A boy’s own adventure: Kenya to Egypt via the Red Sea (2018/19)

No, we are not time travelling. This blog completes the missing link between East Africa and Egypt, a part of the journey that was Phil’s experience while Lesley sat it out in Melbourne, spending time with family and friends and so escaping the potential scariness of pirates, and the almost certain pounding of sailing for many miles into the wind.

After the hectic social calendar of Kilifi Creek in Kenya, Phil and his crew, Mike, sailed north to Lamu to await favourable conditions for the 1,200 nm passage to Socotra, a Yemeni island just to the east of the Horn of Africa and a convenient rest stop and launching pad for the Gulf of Aden. By mid March, a weather window had emerged and they cast off, fully laden with food, fuel, water, and the all important American dollar. The initial plan was to sail east (with a little south) to the Seychelles for a brief stop and then north to Socotra, in an effort to get away from the Somali coast (an understandably high risk area), and possibly get a better wind angle. However, the wind and current thwarted that plan, forcing Paseafique to sail closer to the coast than planned for almost the entire length of Somalia, before being able to bear east for Socotra. The passage was almost all to windward, and consequently, they sailed a total of 1,663 over a two week period with 46 hours of motoring.

Phil and Mike settled into the unique rhythm of an ocean passage, establishing their watch keeping routine and maximising sail trim to get the most out of the conditions. Meanwhile, Lesley was tracking their progress (a little anxiously at first when it became obvious that they were not going to be able to get away from the Somali coast), and completing the daily report to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Organisation, the body with responsibility for monitoring vessel movement through the designated high risk zone. On board Paseafique, the conditions took some adjusting to during the first week as the boat was thumping into the waves, and there was lots of water breaking over cabin. A hatch had been left open at one point resulting in a bucket of water being dumped inside over the carpet and chart table. By the second week, Phil had hit his stride and relished the sailing, feeling like he could have kept going for weeks!

No pirates, but plenty of hitchhikers

Piracy had decreased in this area by 2012 due to a number of factors, key amongst them being the change in international maritime law to allow coalition forces to board any ship that was being hijacked, and the seizing of vessels equipped for piracy. In addition, there was an air borne assault on skiffs (fishing boats used for piracy operations) along the Somali coast, a newly proactive Somali government, and the introduction of best management practices to reduce the risk of piracy for shipping. Consequently, there were very few reported attacks between 2013-2017 and 3 attacks in 2018. These factors, along with the data that attacks and kidnapping on yachts had all but disappeared, encouraged Phil to make the decision to take this route, rather than the much longer one via South Africa. But these situations can change very rapidly, and so the on-board and shore-based crew of Paseafique were on alert. Fortunately, there were no incidents and no suspicious activities. However, a solo sailor friend (Terry), who left Kenya just after Paseafique, did get boarded off the Horn of Africa by two fishermen armed with a knife, while four of their mates waited nearby in their skiff. Terry defended himself with a strategically placed cricket bat and the would-be pirates took off. We are glad to report that Terry was not injured (although the fishermen were), but of course was given a nasty fright.

Paseafique arrived in Socotra, which is in fact a small archipelago of 4 islands, and while it belongs to Yemen, it has not been experiencing the recent turmoil of that country. It has been described as the most alien looking place on Earth and yet is one of the most bio-diverse places, having approximately 700 species of flora and fauna. Phil and Mike stayed there for 7 days which allowed them to explore the island with the required tour guide.

Contrasting landscapes on Socotra

The famous Dragon Blood trees: the red resin is used as dye, paint, cosmetic and medicine

They struck up a friendship with the crew of a fuel tanker, anchored nearby, and this led to a fascinating tour of the somewhat run-down ship, the sharing of several meals with the small but multi-cultural crew, and the generous supply of some fuel for Paseafique.

When a little ship visits a big ship: Paseafique’s tender tied up to Sea Dragon, and the crews enjoying dinner on the deck

Street and beach scenes (abandoned Russian tank), Socotra

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The agent in his office doing the port clearance for departure from Socotra

Next stop was Djibouti, located on the African continent at the juncture between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This is a former French territory that gained independence in 1977 and is now a key shipping centre. Several foreign military bases are located in the main port, providing some confidence in the security there. While in Djibouti, Phil and Mike had the chance to catch up with their pals from a few other boats that had left Kenya a couple of weeks after them, but had not stopped in Socotra.

The Gulf of Aden, and the narrow Bab al-Mandab Strait leading to the Red Sea have also been piracy hot spots, but again Paseafique was fortunate in having a trouble-free passage through these waters. After weathering the upwind conditions on the long passage from Kenya, Phil and Mike were rewarded with fabulous downwind conditions, often doing over 10 knots, on their next passage to Eritrea, a former Italian territory. After WW2, Eritrea became part of Ethiopia, against the wishes of the Eritreans and this set the scene a struggle for independence characterised by armed conflict which really decimated the country. Paseafique was moored in Massawa. Despite the history of recent conflict, the people were kind and friendly, and Phil felt quite safe there but dismayed at the devastation and poverty.

 

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One of the many formerly magnificent, but now ruined, public buildings in Massawa

Intact housing in Massawa amid the glaring legacy of the war

Continuing on the northward route brought Phil and Mike to Port Suakin in Sudan. They had to deal with probably our worst incident at sea to date, when for some reason the alternator overcharged the engine battery which subsequently exploded its top. Fortunately, there was no acid leak and there was sufficient solar power to keep the lithium house batteries charged. They were not optimistic about the chances of obtaining a new engine battery in Port Suakin, but Mohammad, the agent, was able to secure one at a relatively reasonable price.

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The damaged battery – it could have been a lot worse if the acid had leaked out

Sudan is yet another north African country devasted by a civil war which ended with independence for South Sudan in 2011. Sudan’s long serving ruler was overthrown by the military in April 2019, just prior to Paseafique’s arrival. However, Mohammad assured us that Port Suakin was safe and free from the unrest occurring in the capital. Again very friendly and honest people, despite their history and circumstances.

 

Port Sudan: another example of daily life continuing amid the ruins of war

 

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An anchorage off the Sudanese coast

Exploring with friends Ian and Melian from Indian Summer

As the planned rendezvous with Lesley in Egypt was in 9 days, it was time for Paseafique to get moving again. Having completed the crewing arrangement, Mike joined his friends Ian and Melian on board Indian Summer in Sudan, and Phil set off solo for Port Ghalib, 400nm north. By now, Paseafique was well past the area where the Red Sea wind changes from southerly to northerly, and encountered a few storms which required some patience to wait while they passed.

Not all smooth sailing – note the accumulation of the Red Sea sand on the normally white VHF antenna

Phil loved the challenge of this passage, most of which he did in day hops with a little night sail, and anchoring in between reefs with great snorkelling and diving. It was a special time to savour the experience for which he had yearned for so many years.

Anchored in between two reefs off the Sudanese coast

 

 

4 thoughts on “A boy’s own adventure: Kenya to Egypt via the Red Sea (2018/19)

  1. Beautiful write up Lesley. What an incredible voyage, I would have been a wreck if I was either you or Phil. The devastation of civil war looks hard to witness but there was beauty there too especially in the smiles of the people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember cheering you on (via Facebook posts) when Phil and Mike were underway. But somehow, reading it here now makes it seem much scarier now than it seemed then. I guess I missed the part of needing to sail closer to the coasts than planned ‘the entire length of Somalia.’ I would have definitely been freaking out right there alongside Lesley. Great that you had the UK MTO monitoring the situation and that you only had hitchhikers aboard. I’d heard about Terry’s heroics and am glad that only the fishermen were injured. Still, I wish we’d made the trip just to behold those beautiful Dragon Blood trees. The desolation in Massawa and Port Sudan is heartbreaking, and the world is only one a few steps away from that, in my opinion. Great to see Ian and Melian’s smiling faces with Phil here.

    Liked by 1 person

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