Friday, March 19, 2010

Into the Red Sea

As dawn's first light illuminated the horizon, DK gracefully carried us into the gateway of another world. The wind was light for these parts at only 20 knots, and the seas only 1 meter, as we speedily approached the busy shipping channel under a port tack broad reach. We turned to starboard and slipped along the restricted zone of Yemen's Perim Island before committing to crossing the shipping channel to the northwest. We were now officially sailing through the infamous, "Straits of Bab el Mandeb", often referred to as the "Gate of Sorrows" or "Gate of Tears", the very narrow section of water that joins the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Winds often funnel through this area at 30-50 knots and if the current is against the wind, huge standing waves can be common. We have heard that sunrise is the best time to transit the Strait, and so we find ourselves luckily crossing the shipping channel with only 20-25 knots of wind at our back, a favorable 1 knot current, and a dreamy African sunrise.

We are now officially out of the Indian Ocean and into the Red Sea!

We left Aden, Yemen, yesterday at about 1 p.m (March 15). Aden turned out to be mixed blessing for us. The people and the culture we experienced there were amazing. Yemen now ranks up there with having the most genuine welcoming and friendly people we have met anywhere. That says a lot considering all the places we have been on this journey. The history of the land and the culture there are a huge piece of the history of mankind and this is one place we really felt like we were truly "in another world". Yemen is definitely high on the list as a place I would return to for an adventurous 'off the boat' travel experience someday.

The reason, however, Yemen was a mixed blessing is because we were both mentally exhausted from our convoy experience and our boat projects were long and grueling. I had my worst filling diesel experience ever there, my worst engine sea water impeller change, and after almost 12 hours of energy attempting to fix our KISS wind generator, it still doesn't work. Then there was the VHF issues and the autopilot issues, a loud nightclub directly in front of our boat that blasted Yemeni music until 5 in the morning when the hundreds of "call to prayers" from the mosques start up to bring in the new day. We still did our best to have a balance of seeing Aden, taking care of business, as well as mentally recovering for our next leg

The first day coming through the Straits of Bab El Mandeb we rode the winds and waves throughout the day and night further north along the coast of Eritrea, a small country directly to the east of Ethiopia. As the morning turned into mid-day the winds and seas had built pushing from behind at 30-35+ knots and 2+ meter seas. We were making some of our fastest speeds on DK yet, surfing the waves with just a double-reefed main at 8-10 knots and feeling totally comfortable. Dolphins greeted us in the afternoon and once again exhibited their love for surfing as we watched 5-8 at a time elegantly riding the 6-8 foot backlit breaking waves right behind our stern.

We sailed on into the night enjoying the strong breeze and appreciating the fact that even though there were some other sailboats not far away, we were on our own and not accountable to anyone else again. Delta One was liberated.

The next day (March 17) the winds mellowed and we ended up having to motor-sail to make it to our intended anchorage in Howakil Bay before dark. As we neared the group of islands around Umm Es Sahrig in Howakil Bay, our intended desert island anchorage, the sea became alive. Flocks of thousands of boobies and terns spun circles around us and our fishing lures, huge schools of fish leapt and splashed on the waters edge, and large chalky-colored jellyfish pulsed underneath the surface. We haven't seen so many seabirds since the west coast of Mexico and big smiles came over our faces. We were loving it and all the stress and frustration of the last few weeks slipped away.

We dropped our hook in sand in the lee of the small limestone desert island in 20+ knots of wind, but with almost no swell, cracked open a cold beer and melted into our new world.

The next day (March 18) we were off at sunrise with the destination of a place called Shumma Island, about 45 miles north, which we had read is a beautiful spot. The lures were put out, earl gray tea in hand, and the day had begun. It wasn't 30 minutes later that I looked back to see us dragging a fish. It must not be too big, I thought, poor little guy. We slowed the boat down and brought our hand-line in until I had the fish next to the boat, gaff in hand. What first I thought was a mahi mahi, turned out to be something altogether new and different. It had the general shape and head of a mahi, but with a cool strange spotty pattern, and fins like a tuna. It was also pretty big; a few feet long and maybe 20 lbs. or so. We weren't sure what it was and decided not to keep it as we didn't want to kill it if we didn't even like the taste of the meat. I reached down and wiggled our flashy spoon lure out of it's lip and it slipped away into the depths to live another day.

The wind died and changed directions to 5 knots to the NE and we motor-sailed along all day once again enchanted by the thousands of seabirds and huge schools of bait fish. It was early afternoon and Nicole was busily doing sink-full after sink-full of handwash, since our engine and watermaker were constantly on, when I noticed a large shape on the water's surface just 30 feet away. I yelled to Nicole and she hustled up to the cockpit just in time to see a huge neck and shell break the sea's surface. We could see it perfectly, our first ever endangered Leatherback Sea Turtle! All of you who know Nicole can imagine her excited response when she becomes ecstatic with joy over something she cares so much about. She made me smile for hours.

As we approached the narrow pass through the coral reef to enter the protected lagoon of Shumma Island, another fish hit. Nic and I were both winding our hand-lines back in when all of a sudden Nic yelled and I looked at her face intense with concentration and arm muscles flexed fighting to hang onto the hand-line plastic spool. Only 25 feet out or so while she was reeling in the lure a tuna hit. Carefully she passed me the spool and I tied it off as a back-up before starting to hand over hand the line in along our starboard beam. I gaffed the tuna and pulled it onboard as Nic took some photos. It was a perfectly-sized 15 pound skipjack tuna, a fish which we hadn't caught in ages.

We slipped in thru the pass easily in good afternoon light, with Nicole high in the spreaders looking for shallow coral, and dropped our hook in the lagoon of Shumma Island. Two other boats were anchored not far way, at first we thought they were fishing boats, but later we saw they were actually tourist boats from nearby Massawa, Eritrea, doing an overnight trip camping along the shore. Tourist boats from Eritrea?? We were kind of shocked on that one.

We were stoked. Dolphins swam by at dusk as the golden globe sank into the mainland of Africa only 20 miles away. We enjoyed a peaceful evening under the stars eating some freshly caught tuna.

It's now March 19th and we are still anchored at Shumma Island. Last night the NW winds picked up (we knew they were coming) and a swell entered the lagoon (but we didn't expect that). DK rolled from side to side most of the night and we barely slept. Groggily we woke and had a light brekkie and tea before taking super dingy to shore for our first walk on African soil.

The land is limestone, filled with embedded fossils and huge shells lie scattered all over the scrubby surface. Big umbrella-like desert trees dot the land and thorny bushes and shrubs grow through barren substrate. The air is hot and the sky is desert-hazy. There are animal droppings everywhere: donkey? camel? goat? We're not sure, but it looks like there are definitely four-footed creatures tromping around somewhere on this 2 mile diameter low-lying island.

We walk the sandy beaches and find a hermit crab convention and heaps of seaweed at the water's edge. The big discovery of the day are the beautiful "venus comb" shells, brittle, barbed, and gorgeous, only to be found in Africa. We find many of them, but most of them with a resident. One is vacant and Nicole is ecstatic.

After our walk we put DK's stern anchor out to keep our bow pointing into the swell so we can actually sleep tonight. The tourist boats leave and we find ourselves all alone. Nic made a big egg and potato brunch and now we are catching up on our writing, enjoying the tranquility of this new place and extremely excited for the next Red Sea adventures to come.

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