Great Seamanship: sailing through desert storms in the Suez Canal

Yachting World

Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Sailing Suleika, the tale of Dennis Krebs taking a steel ketch through the Red Sea

Sailing Suleika by Dennis Krebs is a long sea-mile from a typical description of an extended cruise. Dennis met up with the 43ft steel ketch and her redoubtable skipper, Sally, when he was stationed on an island half-way between New Zealand and Fiji. Sally and Suleika were on their way around the world from Shoreham in Sussex, UK. Dennis signed on and sailed, as ‘bosun, musician, chef and first engineer’.

It turns out that Dennis’s talents do not end with the engine room and the galley. His writing is fast, pithy and often extremely funny. It has always been the mark of the true sailor that he makes light of his troubles. The extract below takes us with him and his skipper on the first part of their passage north up the Red Sea where troubles come thick and fast. Join them as we contemplate the aptly named ‘Gate of Sorrows’ together.

Approaching the Straits of Bab el Mandeb – the Gates of Sorrow, named for reasons we hoped never to encounter – there remained 1,200 miles to the Gulf of Suez. Then another 150 miles to Port Suez and the start of the Suez Canal, leading to the Mediterranean Sea. There are yachting tales concerning travels up this sea which run from the delightful – 10 days of a southerly taking them all the way non-stop – to those which have taken three to four months, to those who never made it at all, and worse, those who have disappeared without trace.

Sailing Suleika by Dennis Krebs

Come 1100 on the morning of 4 March, the wind whispered then strengthened from a southerly direction. We hauled up the anchor, and before long were sailing in 20 knots making good progress towards the straits.

“Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it stayed like this for five or six days and got us halfway up in one shot?” said Skip, looking forward to the challenge.
“It sure would,” I replied, fingers crossed.

At this point she went forward to tighten the main halyard.

Putting the winch handle into the winch she laid into it with all her weight.

“Yow! Ow Ow Ow!” While dancing around the foredeck holding her hand, the mainsail dropped. I guided Sally back to the cockpit to check it out.

“What happened and how does it feel?”

“I don’t think I’ve broken anything. Maybe I dislocated my thumb and it’s popped back in, whatever it’s bloody painful.”

Come evening it had not improved so I put her arm in a sling. Night had fallen and it was pitch black. The wind had risen to 30 knots and the seas were short and pitching 2m. For another hour we endured rough conditions before heading inshore to anchor while still off the coast of South Yemen and relatively friendly people.

Start to the Red Sea

Guided by the radar we closed to a depth of 30m, dropped the hook, wrapped the Skip’s hand in a crepe bandage and poured two large glasses of medicine before getting some sleep.

“What manner of place is this?” I asked, seeing our anchorage for the first time in daylight. A desolate spot. The wind was blowing 30 to 40 knots, the mast and halyards on the windward side turning brown with desert dust. Ashore there were three shanty houses with shuttered windows and what looked like boat shelters nearby, covered with rotting sacking blowing in the howling wind, adding an atmosphere of decay to the grey, inhospitable landscape.

Now that we could see where we were, I suggested we re-anchor and get a little closer than three-quarters of a mile off shore. It was blowing a steady 40 knots which made for some interesting moments but I managed to drop the hook a quarter mile off in the forlorn hope we might be more sheltered and less likely to be run down by a ship wandering off course.

After four days of eating, reading, watching videos and sleeping, we raised the anchor on a dying southerly breeze and left, heading for the Gates of Sorrow.

“Let the fun begin,” I thought.

There were no gates, just an island and steep cliffs, although I half expected to see a sign saying ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.’ There were also no big seas, no tide race, and no 40 knots of wind, all of which we had been told to expect. As we passed through and into the Red Sea proper, I was disappointed to see the water was still blue.

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A course was set that would take us close to the Hanish Islands where we could take shelter if needed. It would mean arriving after dark and would require a radar approach. The evening became stressful, with rocks, islands, and shipping to avoid; and then the wind began to howl. Putting a third reef in the main we radar-ed our way through this obstacle course and pinged up the north-west side of Great Hanish Island. Once there, Skip negotiated a half mile wide channel between it and Peaky Island, a little rock 170 feet high.

The wind had risen now to a steady 45 knots and it was black as pitch with the seas crashing into the boat and washing aboard. We remained below, eyes glued to the chart and radar till we were through the gap. I had to drop the sail before we could enter the cove to anchor. The Skip tried to keep the boat in position from below while I went on deck to swear at things.

In the cove there was another yacht with her anchor light on so we crept up leaving a respectable amount of room and dropped the hook.

Inspection by unmarked aircraft

Suleika immediately turned broadside to the screaming wind, dropped back and dragged.

Take two. First, I got the anchor back up again which was managed without incident. Gently we manoeuvred back in and dropped it again, this time with more chain, in fact all the chain. Sixty metres of heavy chain. The boat turned sideways. The wind sent us on our way and we dragged. Whang, and the chain jumped off the front roller catching on the bulwark.

Communication with the Skip at the helm was impossible. I made trips back and forth to the hatch above the helm station to inform her of progress and courses of action. Next, I was hanging over the bow trying to lift 50m of chain in one hand, taking the slack in the other till I had enough to pop back over the bow roller. Drenched and with my back feeling broken, eyes full of desert grit, it was achieved, and we retrieved the anchor for attempt three.

“I think we’re holding at last,” the Skip yelled.

Her words were whipped away by the wind and heard only by a tribesman in Eritrea.

Might is right in Suez

Nothing appeared to be moving. We were hooked to the bottom. It was 0300 and we were both exhausted.

“What do you reckon, Skip? Not a bad assault on the Red Sea. I think we’ll have it licked in eight months or so at this rate?”

Our first day and already we’d been hammered. We collapsed into bed only to be woken after two hours, dragging out to sea.

The cove was divided into two bays. The other, although larger, had three dhows at anchor with unknown inhabitants. They weren’t dragging. We shifted and, having found space, I went forward to eyeball the water and find a sandy or suitable patch to drop, instructing Sal to keep bringing the boat forward. She had other ideas.

“Let go here.”

“What? I can’t even see the bottom.“ “Let go here.”

“Okay! Anchors away.”

We dragged. I had had enough of this.

“This is easily sorted,” she said, “I won’t pull back on it too hard and maybe we’ll hold long enough to have breakfast before putting to sea.”

Visitors at the Hanish Islands

What a Godforsaken place this was. Even without the wind, it was a moonscape of grey, black, and brown stone with not a thing growing. The only bright spot was a solitary pink flamingo.
The three dhows moved off with their human cargo, and shared a friendly wave. Suleika seemed to be staying in one place and the coffee smelled good.

“Okay, breakfast is ready.”

I let 50m of chain out. The anchor dug in and held and the day mellowed. We caught up on sleep, lunch, siesta, sundowners, dinner and a night at the movies on the big 12in screen.

The wind blew a continuous 40 knots all the next day. It’s as though the needle was stuck on the gauge. Three more yachts arrived and there we all sat, pawns to the wind.

At 0900 the following morning it eased. Two yachts left and we followed suit. Twenty miles out, the wind died completely.

We did our watches and motored on. By 0530 next morning we were tacking back and forth across our track into a 16-knot headwind. Half an hour after going off watch, an ant woke me up by chewing into a vein on my arm. Then the Skip started yelling at boobies trying to land on the anemometer atop the mast. Sleep? Forget it. I got up, made coffee, and sat silent in the cockpit.

Rural dwellings in the Gulf of Aden

It was not long till we reached Zubair Islands, catching a fish on the way in. There were dolphins all around the boat while boobies swooped and dived to the backdrop of another incredible moonscape, this one more dramatic than Hanish. A conical volcano about 500ft lifted from the water on the southern side. To the north, another appeared as molten dripping rock, frozen in time.

The yachts anchored between these two, while a ship and a large salvage tug were anchored at the foot of the volcano.

It was to be four days before the wind allowed us to leave. So after two weeks, our assault on the Red Sea had progressed by 120 miles, a distance we would normally cover in a single day. We spent the days at Zubair exploring volcanic craters, watching large flocks of flamingos at a freshwater lagoon with sea eagles soaring above the cliffs and dolphins dancing in the bay. We dined on succulent fresh fish prepared in a different manner by those aboard different boats.

Grey desert landscape in Egypt gets some sunset colour

The sea was slight when we went back to sea.

“Hey! Look there’s something in the water.” “Looks like a bale of hay.”

They were dead sheep. There must have been 30 in all and it gave us the shudders. We left the area wondering what fate had befallen them. We were later to learn that live sheep transporters throw the dead overboard before reaching port.

The weather forecast was for northerlies so we turned and headed for Sudan. To our dismay we must have had an adverse current for our speed under motor was down to four and a half knots when it was usually six. Motorsailing for the rest of the day, we arrived at the Khor Narwarat, on the coast of Sudan in the early evening. Heading into a setting sun trying to see the reef was almost impossible. I climbed the mast, getting covered in desert dust. With Polaroid sunglasses on I could see the reefs and advise the Skip which way to helm. As an exercise, we came in on the GPS coordinates to see how good they were. Rubbish, is how they were.

Ashore, the land was low scrub with the occasional head popping up to take a look at us. Everything was brown. The land, the low bushes, the distant hills, and the sand- and dust-laden wind that never ceased.


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