Monday, April 26, 2010

Welcome to Egypt

The morning rays cut through the surface of the lagoon illuminating the dancing fins that broadcast their arrival. We both smiled.

We loaded up super dinghy with all the essentials: snorkel gear, weight belts, wetsuit tops, cameras, dingy anchor, an emergency VHF, and a dry-bag full of tools for those constant outboard repairs we have been making on the ill carburetor. And then we were off...jogging around the shallow coral bommie heads and making our way to say hello again to our special friends at the other end of the lagoon.

We plunged into the refreshingly chilly tropical northern Red Sea and swam slowly towards the pod. We stopped when we could make out their dark silhouettes in the distance and waited. The pod consisted of over 50 individuals, made up of males, females, and 7 mommas with their babies, many of them clicking and chirping away to each other as they swam in effortless graceful patterns towards us, around us, and under us. We were mesmerized. Once again it felt like we were dreaming. We were swimming with the dolphins.

Sataya Reef in Southern Egypt, also called Dolphin Reef, named aptly for the pods of spinner dolphins who often come to rest here during the daytime is special. The dolphins are definitely used to people with all the live-aboard dive boats that come here to scuba dive and to also hopefully catch a glimpse of these special creatures. But this isn’t a theme park and nothing is a given. The dolphins may not want you around and will swim away or keep their distance if they choose to. But today we were extra lucky. We were the only ones here and the pod was, how should I say, extremely active.

As we swam, dove and spun with the pod, we were in awe that we were witnessing the mating rituals. Small groups of males would swim and chase the females, and then right in front of us, sometimes only arm-lengths away, male and female would join as one and rhythmically dance the oldest of dances together. The mommas and the babies were kept together in the big pod made up of the majority of dolphins, while these mating groups of 3-5 dolphins splintered out on the edges chirping, clicking, and vying for position. We were shocked. We truly couldn’t believe what we were seeing and actually allowed to see. We knew how rare it was to witness this at such close proximity. As the mating went on, sometimes one or two individuals from the main pod would swim next to us as well and we would dive and spin circles together looking into each other’s eyes only inches away. Surreal.

Nicole and I have seen dolphins in the water many times, but always at a distance and never never this close up, nor allowed whatsoever to witness something this special. At times we felt like such intruders, but knew that if they didn’t want us there, it was so easy for them just to thrust their tales a few times and they would be away from us in only seconds.

As the minutes turned into almost an hour, our bodies were becoming stiff with cold and we knew it was time to head back. Sadly, we said thank you’ and goodbyes to our friends, and swam back to the anchored dinghy. We couldn’t even speak to each other for a long time. Our perma-grins said it all.

But now I need to back up as I realize we have been blog slackers...
A week earlier, on April 11th, when the 20-30 knot northerly winds finally subsided, we pulled out of the Taila Islands and threaded our way north through the shallow inside channel butting Dunganub Bay. We uneventfully motor-sailed in hot sunshine until getting visited by a small pod of Bottlenose dolphins, our first in the Red Sea. Not long after our dolphin visit, one of our fishing hand-lines went taught and we had another fish on. I hand-over-handed the 200 lb. line in on our port side and, once again, we had caught a 2 1/2 foot great barracuda, our 13th barracuda in the Red Sea. We have heard mixed reviews of barracuda in the Red Sea possibly having the fish disease, ciguatera, so have chosen to play it safe and not try our luck by eating them and with the possibility of getting extremely sick. This fish was hooked really well, unfortunately, and I needed to use our big long adjustable pliers to reach down into the water and free the double-barbed hook without getting my fingers sliced by the barracuda’s razor sharp teeth. Free again, the worn out barracuda slipped slowly down into the blue deep to live another day.

Another hour went by and I noticed our other hand-line limp and acting strangely. I pulled it in to check it to be met only with a frayed 200 lb. stainless steel lead with no lure on the end. The last of our favorite Hawaiian lures, a big resin-head squid jig that we have caught so many big fish on and have had to change skirts for at least 8 times, is finally gone. For something to bite through this stainless lead itself could only mean one thing, a really big shark. Probably better that it took the lure rather then try to deal with releasing a creature like that, but still a sad day nonetheless.

We anchored in the Wreck Recovery Anchorage that night tucked in between a tight circle of coral reef and slept well. The next morning we were off again rounding the point of Ras Abu Shagrab in calm conditions and headed into the swell protected anchorage of Khor Shinab. A Khor is a bay indented into the mainland that is reached by a narrow reef-lined channel coming from the Sea. Khor Shinab is one of the largest in Sudan with over a 2 mile winding channel approach opening up into a couple mile diameter bay ringed by coral, muddy flats, and barren hills. The Red Sea Pilot, the sailor’s bible in these waters, says this anchorage is many “yachties” favorite in the Red Sea, and even though we weren’t that impressed, it was still a good spot to be.

With no wind that day, the sun was so hot we had almost melted to the deck of DK. We managed to pry ourselves off the boat and putted the ailing super dinghy over to a nearby beach where we laid in the cooling water next to the many blue-spotted stingrays that called this place home.

The wind picked up overnight and by the next morning was blowing close to 30 knots. We hunkered down and I hemmed-and-hawed over trying to get the kite up. With winds at around 30 and gusts 30+ and a flailing dinghy outboard, I decided against it. Bummer. I just can’t seem to find the right kiting conditions and I am getting frustrated. The reliability of our outboard is a major factor, considering if I get in trouble, Nicole will have to rescue me with the dinghy, and right now it is very unreliable. Once again we are so remote and truly “on our own” that we are our only help if something happens. Even though we are playing it safe, it still sucks.

The next morning the wind is lighter then expected and we decide to try to head north to one of the next marsa or khor anchorages. After a couple of hours of motoring in calm conditions, the wind all of a sudden pipes up from the north and before we know it, we have 25 knots and building 3-5 foot seas that stop us in our tracks. We beat into the weather for another hour and then realize it is not worth it only traveling at 2 knots and getting hammered. We swing DK to port and head into the closest anchorage, Marsa Hamsiat. Another tight little reef-lined channel opens up into a little muddy bay where we drop our hook in 30+ knots of northerly winds and huddle downstairs again. Too windy to even get our dinghy in the water safely, we are once again boat-bound. I think by this time we have each read 6 books in the last week and watched plenty of “Lost” , “The O.C.”, and “Battlestar Galactica” TV series episodes.

Thursday, April 15th, and the weather has let up. We motor out into the Sea again and head north another 20 miles to Elba Reef. We pilot DK through the narrow reef entrance into the big lagoon to join two other boats we know, a Dutch boat ‘Alexandra’, and a Kiwi boat named ‘Quo Vadis’, who are also here. The reef is big and pretty clear water and we drop our hook amidst a sand and coral bottom in 40 feet of depth. A great barracuda decides to take up permanent residence underneath our keel.

We are both itching for a swim and head over to the pass where we immerse ourselves into the undersea world and bond with the schools of snapper, sweetlips, and curious trevally that inhabit this little section of Elba. The snorkeling is nice for exercise and always good for our spirits, but we are spoiled and have yet to be extremely impressed by the underwater world of the Red Sea so far. Granted, we have not been able to see some of the best dive and snorkel sites that this region offers because of weather conditions and the reality of traveling on our own sailboat with no support, so we only judge what we have been able to see. As much as we have tried to find another sailboat with motivated scuba divers onboard that wanted some real diving adventures with us, we have not been able to do so. It’s been one of the big bummers for me these past few weeks, but I guess we just can’t have it all.

We finish the afternoon with a thorough cleaning of DK’s underwater hull and some wine and pu-pu’s on Alexandra with the 6 of us cruisers at sunset.

Another weather window and we were off on an overnight passage (April 16) hopping around Foul Bay to Dolphin Reef, about 150 miles to the north and crossing the border into Egypt. We had a fantastic southerly wind of 20-25 knots all day that lasted until midnight and also an added bonus of a 1-2 knot current with us, pushing us along sweetly at 7-8 knots boat speed with only a full-main sheeted out....our best day sailing in a long time! Like all good sailing days in the Red Sea, ours came to a halt at midnight with the reversal of the southerly winds backing to the north and bringing 20+ knots against us. The motor came on and we sheeted the main in tight, motor-sailing close-hauled and beating into the relentless short and steep seas until 9:00 a.m. until our arrival the the reef entrance of Dolphin Reef. Phew, another overnight passage over and success at arriving at our intended destination, one we have been looking forward to.

We spent 3 days at Dolphin Reef enjoying the beauty of the lagoon, resting, baking, writing, and snorkeling. Our two swims with our spinner dolphin friends were definitely one of the highlights of our whole Red Sea adventure so far. We wish we could have been in the water more with them, but they aren’t always around and we are just thankful for the time we did share.

Everyday we watch the weather closely in the Red Sea. We get morning buoyweather and GRIB file reports and usually listen in to the I/O SSB radio net to hear how other boats are doing to the north of us. It’s extremely important out here to be on your game and make good decisions regarding the weather, otherwise you will pay severely for your inadequate planning. Weather files looked good for a 2 day window beginning on April 20th. We decided to go for it and left a bit earlier at 5 p.m. on April 19th, hoping to gain a little extra time to make it the 210 miles to Hurghada without getting our butts kicked or having to turn around.

We were choosing to do this longer passage because we now have a deadline with Nicole’s folks coming to see us at the end of the month. One of our stresses has been the very real possibility of getting stuck somewhere with strong northerlies lasting a week or two and no chance of us making it to the marina where we need to tie up and safely leave DK. Most sailboats choose to stop at Port Ghalib, which is only about 110 miles from Dolphin Reef and an easy place to check-in to Egypt, but we were worried that we might not make it to Hurghada if we did that. So off we went, crossing our fingers that the weather forecast would hold....

For the first part of the trip we mostly motored in light variable conditions, but wouldn’t you know it, at midnight of April 20th, only 30 miles out, our window closed. Along once again came the strong northerlies rising quickly to 20-25 knots and gusts over 30. The seas kept building until we were once again bashing relentlessly into the boat-stopping walls of water. To top it off, our ill autopilot wouldn’t hold the course and kept turning off, so we were having to take turns hand-steering throughout the night and morning, attempting to hold our course and slowly make 1-3 knots through the water and getting coated in cold saltwater in the process. All morning we were anxious watching the building winds and seas and realizing that we may not make it, even though only less then 20 miles out of port. We plowed onward as the day wore on.

A late morning sail and rig check and I notice our mainsail is torn. Very torn at the top of the sail from luff to leach. Total bummer, a really bad place as we can’t even reef the main to use it at all. Down comes the main and out goes the staysail, while the Yanmar rumbles at 3000 rpms sucking diesel like an old crusty sailor guzzles cheap rum. We are bummed. Add fixing the mainsail to the huge list of boat repairs needed before heading north. We say silent prayers to the marine diesel motor god that our Yanmar will hold up, otherwise we are really screwed.

Thankfully, by mid-afternoon we crawl into the greater bays of the sprawling resort world of Hurghada, a major winter tourist destination for mostly Russians. Diveboats and day-trip boats everywhere, and we duck and jive between the shallow reefs, sandbars, and boat traffic to get to the entry port. ‘Said’, one of the friendly marina helpers, comes out in a skiff and ties us up to a small fishing boat mooring outside the entrance and in front of a huge mosque being built with only it’s skeleton intact. We hope the mooring holds, In’sha’allah. We will be here until our entry paperwork is completed, and then allowed into the marina proper.

The wind howls, DK rolls back and forth in the rolly swell, and the new smells and sounds of the busy city overwhelm us. We made it. Now it’s time to transition back into the other world again...a story in itself.

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