Well as you can see we have made it safely through “Pirate Alley”. The yacht from Dubai arrived a little later than expected but that is cruising. When it came to departure there were only the two of us. That was Sunday 20th February. There was another boat in Salalah which was to come with us but decided to wait for friends to arrive who were still making the passage across the Indian Ocean. Also a couple of other boats had bypassed Salalah in a convoy they had joined in the Maldives and went straight on to AL Mukalla in Yemen. We heard about the American boat that was taken by the pirates as it was crossing the Indian Ocean, so we had several meetings with Wendy -the captain from the boat from Dubai ‘Selinaris’, and her crew, to plan our tactics on the next leg which was to Al Mukalla. There is a shipping corridor approximately 60nm off Salalah and runs down the coast of Yemen which is patrolled by the coalition warships, and here the ships form convoys to make safe passage to Bab el Mandeb – the entrance to the Red Sea. Being a yacht with a cruising speed between 5-6ks we are too slow to join the shipping convoy as a minimum of 12kts or more has to be maintained. However yachts are welcome to parallel the shipping corridor if they so choose. We decided to take the coastal route between 10 -20nm off the coast which is more direct, as we thought it would be more of a liability to be closer to the warships in the event of being captured by the pirates – which by the time we reached Al Mukalla we heard the sad news that the American yacht crew had been killed. Also the Yemen Coast Guard seem to have their pirate problem from the past pretty much under control. We employed the tactic of “stealth” as Alec puts it. During the daylight hours if we had the wind we sailed, or motored sailed and kept our speed up. At night we had no sails and no navigation lights. We became Seagull 1 and Seagull 2 as our call signs to each other, and never used Channel 16 for radio work. Every day we changed our ship to ship channel and we had predetermined waypoints which were numbered. Over the radio we never mentioned our departure point or destination. The first couple of nights which took us into Al Mukalla some 300nm down the coast were not too bad as we had a fading moon, but after that it was very dark. Even though we were only a very short distance apart we lost sight of each other at times and would put the radar on to check the others position. Seagull 1 which was ‘Selinaris’ decided to follow us and sat off our Port stern a few hundred yards away. We kept in tight formation. These are the sort of tactics most of the convoys have been taking as they cross the Indian Ocean and come down The Gulf of Aden. During the first night we heard one of the larger ships put out a mayday call reporting two small skiffs off his Port bow which thank goodness turned out to be a false alarm. His position was 60nm off Aden so it was well clear of us. We monitored Channel 16 all the time, and from time to time a Coalition Warship would put out a general call to all shipping in the area saying ‘please report any piracy or anything suspicious on Ch.16.’
It took us two days and two nights to reach Al Mukalla, and once inside the Port we found nine other yachts including a couple who were going to join our convoy, had arrived directly from the Maldives. We had to moor in the Port for our own safety and we were told we could go ashore but only till midday as there had been a little unrest a couple of evenings earlier. We only needed diesel here so that was no problem as the agent took our jerry cans to fill. We did have the funny case of ‘Selinaris’ needing the agent to do some food shopping for them as they decided to stay on board. 12 eggs turned into 12 dozen, 6 oranges turned into 6kgs, 12 apples turned into 12 kgs, bananas arrived by the box etc. The agent was very good and said he would take the surplus back. We have since heard he went around the other yachts giving the food away.
Al Mukalla was an interesting place with mini-skyscrapers perched beneath the limestone cliffs and running up into the wadies making it a very photogenic backdrop to the harbour. The people were friendly but like a few places in the Middle East at the moment it has a few who are unsatisfied with government and conditions as they stand at the present time. Here in Al Mukalla Alec also had to do a dive and remove some fishing net and rope from one of the props which we had picked up somewhere along that last leg. Thank goodness the waters were reasonably clean.
We spoke to a Canadian couple who were in town in the morning and the agent called their driver to say return to the Port now as gunshots had been heard. That could have been anything as the locals fire their guns off for everything from a wedding to a funeral and everything in between. The nine yacht convoy invited us to join them for the run to Bab el Mandeb, but after a quick meeting we decided to carry on, on our inshore route. They were heading out to parallel the shipping lane and were also bypassing Aden which we wanted to call into. Also their convoy speed was only 4.5kts and we were doing between 5 – 6 kts. We spent two nights in Al Mukalla .
Our run to Aden took us again two days and two nights for the 310nm trip. During the first night we heard a small ship, which had also taken the coastal route, call up on channel 16 saying it had two unidentified targets out on its starboard side. It was heading north, so that meant it was us as nothing else was showing up on our radar. Even though we were sitting a good two miles away we made a pronounced turn away from it so it could tell we were no threat!! As Alec said some of these ship now carry armed personal on them these days. As we approached the Port of Aden I made a radio call to Port Control asking if it was safe to enter the harbour. We had been listening to the BBC on our HF radio and unrest had been reported in Aden. The Controller came back saying “yes, yes, yes come in SHAMAL. You are welcome welcome”. Kerry, a Welshman and one of the crew on ‘Selinaris’ had been working in Aden in 1962 and was also keen to revisit. His daughter had been born there and we actually found the Hospital. Kerry was very disappointed at how he found Aden. It has really gone downhill since his time there. We found the place very dirty with lots of rubbish lying around, particularly on the beaches, but the people were very warm and welcoming. You could see the influence of colonial architecture which like so many places we have now visited has not been maintained and now looks quite sad and derelict. The agent drove us around the so called sites of Aden and took us to the supermarket for more supplies. Not that we needed much, only some fresh supplies as we are still well stocked up. We ate out at a local restaurant by the Port. During dinner a very small group of demonstrators marched passed and the waiter told us to stay inside till they had passed by.
Again we spent two nights here before sailing the final leg of the Gulf of Aden to the entrance to the Red Sea. The straits of Bab el Mandeb, Alec calls them the straits of Ali Barber!! a name he has taken from the Arabian Nights tales. I will say that the sky’s at night are just like it is described in the stories – studded with a million diamond shining stars, and the seas sparking with the diamond like phosphorescence. The temperature at this time of the year are in the late 20’s to mid 30’s – just beautiful, but it has become more humid since arriving in the Red Sea.
Since leaving Salalah and coming into the Red Sea we have had dolphins with us most days and sometimes quite a few of them will swim along with us for up to an hour. When they come along side at night all you see is the outline of them sparkling with the phosphorescence. The fishing had been good but barracouta are by far the most common that I have been catching. A couple of days out from Massawa I landed a big fat one just under a meter in length as was removing the lure to let the fish go when it thrashed about resulting in one end of the lure in my leg with the bard on the hook out of sight, and the other end still attached to the thrashing beast!! First I had to get Alec to remove the hook from the fish which involved some oral surgery on the fishes part. Not funny at the time but I stayed nice and calm and asked Alec to radio Wendy - who was a nurse - and ask her the best way to remove it. He went off to the loo first!! After taking our sails down eventually Alec manoeuvred ‘Shamal’ up along side ‘Selinaris’ and Wendy came aboard. My First Aid box came into its own as she found the scalpel and blades and ended up cutting the hook out. Only a surface wound and it is all healed up now.
We arrived into Massawa – our check in and out of Port for Eritrea – on the afternoon of Thursday 3rd March. We had made it and what a wonderful feeling it was. This is an ancient Port, and when Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia one of the oldest links in maritime trade was severed as Ethiopia is now land locked. The old name for the country was the Kingdom of Aksum. It is truly a charming place to wander around and with the Italian influence – as they occupied the place from 1890-1941 - seen in the architecture it looks quite out of place here in Africa. The people are just lovely and so friendly. The thing that really stood out was despite the poverty the place is really clean and tidy. The sad thing about Massawa is that in the countries fight for independence the town suffered badly from war damage and many of the once fine buildings that are still standing, stand testimony to this. We got visas on arrival so we could do a trip up to the capital Asmara for a night. It is situated 8,0000ft up in the highlands. The temperature was just perfect. The bus trip was all of US$2.00 each way and took about four hours. The country side is very barren apart from a small area we passed through where the staple crop corn is grown. It was quite strange because also at this altitude there was low cloud and a misty rain. Then a little higher up it was quite clear again and the mountains are covered in the prickly pear cactus plant. Asmara seems to have a slightly higher standard of living than that in Massawa. The Italian street café style of restaurants are prolific with lovely umbrellas tables and chairs on the pavements. You get wonderful coffee and pastries to go with it. Also pizza and spaghetti restaurants are everywhere. We were surprised to find wine and spirits freely available in every supermarket, but the country is half Coptic Christian and half Muslim hence the reason one could buy it. Another thing that looked out of place was to see cyclists, but we have learnt that it is a very popular sport in Eritrea along with football. The tour of Eritrea was created by the Italians in 1946. We went to visit the old Roman Catholic cathedral and climbed the 100mt bell tower to get a good look over the city. The old guy who showed us around pointed out a church from every domination imaginable. This was a place which was well worth the visit.
We did that trip with the crew from ‘Selinaris’. Sadly one of them had to leave the boat here as her Mum passed away, but they came across another young man who was looking for a ride back up to Egypt so have taken him on board. It was here in Massawa we said good-bye to Wendy and her crew as they needed to move north more quickly than we do. We will head out and explore some of the Islands and coral reefs as we head north.
So as we sign off for this letter we have just started the next leg of the trip which will take us up to the Sudan.