ARAGORN ... Not all those who wander are lost (JRR Tolkien)

Passage from Cochin to The Suez Canal

This page is for all those sailors and armchair sailors. We had some interesting weather from Cochin, India to Djibouti (generally light instead of advertised NE 10-15 kts., and either very light or heavy in the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez.

Below is the email I sent to my friend and coach, Peter Willauer, with an addendum to talk about the Gulf of Suez:


Peter and Carol-

Hope all is well with you.  Trini sounded like a lot of fun, sure you had a
blast at Carnivale.

We are now in Egypt, at the N end of the Red Sea (S end of Gulf of Suez -
about 180 miles S of S entrance to Suez Canal).  The Red Sea was a piece of
work, and had to think of coach Peter several times to get up it.

The approach to the Red Sea (stop in Djibouti) from Cochin, India, was
billed to be a wonderful sail - 15 kts from the NE, beam and broad reaching
and running.  The only complication was joining with five other boats to
convoy the last third - the Gulf of Aden, so as to discourage the
opportunistic pirates.  Nothing is ever as planned.  Light airs at the start
meant we burned almost half our fuel in the first three days. (14 day
passage, 5 days of fuel seemed okay before we left.)  To make the rendezvous
with the other boats, we had to burn even more fuel.  PAROO (David and Sue
Arnold) met us at the RV site and gave us 50 gallons from their tanks, bless
their souls.  But the wind did not fill in.  Many of the other boats in our
convoy could motor all the way to Djibouti, and so we compromised that we
would motor at night (lighter airs) and sail during the day (ARAGORN was
fastest under sail, but had least fuel).  Although DOCTOR BIRD gave us
another 10 gal. fuel, we still were low, and were unlikely to be able to
make Djibouti unless/until the wind filled in.  Then one boat in our convoy
succeeded in convincing a small, coastal tanker to stop and sell us diesel
from his cargo tanks!  We had been trying, calling many ships going by, but
had almost given up on the old customs of the sea to help another vessel.
Fortunately "Captain Paul" was a small boat sailor himself, and had us come
along side in the flat calm.  Not only did we buy several hundred liters for
ourselves, but filled all the jerry jugs possible so we could provide
another convoy of the smallest boats in the rally who also were hurting for
fuel.  Leslie got a brick of ice cream from them too.  It cost us a fair
charge for the diesel, but we threw in three bottles of rum for the
crewmen's mess and a bottle of Remy for the captain, as they were so nice to
all six of us.  The next day, we rendezvoused  with the small boat convoy;
they thought it was the cavalry coming over the hill to save them.

Okay, that was too long, and we aren't even to Djibouti.  Naturally, one
hour after feeding the small boats, the wind filled in at 20+ knots from the
NE, so we had a nice run to Djibouti.  Four days later (tough days for me...
some other time), we were on our way, in a light NEer.  The wind freed us
and filled in over the next few hours, and we made it to the Straits of
Bab-el-Mendeb, at the S end of the Red Sea soon after midnight.  Staying
just W of the traffic separation scheme, we reached along nicely, but with
the wind building.  Soon we had gone from full main and jib to second reef
only.  By 0700 we decided to put in the third reef and hank on the storm
staysail (but not hoist it).  Having no wind speed (the instrument went a
leg before) we were guessing at the right sail combination.  However, we
were moving fast, but not beyond hull speed, so we thought it safe, and we
did want to move along to clear the next set of traffic lanes before dark.
After noon and  two or three "chicken tacks" (a Willauer phrase), we got
through the shipping and were ready to sail north under just staysail, but
got the idea to anchor off an island in the middle of the Red Sea, but
belonging to Yemen.  Our reason was the three helmsmen aboard were all
tired, from being up most of the night navigating and dodging ships in
addition to driving.

So we anchored, with two hooks out in a small cove off Great Hamish I at
about 1430.  Just about dark another rally boat who had left Djibouti with
us, PAROO, made the cove and anchored safely on our port side.  TAHLEQUAH
was supposed to come in about 1930, so we left all our lights on for them.
We figured one day on the hook would give us the needed rest to get
underway, even if the wind did not let up (it was notorious for blowing the
way it did).  However, TAHLEQUAH had engine problems, and then steering
problems, and could not make the anchorage, despite our coaching on the VHF.
By 2230, we had to up both our anchors and get ARAGRON underway to try to
tow TAHLEQUAH in.  By 2300, we were trying to throw a line down to them, and
after four tries finally were able to pass the tow.  However towing them to
windward in 30-40 with gusts to 50+ was a chore for our little boat
(Tahlequah is a Hans Christian, 50 ft LOA, and must displace twice what
little ARAGORN does).
We finally succeeded in tacking them toward the shore, and were making real
progress when they unrolled part of their staysail.  Unfortunately, soon
after 0200, they let their whole staysail out (!) and started to overtake us
to leeward.  We had no choice but to throw off the tow to keep from becoming
the towee - backward yet!  We returned to anchor, TAHLEQUAH saying we would
try again in the morning.

By about 0830, Dick and John off ARAGORN got aboard PAROO (50+ feet, two 84
HP engines, and weighing more than TAHLEQUAH) and went out to get TAHLEQUAH,
which had drifted about 10.5 miles to leeward and out into the full force of
wind and waves.  We got a tow line aboard on the second try, and towed her
for six hours to get up to the anchorage on Great Hamish. 


Tired, we turned
in for the night and said we would stay another day at anchor, looking
forward to a quiet day.  PAROO had some problems getting her hook to stay
down, but managed to not drag on the third try.

The next day dawned nice, and we were better rested.  PAROO had
unfortunately left her dink trailing off the stern and the dink had flipped.
David hauled the dinghy up, drained the motor and started puttering around
the anchorage (despite 40-50 knot williwaws) to meet the requirement of
running the engine for 1/2 hour to dry it out totally.  He briefly stopped
by us and then puttered down toward TAHLEQUAH when his engine quit.
Fortunately he had oars, and when TAHLEQUAH heard the pleas from Sue on
PAROO on the VHF, they threw David a line.  He got the engine running again,
and motored back home, but wiser.  With no other dinks in the water, we
could not have gotten to him in 20 minutes, by which time he would have been
blown severely to leeward.  (He almost needed the Willauer dink kit ... VHF,
space blanket, water, flares, etc.)

The PAROO stories didn't end that day.  PAROO started to drag multiple
times.  On one occasion in the early afternoon, they dragged down on our
port anchor (Fortress on short chain plus lots of nylon rode), pulling it
out easily.  They really didn't notice, and drifted down to leeward of us -
leaving us between our CQR/chain anchor, now pulling out, and the Fortress,
held on by PAROO.  They finally realized everything, but while clearing
their anchor from the Fortress, we were pulled into deeper water and were
dragging.  By the time they had cleared their hook, our two anchors were
twisted around each other, requiring some serious foredeck engineering to
get them cleared and up.  At one point the whole mess tried to run out over
the bow, but we had tied one safety line around a chain which saved us a
mess and, maybe, some fingers or toes.  So we finally got everything in
order and reanchored, but we had a tired crew again that day.  Nonetheless
we said we would leave the next day.  Other boats had reported that the wind
strength decreased significantly about 100 miles north as the funnel effect
at the straits decreased where the Red Sea widened out.   Meanwhile, we
expected 35 knots with gusts to 50, and good sized seas until we got farther
north. (OCEAN SONG reported one gust to 65 that night, but we did not expect
that.)   Although PAROO dragged again at dinner time, they did not disturb

So the next day we got off bright and early.  We used the staysail only
(unreefed) with the
main boom tied down hard.  Although I normally like the support the main
gives to the after side of the mast, we went without any mainsail, but I set
both running backstays to support the inner forestay and stop any possible
mast movement.  Willauer had suggested this rig at one time, but as I do
like some main up I never used it before.  The rig worked very well,
especially since we were so far off the wind (170 degrees AWA), and the
autopilot had no problem handling the sail. Also, an accidental jibe (like
being thrown around by a wave) would not have all the crash and burn of a
main  boom hitting a runner, etc.  Anyway, the rig worked well until we were
about 80 miles up the line, where the wind got so light we had to put up the
main, and unroll the jib.  Continuing to move well, we were out of the heavy
air by the next morning, with full main and jib.  In fact the wind died so
much that we were powering the next day.  The boats still in Great Hamish
left with 30-40 with higher gusts, much like we did.

Winds continued light, so we made a quick (four hour) stop in Port Sudan,
Sudan for fuel.  This took us a  bit out of our way, but after the Gulf of
Aden, we did not want to get low.  Boats ahead were reporting "North Red
Sea" conditions - short chop and on the nose.  Motor-sailing, they made
about 3 knots VMG, as they would get slammed to a stop by a sea soon after
picking up any sea. We were not looking forward to those conditions.

About two days later, we had 20-25 from the North (25+ across the deck), and
the short seas.  After motor-sailing for a bit, we found it more comfortable
to simply sail - 100% jib and one or two reefs in the main (extra main to
give us the punch through the waves).  Our VMG was higher than motorsailing,
and the boat did not slam so hard.  If we got off the wind too much, the
slamming started again (we have noticed this before - slamming when close
reaching, but not when beating).  But with the jib in hard, we pointed well.
Leeway was a bit higher because of the waves, but our net VMG was good.
Again glad we have a JBoat... can sail upwind in "relative comfort" while an
Oyster 55 is shaking fillings out of the owner's teeth.

Fortunately, this Norther died after about 24 hours, but back to motoring in
light airs.  Contrary to local "wisdom", we stayed on the western shore,
rather than in the middle of the Red Sea.  We did avoid playing dodgeball
with shipping that we had farther south, and if the wind did come into the
NW, we figured we would be a bit to weather.

All seemed well.  Condor had reported 20-30 out of the NW as they approached
Hurghada, but we seemed in benign light air.  By midnight, we were
predicting to be in Hurghada by 1030 to clear in and at the marina before
dark.  Of course, at 0330, the wind started coming in.  By 0430, we had a
double reefed main plus motor, wind on the nose and choppy, short seas.  We
had to hand steer to keep up any speed at all, and the slamming was
terrible.  We went back to three helmsmen, sharing duties on for four hours, off for two
hours.  We were planning alternate places for the night if the head seas
kept our speed down.  Fortunately by short tacking up the coast, we were
able to get out of some of the seas, and we made Hurghada by 1600 or so.
But it was some of the most miserable driving I have had to do in a long
time.  The Red Sea is very saline up here, and the arms of my gear were just
white.  Your hands and face are dried out by the salt caked on you.  The
locals reported the harbor had been closed up to an hour before we arrived,
due to the high winds.  We tied to the ferry dock wall, and the agent
cleared us into Egypt. The next morning, we motored in light air the 14
miles to Abu Tig Marina, where we now sit and recover.

The last 180 miles of the Red Sea is a doosie too.  We have to stay outside
the shipping channels, but more than 200 meters off them are many oil
wells... and reports of some cut off a foot below the water's surface.  We plan to pick a
weather window, if we can find it, when the wind is down, and we can motor.
(The wind will always be from the north here this time of year.)

Hope you have good sailing.!!! ... Dick

ADDENDUM - The Gulf of Suez

I is only 180 miles from El Gouna to Suez, at the S end of the canal. But the Gulf of Suez is narrow, with shipping channels for all the Suez Canal traffic, and most of Egypt's oil and gas is pumped from platforms scattered around. The wind tends to blow from the N, and the seas are even shorter and steeper than in the Red Sea. In the south, there is a significant tidal stream (1.5 -2.5 kts), meaning you get wind against (a fair) tide to stand the seas up, or just plain steep seas with tide setting you to leeward. In any case, progress is slow at best. When the wind blows over 25 kts it is punishing for the boat and crew.

We set out two days before most of the other boats, as we thought we saw a weather window ... the wind was supposed to drop to only 15 kts on the nose. We left El Gouna and took a passage inside the reefs, to stay out of the seas and higher winds. After clearing the reefs, we were suddenly in the thick of it! A windward going tide meant short, high seas, wind was 25+ across the deck, ship traffic, and tankers leaving and entering a oil terminal site just off the shipping lanes, with special warnings to boot, plus navigating around ugly reefs. We motor sailed to try to make a good angle to weather, but found out our best time was made motorsailing with a double-reefed main, no jib, but 30 degrees off the wind. What is more, we slowed considerably if the main was not sheeted all the way up to weather! It appears that the main is the prime motive force for punching through the waves, and needs to be all the way in to do so. (The engine gets us where we want to go, but without the punch of the main, could not get through the waves. The main alone could not keep speed or angle up in the troughs. Another rally boat, well sailed, noticed the same thing.)

At any rate, about 5 pm we were coming up to El Tur, one of the few good anchorages in Northers, so we took it. We did not think we had rested crew to sail all night, considering the fact that we needed at least two on deck at all times, with the steering, the lookout for oil wells and other vessels, and the navigation. A good move, as it turned out. We had made 50 miles from El Gouna.

We anchored in about 20 feet of water in El Tur, an anchorage with a large military presence, and a windsurfing and windkiting school. Because of the military, we were not allowed to go ashore, so we tried to entertain ourselves with paperwork, weather reports and maintenance, plus the occasional card game or RummyKube game. The next day, conditions appear even worse, up at least five knots over the prior day, and still dead on the nose. Early on, SAFARI (58 ft catamaran) shows up, and Ivor reports they experienced the worst part of their whole rally for the last 50 miles from Sharm-el-Sheik to El Tur.

The following morning, SAFARI takes off, and things look up a bit. Around noon, we get the anchors up and motorsail out under double-reefed main. After about an hour though, the wind is over 32 over the deck, and the steep seas make the project worse than the day we put in. Net net, we turn around and were back in two hours or so. Later, SAFARI reports that conditions were worse, and they put into shelter in a cove with marginal holding (which was too far for us to make in daylight anyway). That day, four boats (none rally boats) who had left El Gouna or points south put in to El Tur for rest too.

[SAFARI, unhappy with the holding, took off the next morning. Later she called and reported the condition eased the last 25 miles or so into Suez. This confirmed local knowledge that as you get near to the top of the Gulf of Suez, there is less fetch even with strong winds, and the wind is a bit easier that far north too.]

That night, I woke up to ... silence in the rigging. There was no wind in the anchorage. I could hardly sleep, like a kid at Christmas, and at first light we found 2 knots of wind from the SE. But the seas did not appear to have gone down, and the surf was crashing on the other side of the point protecting our anchorage. But we got up and going ASAP, and were soon motorsailing out with one reef for security. Sure enough, the surf report was right, and a mile out of the anchorage it was blowing 22 out of the north with the same short seas, and blowing 27 (true) another mile out. With gusts of 35 over the deck, we turned tail and ran home. Later we figured the wind had clocked just a bit, allowing the mountains around us to provide shelter and a lee that gave us a totally false impression of easing winds when we were inside.

Later that day, OCEAN SONG (fifty feet of steel cutter, just the boat for seas like this) came into the anchorage, having been the only boat to leave El Gouna on the schedule date. They too, had spent the day bashing to windward with traffic and hazards, and decided not to try the rest of the way at night, with navigation, shipping and steering and sail handling issues.

The next morning, it was light air again, but we knew better - the surf was still up. OCEAN SONG decided to "have a go at it" and left soon after dawn. They spent all day bashing their way 18 miles up, and then running back to El Tur when the marginal anchorage they thought might be okay actually had surf breaking across it. In additon to their anchoring again, we also had a large (80-90 foot) motor yacht hide out. Little El Tur, which rarely has one non-local boat anchored in it, suddenly had seven!

By this time we were getting low on fresh food (we had left with a one- or two-day passage in mind), so Leslie negotiated with the wind-surfing school/resort to get two chickens and some veggies sent out to the boat (we still can't get off!). We did have many hard stores, but Leslie likes us to eat fresh if we can.

Finally one week from the day we arrived, the weather forecast and the visual conditions agreed... the wind would be light, albeit from the North. By dawn most of us were ready and we took off from El Tur! The majority of the rally boats, who had been pinned down in El Gouna, also took off for Suez.

We made the best time we could, motoring in light airs. The Gulf of Suez had one last go however. About 10 pm, the wind came up to 22-25, so we had 30 across the deck again. However, the seas did not get up too fast, and the wind dropped 10 kts around midnight. Some of the other boats farther south got hit with these winds longer, so almost all boats had to pay dues to the Gulf of Suez wind and wave gods, even during the best weather for two weeks.

By 0400 the next morning, we anchored off the Suez Canal entrance in zero wind. We motored around to the Suez Canal Yacht Club at 0530 to beat the first northbound canal ship convoy.

Of course, two days later, there were strong southerlies. Good too, as NADEMIA had been trapped much farther south in Egypt than the rest of us, and made it up the Gulf of Suez in the quickest time of all the boats (she is one of the smallest boats). The southerlies lasted only two days, when stronger northerlies returned!



Sail safe folks!

Copyright 2005, Richard William York