Red Sea Storms

map ghalib to yemen
Map of Red Sea
Port Ghalib Egypt to Yemen

Sunday 20 Dec 09 (continued)

135hrs: All sails up. Motor off and sailing. Wind from port quarter about 12 knots. Course 140 deg True for the next 840 miles to our waypoint which is at the northern end of Jabal Zuqar Island in the Great Hanish Group. This group of islands is about 90 miles north of the Straits of Bab el Mandeb and the entrance to the Red Sea. The word “Bab simply means “Strait”. Our selected waypoint is an area marked on the chart as a safe anchorage against southerly winds. We should be able to use it to wait for a weather window to get through the relatively narrow entrance to the Red Sea.

Approx 1600hrs: Starter battery indicator is showing a white colour. That’s not good – should be green. Andy investigates and finds the battery charger hadn’t been turned on at Port Ghalib and the batteries have run down to just 2.7 volts. Also not good. Doubts about whether any of them can hold a charge now but will just have to wait and see. We’ll have to do more motoring than anticipated. Wind drops to around five knots so Andy starts the motor. Need to charge the batteries anyway.

2130hrs: Starter battery indicator is green again as it should be. Will have to wait and see if the batteries can hold a charge.
2200hrs: Towns fewer and further between. Still motoring. Just using the mainsail which slats back and forth in five knots or less wind from astern.
Overnight: Wind remains dead astern. Mainsail only. Problems continue with power. House battery voltage drops fairly quickly below 12 volts once on sail only forcing us to turn the motor on again to recharge. Battery amp-hour capacity doesn’t drop by that much, only between five and 10% but am concerned at the rate of voltage drop. Find by experimenting that if we hold the motor to 1400 rpm we’ll use just one litre per hour fuel.

Mon 21 Dec 09

Morning: Goosewinged sails. Beautiful day. Northerly winds pushing us along nicely.

1130hrs: Last sighting of land off to the NW while we travel down towards the middle of the Red Sea.

1430hrs: Zeberged Island, a substantial piece of land with a prominent pyramid peak is abeam to starboard. There’s another small island appropriately named Rocky Islet nearby.

1500hrs: Going through a patch with lots of whitehorses. Rocky Islet abeam. Water a bit disturbed but nothing showing on the sounder. Probably turbulence downstream of some underwater feature. A fish is caught which I think is called a striped bonito. Has red flesh similar to tuna. Roger is getting some dinner ready in a pot – some kind of goulash. Andy getting much needed sleep.

Dusk: Big orange sun sets into a low band of haze over the top of what looks like one of the larger traditional wooden fishing boats with a large poop area. It’s similar to the one seen back at the Hurghada Marina. Shows no lights as the sun sinks and disappears as it gets dark and we leave it behind. Take the headsail down.

Tues 22 Dec 09

Midnight: We’ve done about 195 miles so far. 633 miles to waypoint.

0005hrs: On watch and downstairs checking the electronic chart. There’s a loud noise outside like a big wave hitting the rear of the boat. Our heading shown on the digital chart starts to spin so I rush upstairs to find the boat is indeed spinning quickly. Steer her back on course. Have to gybe the mainsail and in the process the traveller ropes knock the compass cover off as they pass violently across the boat from one side to the other. Curse myself for not pulling the boom inboard as much as possible before the gybe. Get the boat back under control and put it back onto auto. No idea what happened there. Nothing in the immediate sea that I can see that might have hit us. Gave me a start though.

Sea flat all night. Almost no wind. A light breeze comes up and swings abeam to starboard. It’s been astern slightly off the port quarter. Quite warm and warm clothing such as jumpers not required for the first time at night.

0300hrs: Sea haze closes in. Impossible to tell sky from the water. Listen to the small sounds; regular swishing of the sea at the rear of the boat, soft clanking of a rope hitting metal on the mast or boom, the curl of the sea amidships as a wavelet veers away from the hull. A myriad of phosphorescent sparks erupt in the inky sea behind … and the constant burbling drone of the exhaust.  Continue to motor all night. The mirrored sea is as flat as a rumpled doona cover.

0900hrs: Winds southerly. Motor sailing SE with all sails up. Don’t really need southerly winds this far up the Red Sea. Seas still flat. It’s quite warm already – almost humid giving us a taste of what’s to come. Shirts off.  599 miles to waypoint plus about another 180 miles or so to Aden.

Andy calls us together in the cockpit for a discussion. He tells us that from the weather grib files that we’ll have headwinds today and tailwinds tomorrow and there are 12 knot headwinds down near the entrance to Red Sea. Some concerns are voiced about whether we’ll have enough fuel to make it to Aden. Options are to call into Port Sudan which is the last known place where we’ll be able to get more fuel, and it will be costly adding all the entry fees as well. Or we can divert to the other side of the Red Sea and try our luck at Jeddah in Yemen. Roger has done a swag of calculations on fuel usage rates and is confident we can make it directly to Aden. My point of view is to call into Port Sudan. Andy will think about it.

1130hrs: Andy is cleaning up on the stern landing platform with scrubbing brush. Takes a swim by holding onto a rail and gets back onboard. Consider doing the same but about 10 minutes later a shark circles about behind the boat. Not a particularly big one judging by his dorsal fin but big enough. No swim today.

Have been sailing close-hauled for the last hour or so on 180 deg due south, away from the usual 150 deg. We’re heading for Elba Reef where Andy wants to do a dive over the side and clean the log transducer under the boat. Temperature inside the boat is 30 degC. Sun makes it quite hot outside. IPod music on with “Dancing in the Street” coming from the ship’s speakers. Coffee or tea time. Low swells starting to come through from the SE, probably from the Strait of Bab el Mandeb around 600 miles or so away.

1300hrs: Sight a small ship wrecked on a reef where we want to go. It’s laying half on its side with it’s mast pointing rakishly at an angle to the sky. Simon and Garfunkel are singing “Homeward Bound” followed by the Dixie Chicks telling us not to waste our hearts on her. Andy sights land off to the west which I can hardly see even with binoculars, but it’s there all right – the coast of Sudan lying low on the horizon.

Right: The wreck of the Cedar Star, a Lebanese freighter ran aground on Elba Reef in 1978 with 170 Arab League Peacekeeping soldiers aboard. It took 3 days to get everybody off.

1500hrs: For the last two hours we’ve worked between the east and west Elba Reef systems.  The wreck we’d seen earlier is on the East Reef.  West Reef is marked by distinctive boulders easily seen from a couple of miles away. Numerous isolated pockets of reef everywhere forcing us to thread through them carefully with everybody on watch, as we look for a place to stop and anchor for a short while to clean the log transducer. A couple of dolphin pods swing by to check us out then disappear again. These ones have long grey bodies with a dull white mask about the eyes. Flying fish erupt from the water and skitter across the surface as we approach.
DSC_4842aLeft: Storm cell at left moving to the right. Rain beginning to fall centre photo.

Nasty looking storm cell system to the south. Clouds rise high into the sky with rain showing underneath. Stop motoring in around 13m depth and drift. Andy puts on his goggles and breather then climbs down into the water off the stern platform with kitchen scrubber in hand. Moves along the side of the boat opposite the transducer then dives under. He does this several times to get the job done before climbing back onboard.

By this time the sky has clouded over and heavy with rain clouds. Wind is picking up to around 10 to 12 knots. Put the sails up and start motoring until we can get back on course then turn the motor back off. The log is now working. We’ve got a working speed and depth instrument. Cuppa’s all round. Well done Andy!

1530hrs: Sailing at six knots in up to 14 knots northerly winds. Good! Temperature still hovering around 30 deg C. Sky is clouded over and it gets blowy with some gusts. Thunder rolls to the SW.

1630hrs: Storm cell is getting bigger and moving overhead. Heavy droplets of rain fall onboard so hatches are closed. Now hitting seven knots in up to 20 knots wind. Seas still not too bad – swells mostly.

The storm overtakes us and hits with winds up to 35 knots built up seas. Rain is pelting with logs of lightning. Pull the headsail in so that just a sliver is showing and put the first reef into the mainsail. Wind starts moaning louder and louder. All the signs are that this can only get worse. Turn the music off – can’t hear it anyway.

Andy changes direction trying to get out from under the storm but there’s nowhere to go. Put the second reef into the mainsail as lightning flashes overhead and all around.  Turn off all unnecessary power in the boat in case of lightening strike. Visibility of the horizon is so thick we’re running blind but at least we’ve got sea room to spare. Ship lights further out to the east are coming our way. Everybody puts on wet weather gear for the first time this trip. At one stage we run before the wind but not for long. Turn and start travelling down the side of the system until it blows itself around towards the east.

1800hrs: The worst seems to be behind us with things gradually settling down. Turn the motor back on, plug in the computer again and check our position with the GPS. We’re over towards the east a bit but otherwise not too far off track, about 15 miles from Elba Reef and slowly getting back on course. The wind generator as you would expect really earned its keep pumping in valuable amps so that the power draw from batteries at the height of the storm was only one or two amps.

1820hrs: Make a soup and cook dinner while the guys take the reefs out of the mainsail. 562 miles to waypoint with a northerly wind, moderate but still bumpy seas. Moon and some stars are out. Roger has reworked his calculations regarding fuel. Andy decides we’ll keep heading for our waypoint.

2100hrs: Lots of bangs up top. Rush up to find Andy and Roger already putting two reefs into the main again. Get the boat sorted using just the mainsail. Wind has sprung up to 20-25 knots behind from port quarter. Speed five and a half to six knots and sometimes more. Waves building again. Lightening flickering almost constantly from two rain systems, one directly ahead and a nasty looking one sitting broad off the port bow. Sailing with motor off.

2200hrs: Andy can’t sleep. Keyed up I expect. Give him a bowl of stew and a cup of decaf coffee and he goes back to bed.

2330hrs: Boat rocking and rolling, corkscrewing her way forward. Speed six knots still. Under motor for the last half hour to bring the battery charge back up. They’re definitely not holding a charge very well. Storm cells to the east are still there but seem to be playing with us as they move away and come back again as the hours tick by. Bloody pain, not making for a fun night at all. At least we have a line of retreat due south if the system does come back on us but for now we just seem to be keeping pace with it.

Weds 23 Dec 09

0600hrs: Mixed promises with the dawn. Sun rises into a clear sky under a low band of black cloud. The rain system that gave us the irrits last night has moved around to the north. It sits out there promising to come back at any time. There is another storm system sitting due south on the horizon. Sea is like a washing machine. Waves up to two metres or so. Wind still up to 20 knots. Mainsail with two reefs in it is still giving us around five and a half to six knots under sail. Uncomfortable corkscrewing motion of the boat.

Have a cup of tea with Roger but I’ve got an upset tummy and it doesn’t stay down long. Feel better once it comes back up again. Big freighter is moving to overtake us in the distance off to port. 478 miles to waypoint. Still heading SE with Port Sudan at 83 miles almost abeam to the SW.

1200hrs: Day has fined up with a full sun. No change to wind or seas or sailing rig. If there’s a rain system out there it’s lurking in the haze around the horizon. A couple more ships seen in the distance. A 200 litre drum floats by. It’s sitting a bit high so is probably empty or near to it. Hate to hit something like that when falling off the back of a wave.

1630hrs: A dark band of clouds masks the horizon from the west through the south to the north and it’s coming over cloudy again. Only the north-west is relatively clear.

1830hrs: Settle into night routine. Have been feeling crook in the belly all day but have some second hand stew. A ship steams up astern and overtakes us to starboard about 400 metres or so away. It’s the closest any have come to us before. Maybe they were just curious about us. Seas have eased a little bit and so has the wind. Batteries seem to be holding their volts better but that could be wishful thinking. Am no battery expert but I wonder if it’s a battery “memory” thing that’s been improving the more it’s being charged. In any case it means we’re not obliged to turn the motor on quite so often.  Half moon directly overhead. Comfortable six knots speed. Sporadic lightning in a storm cell off the port beam to the NE.

2100hrs: Half moon set. Another ship overtakes us to port.



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