Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Winds of the Red Sea

The Red Sea is infamous for its challenging sailing conditions. High pressure systems from Siberia and from the Atlantic push against each other often causing strong winds in the Red Sea (interpreted by some as the valley between the two coasts, Africa and Egypt and Saudi Arabia). There are often days, if not weeks, of strong winds of 20-30 knots or more out of the north to northwest, the direction we are traveling. If the head wind is not enough to stop our progress the seas will. They usually accompany the strong winds, building quickly to standing waves, often 3-6 feet high or more and steep enough to stop us in our tracks. From what I understand, the wind is also affected by the land; often as the heat of the day increases so too does the strength of the wind. In the night when the temperature drops the wind usually follows.

Leaving Marsa Fijab early in the morning on April 6th, we lit out for the Taila Islands, 45 miles to the north. Throughout the day the wind and seas increased and the last 15 miles before the Taila anchorage we motor-sailed close-hauled tacking back and forth across the increasing winds. As usual, they rose faster and higher than predicted. Eighteen to twenty-three knots out of the north, directly where we were headed. The swell continued to rise and slapped our hull. The decks were awash with green water. The only benefit was that the sea did one job for us, removing the red dust of Africa from the decks and carrying it out through the scuppers.

By the afternoon we were firmly anchored in 20 feet of clear deep blue water nestled in a protected lagoon in sand between coral bommies. The wind howled for days just as the weather files predicted. Dreamkeeper waltzed back and forth across the wind tirelessly. The wind piped up; blowing 25-30 plus for two days. Still, the sun still shined startlingly bright and illuminated the reef and shallow water in stunning shades of aqua.

For three days, we strolled along the thin ribbon of land that separates the north reef from the southern lagoon where we are anchored. On one end it is wider and has some bushes clinging to the sand, their roots exposed in places like soggy tendrils of something dead.

Resident ospreys perched on scrubs and twigs. Looking closer we realized the twigs were osprey nests. We found five empty nests, neatly arranged in huge disk shapes with layers of woven twigs, plastic ties and discarded pieces of rope of various colors and thicknesses. The ospreys allowed us to us approach surprisingly close before rising into the air, their white bellies painted a light shade of aqua from the reflection off of the water.

At the western tip of the small island, orange-billed terns took flight only when we had gotten too close. They circled around us agitated and squawking until they landed a short way down the island. We discovered 4 nests, each with two large beige and brown speckled eggs sitting in 5 inch round sand dishes on the only reliably dry sand on this 6 foot high island. Lying beside one of them was a skeleton of a small hawksbill turtle, her skin stretched taught over her face deepening her ancient frown. Sadly, the shell had been removed hinting that she likely was killed for its value; I could see the sand through her white ribs.

When not wandering on the island or staring at the wind we entertained ourselves by trying to cross items off the numerous "to do" list. Unfortunately, our watermaker is acting up for the first time. We've unsuccessfully tried to fix that, worked on the carburetor on the outboard engine some more, written some articles for submission to a couple of sailing magazines, cleaned dust from the walls, surveyed our provisions, processed photos, cooked soups and baked brownies, made popcorn and watched movies and read books. We've also just plotted a serendipitous visit with my folks in Egypt in a few weeks and outlined a plan to rendezvous with some friends in the Med in the early fall.

The last day at Taila, we visited with our new fisherman friends and said a final farewell. A couple of days ago we traded a hat and smokes for a fish. Yesterday we gave them some water. I now realize when people here are excited it sounds like they are yelling. Our friend with the skinny head and wide grin gave us an Arabic lesson from his boat in what sounded like angry tones until we realized that he was trying to teach us some words.

It is amazing how lovely the people are here. We were invited to tea on the beach or in their boat. They wanted to give us something for the water. Because we did not want another fish they tried to give us aspirin, anything they could think of in return. We ended up with a few cardamom pods which are tomam (good) in tea and also some fresh incense, along with deep grins and memories to last a while. We haven't tried burning the incense yet but we can smell its urgent pungent odor seeping through the tinfoil we wrapped it in.

The winds mellowed overnight. We returned early this morning (April 11) for one last walk on the beach. It feels like a different place without the wind. By 9am we retraced our track out of the entrance and headed north 25 miles up the inner channel around Dungunab Bay, to our new anchorage at Wreck Recovery.

Light winds came directly out of the north at 4-6 knots for most of the day; the last hour we had a nice 8 knots from the east. We could easily spot the reefs glittering beneath the deep sapphire blue water. We caught three fish today, a small trevally, a three foot long great barracuda, and a 30-35lb red snapper. A few terns flew overhead and gulls crisscrossed our stern. A turtle lazily poked her head out of the sea just feet from the boat. The highlight of the day was getting visited by a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins; our first in the Red Sea.

The sun is finally sliding back below the horizon and taking the relentless heat with it. We are anchored in a basin, almost surrounded by shallow reefs. The winds are predicted to be mellow for another day. We hope the forecast is right and plan to leave early tomorrow morning for a quick 32 miles to Khor Shinab, heralded as one of the most beautiful anchorages in the Red Sea.

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