Police Incident at Hanish

map hanish islands
map showing anchorage site at the Hanish Island group in the Red Sea

Hanish Island Group

The Hanish Islands consists of a group of some desolate, old volcanic islands about 90 miles north of the entrance to the Red Sea. In 1995 Eritrea invaded them and after an exchange of hostilities, Yemen reclaimed them. Ongoing contentious issue continue between the two countries. No doubt explains the presence of military camps on at least two of the bigger islands. Our anchorage is in a bay at the northern end of Jabal Zuqar Island, the northernmost of the group.
Right: About 1630 hrs on final approach to an anchorage off Jabal Zuqar Is in the Hanish Group, southern Red Sea, Yemen.

Approx 1800 hrs. About an hour after getting the anchor down, three fishermen including a teenager and two men in their early 20s come alongside in a rather long wooden boat about 32 feet by six feet wide. Paintwork is reasonably good. Doesn’t have all that much freeboard in the middle, perhaps two feet. Sturdy looking little vessel. Has a large stainless steel T-piece fibreglassed into the bow which gives us some concern as it bobs up and down menacing Jenzmincs hull.

They indicate they want a bandage. One of the men has a small wound on the calf muscle of his right leg. Andy gives him a bandage. Roger gives him some plaster strips. The injured bloke looks at the plaster strips as if he’s never seen them before. Roger demonstrates to use the plaster strip then use the bandage. Everybody happy with this arrangement except our injured bloke who still looks uncertain. Away they go.

Sundowners in the cockpit. Andy and Roger indulge in a well deserved beer and we’re all truly thankful as we listen to the wind howling and not being out there in it. As usual darkness falls suddenly. The wind generator toils away pumping power into the batteries, at about five amps when last I looked but it’s working harder than that now. It really gets up a moan and tends to make the wind sound worse than it really is. Andy gets contact with Abu Tig on SailMail and manages to get out a request for grib files for a weather update. Did I say it was bloody howling out there?

2100 hrs: Everybody getting ready for bed. There are voices outside so Andy climbs outside in his long pj’s. To his consternation he sees one of the fishing boats like the one earlier coming alongside with two men obviously getting ready to climb aboard.

He calls out in his best Captain’s voice, “What are you blokes about?”

A series of jabbering in Arabic.  We then see the military berets and camouflage uniforms but most of all we see the short automatic rifle slung over the shoulder of one of the men.   There are several other people in the boat. Perhaps four fishermen and another two military men in addition to the two who are now standing on our starboard deck. We indicate that their boat should stand away so they tie off to a cleat and hang off the stern.

yemen rifles

Left: Rifles similar to that carried by the Police except the magazine and metal shoulder frame are missing, which means it’s meant to be used in close quarters.

They indicate that’s okay. We just don’t want too many onboard at the same time. The two men who climb aboard are Yemini military of average height. Both are quite polite and look more Indian than Arab to me, especially the younger one who is clean shaven and quite skinny. We learn he is a Lieutenant and doesn’t speak English; though I begin to suspect otherwise the longer they stay onboard.

The second man is the interpreter, medium build tending slightly to chubbiness with at least a few days growth of beard. He knows just enough English to make us understand and appears to be better at comprehending than speak it. This is the fellow with the gun. I wonder if it’s loaded and decide it probably would be, although you wouldn’t think so by the way in which it is being so casually handled.

The Lieutenant wants to see our passports. We fetch these and he studies each one intently, giving each of us a flash on the face with his little green LED torch a couple of times before handing them back. The interpreter asks for the ships number. Andy gives him a photocopy of the ships registration but he only wants a piece of paper with the number on it. He accepts the photocopy after Andy explains what the paper is and points out the number on it. Okay.

The Lieutenant now wants to know why we are here. It takes a while but we manage to convey that we are on our way to Aden from Hurghada in Egypt, but that the wind is too strong for our boat. This causes some confusion and it takes a while before the point is made. They’re obviously not sailors and the difficulties of trying to move a sailing boat into a strong blowing wind, even by using a motor is probably not understood. In any event it finally appears to be accepted.

“When will you leave?” We explain about waiting for a break in the weather and that it might take a day or two before we can go. Maybe we didn’t get the point across after all. Several more attempts to explain about the wind. Finally this is accepted but it’s clear that the sooner we go the happier they’ll be.

The interpreter now asks, “Do you need anything?”
This is a welcome surprise and since they asked, Andy tells them we’re getting short on fuel.

“How much do you need?”

Andy points out the empty jerry containers lashed to the rails, “40 or 60 litres”.

“Ugh”, grunts our man by way of agreement then after a quick exchange with the Lieutenant, “Five o’clock tomorrow.”

We indicate our wholehearted agreement.

“Money,” a demand not a statement.

Roger gives his USD $10. The interpreter shakes his hand for more. Roger gives him another USD $20. That is obviously enough.  The Lieutenant issues a series of long instructions to the men in the boat. Lots of talking back and forth. I catch the word “Captain”. He’s probably sending them away to get permission to issue the fuel. The fishing boat lets go its line and takes off into the darkness leaving our two new mates onboard, with their gun being passed often and carelessly between the two as they move about.

The Lieutenant is showing every indication of being quite smart and I wonder again about his ability to comprehend English. As we wait he unobtrusively checks around the boat and downstairs, the little green torch flashing here and there, before returning to sit in the cockpit side by side with his offsider. Offer them a can of coca-cola but they each decline. Perhaps the four empty cans of beer sitting on the table in the cockpit made them think it was beer. They accept a smoke from Andy though the Lieutenant obviously doesn’t like menthol and soon throws it overboard.

At one point I try to initiate some conversation and mention that I am a policeman in Australia. The Lieutenant immediately pricks his ears and looks intently at me. Motions me downstairs and ushers me quietly into my cabin as if we’re on some sort of secret business. Start to wonder what on earth he is about. Holds his hand out for my Police badge and I pass the little leather bound wallet to him. Takes out my identity card and examines it carefully front and back. Hands it back and makes a curious gesture involving (I think) touching his chest and the top of his beret, bending his head down to do so. I’d seen him do that earlier but hadn’t taken much notice. I don’t know what it means but it looks polite so I smile and bow slightly toward him in response. He smiles back, bends his head in a polite manner and shows me back outside into the saloon.

Moving over to the companionway he speaks to his offsider outside. The word “Police” is mentioned several times, along with the green torch getting flashed on my face. The interpreter responds with an occasional “ugh”. We go back upstairs, but not before the interior of the boat gets another last sweep of the green light. All the official business now looks to be over and we sit in the cockpit waiting for their boat to return. Now and then everybody gets the green light treatment from the Lieutenant along with everything else; sails, jerry cans, instruments, bimini canvas and boom.
Pregnant pauses.
Our Lieutenant suddenly says something rather urgently.
“Guns?” asks the interpreter.
Our Lieutenant must have been thinking about me being a policeman. Policemen carry guns don’t they?  The muzzle of the rifle lifts up slightly but points away which is a relief since it’s been passing over and around us numerous times already as the thing is waved around.
“No”, chorus three Caucasian voices accompanied by a simultaneous waving of hands in the negative manner.
We stare at each other and everything else for a while in periods of heavy silence. The Lieutenant must have been thinking again and says something to his mate carrying the gun. The uncocking of the weapon in the cockpit is sudden, startling and shockingly loud. The interpreter casually slings it back over his shoulder.  Andy says he saw a bullet going back into the magazine and thinks it might have been about the standard NATO 7.62mm calibre, though can’t be sure. What we do know for sure is that the rifle had been in the loaded condition, only requiring the flick of the safety lever to fire it. Serious business indeed, especially when you don’t know how well the weapon has been maintained, or how worn is the safety catch which is all that stands between you, poor weapon handling practices and oblivion.
Our lieutenant suddenly jumps up and begins waving his little green light towards the shore. Give him our dolphin torch the better for him to attract the attention of his ride back, and the sooner we can get back to bed. Waiting. More torch waving. Waiting.
2200 hrs: Eventually the boat returns. Long exchanges of talking. The interpreter throws our jerry containers into it and the boat pulls away. More urgent jabbering, I suppose because our two blokes are still on Jenzminc. The boat comes back, our two visitors climb aboard and it starts to slide away.
Final words from the interpreter, “Five o’clock”.
Off they go with friendly waves all round. Now that visiting time is over, boil up the kettle. Cuppa’s all round. Andy sets an anchor alarm at 250 metres on a GPS at the nav station. Go to bed.

Mon 28 Dec 09

0130 hrs: Roger gets up during the night as is his sometimes habit. Andy doesn’t like the sound of the grumbling anchor chain, the noise rumbling through the hull up forward. He gets up to check it out. Decides it’s just the chain moving across patches of rock on the sea bed.

0630 hrs: Boys still asleep. Wind still strong. Cloudless sky. Need to make a long watery contribution into the sea at the back of the boat, probably because of late night coffee. Go back to bed.

1130 hrs: No change. Andy reports he can get contact with SailMail through Abu Tig, so at least we can send and receive short email messages though they have to be text only, kept short and no pictures. Andy receives his grib files and the news isn’t too good. Looks like we’ll be here for at least the next couple of days for a break in the weather.

Look around the anchorage. We’re in a wide bay about a mile from the shore. Old volcanic activity on the island is visible quite clearly. Three large hilly cones form a rim around an old crater directly in front of us. Off to the eastern side on our left, a black rock trail marks an ancient lava flow leading back into the interior where more old volcanic cones are visible. Shallows and mudflats extend out into the sea. The nearest reef is only about 300 metres away. The seabed appears opaquely off the stern of the boat. Sand and patches of black rock in dark green water. Scattered around the coast nearby are a few rocky islets with pointed peaks.

Off on our right to the west of us on top of a hill is a multi story rectangular building, which assumedly is one of the military buildings. According to the Red Sea Pilot Guide book there is a military camp here and on at least one of the other islands in this group. What a desolate place to be posted to.  Along the foreshore are a few clumps of miserable bushes or small salt tolerant trees, which comprises just about all of the vegetation. In front of the old crater a fisherman’s camp consists of several substantial tents. We saw a light or two there last night.

DSC_4900a DSC_4940a
view of the shoreline from the anchorage fishermen’s huts
DSC_4904a DSC_4926a
view of the bay to the east in the anchorage Mudflats and reefs nearby.
The small hills are left are a little island,
marking a channel back into the
Red Sea to the right of them.

1200 hrs: One of the long fishing boats is making its way out towards us. Even in the relative calm of the bay the waves make the little boat bob up and down. It’s loaded with four fishermen and four army guys in different camouflage uniform styles. One of the army men is wearing a thick belt of about a hand’s width, a white T-shirt and a woollen cap. The interpreter from last night steps aboard. The Lieutenant remains sitting in the boat. Our two jerry containers plus another one is passed to Jenzminc, and they indicate naturally they’d like their own jerry back.

Andy sets to work syphoning diesel from the jerries into the fuel tank and then hands them their jerry back. The interpreter asks for more money. Roger gives him another USD $20. That proves to be enough. Then asks for cigarettes. A packet of cigarettes changes hands. No other requests. Told the interpreter we’d be here for another two or three days due to the weather. They don’t argue the point and leave with much waving and smiles.
A nice encounter all around actually. Gave me the impression of professional soldiers just doing their job and being good ambassadors for their country.

All up our fuel cost USD $50 and a packet of cigarettes. I think the fishermen will probably get a bit of that for ferrying back and forth. Maybe the fishermen also supplied the fuel at a better price than they bought it. Am unable to know but it doesn’t matter. We now have 65 litres of clean looking diesel so fuel is no longer a potential problem in getting to Aden and keeping our batteries charged.

1400 hrs: Andy puts on scuba gear and goes over the side. Cleans the hull. Mostly slimy stuff but the metal bits are encrusted with small coral like worms. Throughout the rest of the afternoon he also repairs the mainsail halyard which is damaged near the masthead and the boat gets a clean up.

1900 hrs: Andy cooks up a lovely dinner of steak and vegetables, even remembering the gravy. Nice not to have to worry about fuel any more. A set of truck headlights appear on shore. Idly wonder if it’s been syphoned for fuel lately.

2000 hrs: Ship batteries running low after having supplied power all day with just the wind generator supplementing power. Motor groans a bit but fires up on the third attempt.

2100 hrs: Turned motor off. Everybody to bed.

Tues 29 Dec 09

0600 hrs: Slept fitfully during the early hours. Wind has built up and hitting 30 knots or more. Wind generator in the higher gusts is emitting a loud metal grinding noise before it applies its internal brake. It’s a bit like scratching fingernails across a blackboard. Seems to be getting longer.

0800 hrs: Looks like the wind generator blades are changing shape in the higher gusts and this may be causing the loud grinding noise, not something mechanical as first thought. It’s pumping up to 13 amps in the higher gusts. Batteries all up to 13.3 volts and amp hour capacity 100%.

These winds have put paid to Andy’s plan to move around to another anchorage further south today in this group of islands. We won’t be going anywhere while it’s like this. Our wide bay is a carpet of whitehorses. Am sitting in the cockpit having a morning cuppa. Not far away a sleek grey body bursts out of the water in a cloud of silvery glistening fish, which fall back into the sea in two groups darting off in different directions. Breakfast time for dolphins. The grib file predicts southerly winds at around 13 knots today. At least they got the direction right but a long way off in wind strength.

0830 hrs: A fishing boat with several men aboard slowly approaches from the east side. They come to us with a small catch of shark, stingrays and some fish in the bottom of the boat. Their hopeful intention of selling something is not going to happen. The sharks look like they’ve been sitting in the sun awhile and gone all blotchy, not that we’re interested anyway. We decline the invitation to buy. They cast off with disappointed looks. Ragged looking bunch. Definitely more Arab looking men of various ages. Clothes are old. Most still wearing balaclavas. They must lead a hard life. They head for the beach, wave and pose while I take a photo.

Left: Visiting fishermen hopeful of making a sale of some fishDSC_4951a

Oh well, back to the book about Lewis and Clark’s expedition into the interior of America in 1804, a book given me by Alan and Hailá of Alice.

1000 hrs: Wind gusting up to 35 knots – Force 8 on the Beaufort Scale.

1300 hrs: Andy gets an updated grib file for the next 72 hours. We won’t be able to move for another two days, maybe a bit earlier with a transition from southerly to northerly where we are anchored.

1800 hrs: Wind dies down to below 20 knots. Seas calm down accordingly but we know this is temporary. It tends to drop a bit at the end of the day.

2100 hrs: Winds back up to 35 knots again.

Weds 30 Dec 09

0700 hrs: No change. Wind still gusting to 34 knots maybe higher. Navy patrol boat still in its position and hasn’t moved. Boring. Another day sitting here mostly just reading or sleeping.

1600 hrs: Take a wash during the day by taking a dip in the sea. Climb down the stern ladder, jump in then climb out, lather up then get back into the sea again. Pull out the food locker and make an inventory. Tidy up in my cabin. Read. Sleep. Bored.

1900 hrs: Tail lights of a truck ashore are over on the north-eastern end of the island. Has been there for some time. Speculate there might be another yacht pulled up in an anchorage around that side.

2100 hrs: No change.

Thurs 31 Dec 09

0900 hrs: Fourth day here. Had been expecting a wind change by 0200 hrs this morning but an updated grib file tells us it won’t happen until tomorrow morning. Forecast for the next 72 hrs looking really good with northerlies right out into the Gulf of Aden. In the meantime the wind is leaving us with some last savage gasps with gusts up to at least 37 knots.

The sea at anchor is the highest we’ve seen here yet. Last night we’d swung parallel to the shore and reefs. Anchor chain grumbles loudly over rocks as the boat swings more quickly to her anchor. Usually very little noise comes from the chain. The anchor must be wedged in behind rocks to keep holding us like this. Wind generator is very noisy emitting those long grinding sounds, anything up eight seconds in the constant gusts. Sort of puts the teeth on edge. Don’t mind though, it’s supplying all our power. Haven’t turned the motor on for about 60 hrs or so. Water level in the tank is down to just 26 litres but we have a 20 litre container in a locker plus a couple of cartons of bottled water.

1000 hrs: Wind consistently over 30 knots. It’s determined to make its last gasps as hard as it can. Almost constant rumbling of the anchor chain running through the boat.

Anchor starts dragging. The wind speed has just peaked at 40 knots and Roger hurries up to the bow. Tells us the snubber rope – a rope connecting the anchor chain to the anchor post to soften the jerking of the chain is snapped. It’s a pretty sorry looking thing having taken such a beating for so long. Motor turned on as a precaution while Roger replaces the snubber. Anchor holds and motor turned off. Keeping an anchor watch going for now.

1145 hrs: Wind starting to ease a little bit. Some gusts to around 30 knots but also some lulls under 20 knots. Mostly around 25 knots. Anything under 20 knots is starting to be seen as a bit of a bonus.

1330 hrs: Andy manages to get a new grib file just a few minutes ago. We have a window of 48 hours to get to Aden with northerly favouring winds. Good! Winds drop consistently below 20 knots and slowly backing to the south-west, so we’ll try to get a bit further south while we can. Pull up the anchor and get under way.



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