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Sailing Leander
Sailing Leander
Who: Sima Baran & Paul Robertson
Port: Boston
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Sataya (Dolphin) Reef, Red Sea, off the coast of Egypt
06/08/2010, Sataya (Dolphin) Reef, Red Sea, off the coast of Egypt

9:00 p.m. (18:00 UTC) Tuesday, 8 June 2010 24 10 N, 35 40 E

Now that's more like it.

We had a comfortable overnight motor sail, 70 miles north from Dangerous Reef to Dolphin Reef. The winds were supposed to be moderate and, shockingly, they were.

Dolphins are supposed to play here regularly, but they haven't shown up yet. Some did join us for a bit last night, playing around at the bow during our passage. We could see them coming from a distance, leaping out of the water as they swam. It's almost as if they are saying, "Hey, look, a boat to play with! Follow me!" "No, me first!" "Yippee!" If dolphins could talk.

We're anchored comfortably inside the reef, which is about ten miles off the Egyptian coast. We can see it dusty and mountainy off to the side

We went for a snorkel earlier today and it was one of the best of the trip. The coral mushrooms up from a depth of about thirty feet, and it is filled with all sorts of branches and colors and globular things. The fish treat it like a hotel. We jumped overboard, and swam about five minutes to the closest one. As you circle it, some new colored fish, of a shape or a color that you don't remember ever seeing before, greets you. Sometime in pairs, and sometimes by the dozens. Some were striped like a referee. Some, no kidding, were like fat fuzzy potatoes, and grumpily wiggled as they swam. A favorite, chocolate brown on one end and vanilla on the others, with a clear line of demarcation between the two, like those half-and-half cookies you can get in the North End. Some with long noses. Another pair that were much much too yellow. And then on to the next corner!

They coral heads are about a foot and half from the surface, so if you swim carefully you can fly over them, looking down into nooks and crannies and caves as you go.

We'll stay here for a couple of days. Maybe the dolphins will come.

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Dangerous Reef, Foul Bay, Egypt
06/07/2010, Dangerous Reef, Foul Bay, Egypt

10:00 a.m. (07:00 UTC) Sunday, 7 June 2010 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.

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06/08/2010 | Liam Brady(the other Billy)
Exhausting even to read... may the next post tell of a less difficult passage!
06/12/2010 | Jerry and Sandra Caron
Just found out about your blog from Bob Dalferro.
Looks like you are enjoying yourselves.

Friends of Lynn and Nahant Beach going strong and misses you all.

Thank for your blog and and photos.
Khor el Morob, Sudan
06/02/2010, Khor el Morob, Sudan

10:30 p.m.. (19:30 UTC) Tuesday, 1 June 2010 21 49 N, 36 51 E Khor el Marob, Sudan

There is a weather window now, and today we could have bombed 150 miles north to Sataya Reef, leaving this afternoon and arriving in about two days. The winds would have been light for the first 30 hours, and then a bit stiffer the rest. Light winds are all we want here, because they are always from the north, which is where we are going.

But we decided to stay. Sudan is, in some ways, the last of its kind on our trip. The last of the Third World, out of the way, not-so-much commercialism places we'll be in during our circumnavigation. Sure parts of Egypt will be a bit like that, but not quite like this. And after that, it'll be places like Israel and Greece and Turkey and Italy, etc. And then home, albeit not right away. Those will all be places to see, don't get us wrong, and they are hardly London or New York, but they do have McDonalds and such, and leaving here does feel like we're going through another door, coming back into the Western World. So we're melancholic about leaving, and not in a hurry to do so.

It feels like we've been sailing under pressure for a long while, making sure we make weather windows before they close. So we want to make sure that we see these places, and not regret later rushing through the Red Sea. Not too slowly, though, as July can get hot here.

We went for a swim and a walk today. The snorkeling was good, and unlike some of the coral reefs that we've seen further south in the Red Sea, this one is still alive. Then we went for a walk around our arm of Khor el Marob. (What the heck are these "khor" and "marsa" things by the way? Along the Sudanese coast, and in fact along most of the Red Sea, the desert reaches all the way to the edge of the water. Typically, there is then a reef that extends outward, sometimes a few feet and sometimes a kilometer or two. At intervals, one finds indentations in the land that offer varying amounts of protection from the wind and sea. Our reference materials say that a "marsa" is a "natural" bay, sometimes protected by a headland or reef jutting out into the sea. The term connotes a more open waterway. A "sharm," on the other hand, is supposed to be a narrow, deep, and typically winding indention, often pushing several kilometers inland. Both a marsa and a sharm are more correctly called a "khor," in turn, if the indentation in the land is an extension of a valley and associated estuary coming from the hills. The charts and the guide books, however, seem to use these terms interchangeably and confusingly, and many places are called "marsas" that, according to these definitions, should be called sharms and khors. Thus, our Navionics electronic chart calls this place "Marsa Mar'Ob," our British Admiralty Chart calls it "Khor el Mar'ob," and our piot drops the apostrophe, calling it "Khor el Marob.")

Whichever you choose, they are fun places to enter and anchor in, once you've gotten over the first-time fright of trying to get in to one. From the sea, the entrances are hard to make out, and often all you can see is the low desert plain leading up to the water, sometimes ending abruptly in a low wall at the water's edge, and other times sloping down more gradually to a beach. In either case, a reef then typically slinks away from the shore, sliding under the water and out to meet your boat.

We can typically start to make out an opening about a mile away. When we get within half a mile, Sima leaves the cockpit, moves to the mast, steps into the bosun's chair like a pair of shorts, takes the main halyard from the mast, and fastens it to the front of the chair. Loaded with a pair of binoculars, the hand-held VHF, a bottle of water, and polarized sunglasses, up the mast she goes! Paul cranks the main sheet winch until she's up to the spreaders. The difference in height from the deck enables us to see more clearly the twists of the khors and the associated reefs. She doesn't like the first part of it, before we enter the khor and when we're still in the surf, as any swaying on deck is magnified considerably as you go up the mast. ("Ouch. Quit it. Ouch. Quit it." Etc.)

For Khor el Marob, the entrance was relatively easy to pick up, and we eased in. As we entered, it narrowed, and then a branch led off to port. That branch looked narrower still.

The better anchorage was supposed to be down the main arm, which started straight ahead and then twisted and turned in the dunes to an end about three kilometers away. According to the pilot guide, we were supposed to hunt for a spot near the center of the channel where the water shallowed to 15 feet. We looked and looked, but could find nothing less than about 60 feet, unless we got uncomfortably close to the reefs on each side. We did circles and zigzags and looked some more, the two of us sharing observations, Sima aloft and Paul at the ship's radio at the helm.

(We did pause to snap some photos of a fisherman and what looked like his sons, fishing with a net on a bank. The net set, they ran back and forth in the shallow water, trying to scare the fish into the net. As we fished around for an anchorage, they paid us no attention whatsoever.

We couldn't find a good spot. The sun was getting lower, which, because of its glare, was making it increasingly harder for Sima to pick out reefs and isolated coral heads, which can sometimes be located where you don't like them to be.

We decided to try the narrower arm we'd seen just inside the entrance, though our Red Sea Pilot Guide gave little information about it. (The pilot guide is quite good in many ways, but would be improved if the authors more willingly noted when they did not have first-hand knowledge about a place. Instead, it sometimes uses laconic language that suggests that they know about a place, when maybe they really don't. As to this side alley, it suggests that "one could try Khor Tibut [our narrow arm], but the channel is narrow and the swinging room is limited.")

We proceeded down, and the channel did in fact narrow, but continued to be too deep to anchor. We were moving westish, so Sima was having a particularly difficult time seeing on one side. We slowed down to a crawl, nosing along at less than two knots. It was too narrow, and Paul began to turn the boat around, giving up, as the pilot guide's sketches intimated that this was the end of the road, and that there was a shallow underwater reef immediately ahead all the way to the end of the arm, still a kilometer or so distant.

"You turning back?" Sima asked on the radio?

"You can't see, can you?" asked Paul. "Maybe try a little bit further," Sima suggested. "Go slow." So we continued on, into no-mans land, or, according to our guide, onto a reef.

But the water beneath us didn't narrow and end precipitously in a reef, but instead opened up more generously with a sand bottom, and also shallowed. It was just 25 feet deep in the middle, a good depth in which to anchor. Paul marked the spot on the chartplotter, and then began to do slow, increasingly growing circles around the spot to ensure that there was good depth if the boat swung. There was.

Paul eased off the throttle, and hustled forward to let Sima down from the spreaders, where she performed her typical glad-I'm-down-from-there ritual: her feet hit the deck, she quickly stepped out of the bosun's chair, fell to her knees, and bent to kiss the deck, happy to be back on solid ground. Well, you know what we mean.

We dropped anchor at 21 49 389 N, 036 51 996 E. This seems to be a perfect anchorage, and much better than the pilot suggested. And although not marked on any chart that we have, maybe we're in Khor Tibut, and not Khor el Marob. There's been no one to ask.

Now, here for our second day, and with no wind, we can see far in the distance, to big mountains inland. The colors are surreal -- different shades of yellows and purples and browns. The mountains in the distance give way to smaller foothills as they get closer, those giving way to rolling plains, dry and scrub-brushy, before they reach us, the colors becoming more distinct as they approach.

As we swam today, a group (herd? flock? murder?!) of camels appeared trooping slowly across a distant dune, dark-brown silhouetted against a pale sky.

Then we saw a family that had come to picnic under a small overhang in a dune. So we approached. We met Bahshir and his wife, three kids, and mother-in-law. (Mother-in-law? Maybe. We don't know the word for that in Arabic, so we're not so sure.) The two women were veiled, in keeping with their Muslim religion, but also each bore three, dark blue vertical stripes tattooed on each of their cheeks, in keeping, we take it, with their African tribal traditions. (We've seen such facial markings before. In Suakin, some of the men similarly had three vertical stripes on each cheek, with three more going horizontally across their foreheads. Those marks are not tattooed into the skin, however, but are cut in deeply with knives when the men were boys of ten. By the looks of the scars, we could tell that the cuts were deep when made.)

We gave Bashir's children gifts of candy, a t-shirt, and some old address labels with American flags. (The latter had been sent to Paul's pop by an American veteran's group. Dad, if you get some mail from Sudan, you'll understand. The family was not literate, however, so you should be OK.) All the gifts were a big hit. The kids started peeling the stickers off and putting them on everything in sight, including sandals, picnic dishes, and body parts.

With hand gestures and our ten words of Arabic, we told them that we sought to go to a nearby town, Fuwaken, to get some vegetables. Tomorrow, Bashir will take us.

At the end of the day, two men appeared on a nearby dune. They whistled and called toward the boat. One wore a sweat suit and the other NBA-style baggy shorts, which is, somewhat confusingly, typical dress for the military around here. We ignored them, though, because the sun was fading and because we weren't really sure of their identity, and the distance was a bit too far to communicate meaningfully. We haven't been using the dinghy, but instead swimming when we go to shore, and we didn't feel like going back in the water either. Eventually, they turned and started to walk away. Then they broke into a run. Runners?! Runners can be trusted! thought Paul. He yelled to them. They stopped, turned, looked at the boat, and then turned away again, and went back to their jog. Paul watched them for five minutes until they disappeared over a dune, into the scrub brush.

Now it is late night, and it is so quiet that the only noise that can heard are fish jumping. (Sounds romantic, but it's actually dinner time, and some are no doubt making their final splosh.) The water is still enough to make out the constellation Scorpio in the water's reflection. Paul falls asleep on deck, watching shooting stars, and Sima on the couch, curled up comfortably.


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