following day Gordon organised visas, a long drawn out business involving several offices. Under Italian rule, Ethiopia and Eritrea was one country, but there was a long war to gain independence. This war was contrived by the warlords to gain land, but they are all the same people. The evidence of war remains in the form of shelled and bullet ridden buildings and an air of dilapidation. What we thought was a shelled Mosque turned out to be the remains of Haili Sillassi's palace right on the banks of the harbour. (He was of course Emperor of Ethiopia sent into exile, also Rastafarian God)
The architecture bears witness to the Italian presence with columned archways along the buildings forming shaded walks. The meeting place for sailors is Jasmine Café where Mike, the proprietor, is the self appointed fixer for yachties. He provides very 'under the table' beers. Although alcohol is not illegal here, we don't think he has a licence to serve it, but does anyway. If the police came by it all disappears 'under the tables'.
The next day (Friday 19th March) Mike organised a driver and car to take us to Asmara, the capital. In the company of Geoff and Trudy (Stream Spirits) we set off on the 3 - 4 hour journey, having planned to stay there overnight. The scenery was breathtaking as we wound our way up the mountain roads, along the way passing through villages teaming with life. The mist was very dense in some places as we went through clouds. Market places, countless donkeys, women dressed in very brightly coloured cloth (no black burkas here) and the ubiquitous camel. Everyone waved and smiled as we passed.
The terrain looked very like pictures of Afghanistan we had seen on news clips. As we climbed higher we found the hillsides to be covered in stonewall terraces in an attempt to hold any available topsoil in place. Apart from quite sparse crops of yellowed maize here and there we saw little vegetation.
As we rounded yet another hairpin bend we came across a large band of red-bottomed baboon like apes. They were very big with fearsome looking teeth and showed little fear of us. We also saw dingo like creatures and, bizarrely, cows perched on the mountain ledges pretending to be goats.
Asmara was incredibly unexpected. At a height of 2,400 metres, it sits like a small Italian town, the streets lined with pavement cafes selling real espresso and a version of cappuccino. Pizzerias and pasta restaurants abound. The buildings display ornate balconies and the avenues are wide and tree-shaded. There is a large cathedral in the centre of town with a Franciscan run school. The population are 50% Catholic, the rest Muslim, but no tension exists between the two groups. The Muezzin's call from the minarets blended beautifully with the ringing of church bells.
We had arranged an overnight stay at the Central Hotel, a somewhat dishevelled establishment but as the name suggests right in town. We met up with so many other sailors from the EM Convoy it was like walking through a home village, so arranged to meet up for pizza and what turned out to be really bad local wine, for dinner.
Next day we shopped, drank espresso and then headed back down the mountains for home. There is a charming little narrow gauge railway that runs through this tortuous landscape, often clinging to the mountainside precariously. Unfortunately it only runs on Sundays.
Our driver was excellent, but we had narrowly avoided disaster on the way up to Asmara when we met a large truck on the wrong side of the road at a hairpin bend. He braked hard and we were forced off the road into a ditch, avoiding collision by about a foot. It's much more dangerous on land than at sea!
On Sunday 21st we enjoyed a lovely evening, first on 'Stream Spirits' to celebrate Geoff's birthday, then to Jasmine Café for illicit beers, then to a fish restaurant in the village with Rod and Lou ('Skylax' - Rod is the author of the Indian Ocean, Greek Waters and Mediterranean Pilot books), Pepe and Toto, our two Italian boys from 'Pantafive' and Cyril and Hughes from 'Ratafia' (spent Christmas with them in Langkawi). We sat at a rickety table in the street and surrounded by at least 20 cats, ate delicious fried fish and flat bread, accompanied by sulphurous water. I made the mistake of washing my hands in the washing up bowl instead of the hand-washing sink, woops.
After collecting laundry we left Massawa, Eritrea on Monday 22nd March at 10.30 am. We were now headed for Suakin, Sudan (260 nm).
Suakin, Sudan Wednesday 24th March to Monday 29th March 2010
After an uneventful two-night trip we pulled into the very beautiful and protected bay beside old town of Suakin. We sailed through the most unbelievably turquoise water either of us has ever seen. It hurt to look at the colour it was so intense. We motored past the 500 year old ruins of old Suakin which show remains of some very imposing architecture all built from coral but now left to crumble.
The local agent Mohammed (surprise, surprise) came out to the boat and cleared the paperwork while munching our biscuits happily. I wish every entrance procedure was so quick and amiable. He also organises water and fuel. He charges 60 USD for the privilege, a huge amount of money in local terms.
The following day many old friends came in including 'Pantafive', 'Sonrisa' and 'Stream Spirits'. We explored the town market, a buzzing open-air extravaganza of fruits and vegetables, all grown in the mountains and transported on donkeys many miles to the desert markets for sale. Our eyes popped out of our heads at the sight of huge piles of deep red plum tomatoes, massive white onions, piled high baskets of figs and dates, alongside mounds of frankincense and pulses. The local people thronged around us demanding to have their photo taken. From experience we waited for the usual demand for money, but they just wanted to see themselves on the camera screen, shrieking with laughter at the result and striking ever more hilarious poses.
We had lunch in an open air 'restaurant' where the owner took great delight in bringing in his goat to feed it fish and Pepsi for our entertainment and saying 'take photo'. We were told this is very special since goats don't usually eat fish or drink Pepsi. I wondered how often they were given the option.
On the Saturday we caught the local bus for Port Sudan, mainly to find internet and a reported supermarket. The journey took us through open desert plains, littered with Bedouin tents, camels and goats. The bus was jammed with people and at one point, after stopping to let someone off, it refused to start again. Undaunted the younger men leapt off and began to push start it. Success and with a cheer and a round of applause we continued on our way.
Port Sudan itself was no great 'Sheiks' (sorry), but we did find internet at the Palace Hotel. After this we found the alleged supermarket which was a tiny shop with no more in it than Suakin market.
We headed back to the bus station via busy bustling avenues of shops selling everything you never wanted and returned to the boat to prepare for departure the next day. Almost everyone made the same decision to leave, based on grib file information (weather reports) showing not too strong winds, not 'on the nose'. Our next port of call is Port Ghalib, Egypt, some 436nm.
Suakin, Sudan - Port Ghalib, Egypt Monday 29th March - Monday 5th April.
We were met with fairly gentle breezes on departure and took the chance to fish. We now use a small plastic Coke bottle as a reel (rod and gear stolen in Sri Lanka) and in one hour caught and lost a spanish mackerel, then caught and landed a 4 kg blue fin tuna.
By Wednesday 31st March conditions had deteriorated, with building winds up to 27 knots on the nose, big short waves and horrible slamming, making life very difficult and tiring. Waves were constantly breaking over the bow and although the water was warm, we had had enough so decided to seek shelter.
Marsa Halaib at 22deg 14N 36deg 39E is described as 'refuge only' but showed a couple of anchorage symbols. We sighted a naval vessel moored up on the way in but passed it since experience shows that the military need space. We dropped anchor off the village as shown in the pilot book having been unable to rouse anyone on the prescribed channel. The shacks looked derelict but gradually one then three then a dozen people gathered on the beach. In usual fashion I waved cheerily and we mimed talking on the radio. Much arm waving began and we hailed them on our megaphone asking if they had radio contact. Suddenly we noticed that among the crowd were several uniformed men carrying Kalashnikovs and they were pointing them at us! Next we became aware of a small boat, with outboard, approaching and as it came along side a uniformed chap leapt aboard. He said ' Egyptian navy - get your anchor up now!' I was wittering on about men and guns and he repeated his order telling us to quickly move to the naval vessel we had sighted on entry. As we hurriedly moved off he explained that we were in a disputed area where Egypt and Sudan were fighting over border allocation and we had anchored on the Sudanese side. Once we resettled the anchor beside their vessel he said 'Welcome to Egypt.' We thought we had at least 60 miles sailing before reaching Egyptian territory. The lieutenant, as we discovered his rank to be, invited us aboard his ship for coffee and offered to help us with any provisioning or fuel we required. Lovely chap and we were very relieved when he said we could stay until the weather improved. It also transpires that his radio mike was broken so he could hear us but not speak to us, hence the silence as we entered the bay. He asked us to contact any other yachts which may enter the bay to warn them not to repeat our mistake. We radioed 'Sonrisa' who were considering coming in. We were also aware that 'Pantafive' were out there with no engine (starter failure) and we may have had to tow them in to safety since the reefs would have been lethal under sail in these conditions.
Next morning 'Sonrisa' did indeed come in and we heard that ' Pantafive' were sailing back and forth waiting for safer conditions to make repairs. (They succeeded two days later and carried on to Port Ghalib.) 'Sonrisa' and 'Equinox' spent a couple of lovely days at anchor, sharing food and company until the wind at last turned and dropped to allow us to leave.
We planned to make a run for Hurghada to make up some time, but the Red Sea did its usual thing. The wind increased once more on the nose and we decided to come into Port Ghalib after all.
The marina (our fist since Christmas!) is a huge hotel and leisure facility (21 square kilometres with its own airport) literally plonked in the desert with artificially created waterways leading to moorings where we tied up ' Med' style, stern to.
Within a couple of hours 'Stream Spirit', 'Sonrisa' and 'Skylax' all came in. 'Pantafive' was already here. This resulted in a lovely dinner at the hotel where we caught up on each other's many experiences of this difficult leg of the journey.
You cannot make long-term plans in the Red Sea. Things can change from hour to hour and the grib files (weather reports) are not reliable. I have christened them 'grib fibs'.
It's so good to have water on tap and electricity. We have been able to hose the boat down at last, to rid ourselves of the salty, sandy paste that was coating everything.
We now realise we are only one hour ahead of the UK and the trip is almost over. What a strange feeling.
We are arranging to have the boat craned out in Greece where we will take the ferry to Pescara, Italy, to see how the house there is progressing. We then intend to fly home to Edinburgh in the first week of June for some weddings and to re-start our life there. We can't really believe it.