23 23 N, 35 45 E
After all the sailing we’ve done, a certain level of comfort and confidence has set in. We’ve seen and done quite a bit, this next bit should pose no particular difficulties.
And so we set out two days ago, early morning on June 5. We were leaving Khor el Marob in Sudan and headed up the western side of the Red Sea, towards Egypt, the border of which was just 15 miles away. We had several alternative destinations, with none set in stone, because how far we would go would depend upon how the weather turned out. The weather and sea state are notoriously unpredictable here, and what the forecast says will be a good weather window with 10 knots of wind sometimes turns out to be something completely different, and often much worse. Even the most reliable forecast that we’ve found here, provided by Buoy Weather, underestimates the winds almost all of the time. Our rule of thumb has been to double the forecasted winds. But even applying this conservative formula, this trip looked to be OK. And this part of the Red Sea is a bit of a challenge, because there are not regular, dependable marsas at which to stop. We hoped to make it all the way to Dolphin Reef, completing a 150-mile run across aptly-named “Foul Bay.” But it all depended upon what the sea gave us.
What the sea gave us was both barrels. The winds were supposed to be a benign 10, but turned out to be a biting 25. That could be OK, but it’s the seas kill you. The shape of the Red Sea prevents waves from building up in height and stretching out in period, which is what usually happens when you have sustained big winds. Here, instead, the seas get abrupt and choppy and hard. Like this: Steep wave. 1.5 second interval. Another wave. 1.5 second interval. Wave. 1.5 second interval. Wave. 4 second interval. Start again. And the waves pack a wallop. The boat doesn’t have time to settle in the trough of one before the second one is upon it, and so the boat is suckered with a kidney punch when it is trying to deal with the punch it just got on the nose. And when it goes to protect its kidneys, here comes a knee to the stomach.
And it is to the stomach. These seas take the stuffing out of us. We like to think that we don’t get seasick any longer, but we felt it on this trip. We left at 6 a.m., and by Noon we were both motionless in the cockpit. We stared at the clock, because the forecast called for the winds to calm when the sun set. We bore on through the day with gritted teeth. But even after the sun went down, the winds continued undiminished. Paul cooked some food, noodles, but it was an absolute act of heroism to have done so. One trip down to set the water, and then back up to recover. Down again to put in the noodles, up again. And then down again to take them out.
The boat’s motion was violent. Lockers that don’t usually open burst open, with their contents spilling out into the cabin. One wouldn’t stay shut despite repeated clean-ups and closures, but we couldn’t let it be, because the door would bang with the sound like the crack of a rifle when hit with certain waves.
You must eat when you feel like this. It makes you feel better, although you wouldn’t think so when you are forcing the food down. These noodles tasted terrible, like cardboard soaked in grease. And, frighteningly, there was no “that-makes-me-feel-a-little-bit-better” kick from them. At about 9 p.m., Paul retired to bed and a fitful sleep, and Sima took watch. We switched several hours later, but neither of us was getting good rest.
It was a long night. Sima finished her morning watch in tears, with the waves pounding the boat with seemingly renewed vigor, some slamming up against the side and over and into the cockpit, soaking Sima again and again as the sun came up.
Paul came back on watch at about 9 a.m., and studied the charts and weather. The forecast called for the winds to continue for a couple of days. Our hearts sank.
Dolphin Reef, still 80 miles straight into the wind, was out of the question. We headed the boat towards “Dangerous Reef,” in the Middle of Foul Bay, about 50 miles to the west, which would require that we beat hard against the wind.
“Dangerous” Reef in “Foul” Bay. The names weren’t reassuring.
It was unclear whether we could make the 50 miles by sunset. If we couldn’t, we’d have to spend another night at sea, and we really didn’t want that. So we hunkered down with the sails reefed and hauled tight, with the engine on giving us a little added propulsion and the ability to aim a little bit closer to the wind.
At about 9:30 a.m., an alarm went off. The engine, which had been running non-stop for about 24 hours, had overheated. Paul shut it down and gave a quick look into the engine room, but with the boat moving violently, couldn’t do more than that.
We had several options at this point. We could turn downwind and retrace our steps back to our last anchorage, calming the boat’s movement and allowing us to assess the engine. But we were loathe to give up the seventy miles for which we’d paid so dearly. We could also heave to, essentially parking the boat at sea by having the sails countermand each other. But were also hesitant to do this because, sailing hard on, we’d just barely make it to the anchorage before night fell. We decided on a third option, continuing on towards the anchorage at Dangerous Reef. About two thirds of the way there, we would be in the lee of St. John’s Reef, which should give us calm seas and allow us to assess the engine. But our hearts were in our throats. We were feeling uncomfortable, to say the least. The engine was misbehaving. The seas were relentless. And the likelihood of actually making it to safe anchorage before dark looked slim.
If we ran out of time, we’d turn around and head back to sea for the night, because we didn’t want to be messing around among unknown reefs without good light. Especially without the engine. Making landfall in an unfamiliar reef is risky enough, but dodging among the coral under sail in a brisk wind could require precise tacking and jibing, rather than a mere turn of the wheel.
The seas did calm behind St. John’s Reef, but, coincidentally, so did the wind, reducing our speed, which meant that we’d definitely get to the anchorage too late to enter. Paul checked out the engine, which had no noticeable defects, and so we tried it. It did not overheat at low revs, and we began to motor-sail again at a better speed.
We turned the corner around St. John’s Reef and headed for our anchorage, six miles to the northeast. As we got closer, we searched for the low-lying Dangerous Reef with the binoculars, but could not see even as we got close. Finally, at about two miles away, we saw it — a thin ribbon of sea-level reef forming a shallow arc that faced toward us. We moved toward the reef, watching our depth. Our Red Sea Pilot told us that we’d find 30 feet in which to anchor, but we never did. The best we could find was 45 feet, about 150 feet from the reef, which was pretty deep for so close. (This is yet another time that the Red Sea Pilot has been a bit off the mark. Thirty feet away from a reef is a tenable anchorage. Fifty feet right on top of it is not.) We dropped anchor, letting out all 200 feet of chain plus another 100 feet of rope. We also dropped a stern anchor, because we could otherwise be blown onto the reef if the wind changed direction in the middle of the night. But we have just 170 feet of line on the stern anchor, and the boat had drifted back to about 100 feet of depth. So if the wind came at us hard in the night time, we might need to put a buoy on both anchors, depart, and come back and get them when the winds calmed. We hoped that wouldn’t happen.
Sunset was beautiful, and then Venus appeared, setting against the black/purple mountains on the coast of Egypt. The wind did shift during the night, coming at us from behind, but it was benign, and the stern anchor held just fine. We both slept like we hadn’t in days, and today has dawned sunny and calm. The weather calls for light winds overnight tonight, and so we’ll leave before dark and do an overnight run to Dolphin Reef.
Let’s see what the sea actually gives us.