Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Schooled by the Suez

We're rubbing grit out of our eyes and sand out of our teeth. The Red Sea is still spitting at us these last 180 miles as we claw our way north. The powers of the Red Sea have pushed us into Ras Abu Zenima anchorage at 29.02.5N 33.06.8E. We're rolling among oil platforms and fishing boats of all sizes. The desert licks the shore and showers us with sand even though our feet haven't touched the earth in 5 days.

It's wild what happens on a journey like ours. Some days just suck. Like life anywhere. We cannot be bound by deadlines and dates, our hopes and even our own sheer will has little power in a place as raw and relentless as here. Everything is unpredictable and changes all the time. Right now it is all up to fate and what the world dishes out to us. Lately it seems we've been in a shitstorm of sand.

Let me start from the beginning. We left Hurgada Marina (May 15th) with full water tanks and a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables. The wind was light and we hoped it would stay that way. We knew the last 180 miles of the Red Sea up the Gulf of Suez might not be so easy.

Lately our adventure seems to start with a challenge and linger with it like some kind of ominous warning. Casting off our lines, I felt the familiar nervousness and excitement that comes with leaving the safety of the marina and heading out to the unknown world; one we knew would likely not be easy. It quickly turned to dread as Gar put the boat into reverse and we heard a strange thumping sound. Out of the slip and not wanting to be stuck engineless trying to maneuver back in between the two boats, we headed out to the bay to assess the problem. Lifting the engine hatch on the cockpit floor and peering into the engine room we both groaned. I think I could hear our spirits sinking. Seriously, this could not be happening.

Our shaft seal looked to be cracked and sea water was gushing into the boat. Hovering in neutral facing into the wind and looking out for hazards, I held my breath and prayed for some divine intervention. After all, we had been visiting the gods of Egypt and paying respect to their temples.

The problem: the dripless shaft seal that goes around our propeller shaft and keeps sea water from flooding into our boat shifted somehow and the seal venting line hose was wrapped around the shaft. The sea was pouring into our boat fast and we couldn't use the engine. Gar grabbed tools, scrunched himself into the small engine compartment, and straddled the revolving shaft. "Don't put the boat into gear," he warned. I knew all too well his toes and fingers could be sacrificed if I gave him no warning. Swiftly he unwound the venting line, re-attached the rubber seal and tightened the hose clamps and then re-inspected the seal. Thankfully there was no damage and it stopped leaking. The flood was over and as our pulses returned to normal we thanked the boat and our guardians for allowing us to leave Egypt. We could have had to have hauled the boat out of the water, waited for parts, and been stuck on the hard here for a year. Not something we had on our "To Do" list.

DK always keeps us on our toes. The rest of the day was a good one. The desert winds were lighter than anticipated and the seas stayed small. We felt lucky and grateful and had a long an uneventful motor sail 42 miles north. Honestly it felt good to be home. We dropped the hook at Marsa Zeitiya, 27.49.7N 33.35.0E, in 32 feet of water and hard packed sand just before the sun slipped beneath the sea.

Waking as the sky turned from black to violet we motored out of the anchorage by 5:30. It was a sweet day. We crossed the shipping lanes quickly on a fast beam reach without trouble and pushed the boat 20 miles past our proposed anchorage at El Tur to Shab El Hasa 28.35.4N 33.11.5E in 16 feet of sand. Sailing up the Red Sea is still a game. We are playing chicken with the winds and seas and take all we can when we can get it.

The next morning threatened to scorch us with temperatures predicted in the hundreds and the winds likely building. Again we were off early, sipping tea in the inky darkness and freshening wind. Within an hour the desert sands shifted along with our luck.

The seas grew mountainous and the winds pummeled us. Perhaps pushing on was foolish on our part but we were still making 4-5 knots headway. Motor-sailing with a 30-40 degree angle to the 25-32 knots of wind and the standing and sometimes breaking steep 8-10 feet waves, we pushed on. The autopilot quit as usual and we hand steered, punching through waves and wind constantly soaked by the sea cascading over the dodger. The deck was awash in green water and the drain scuppers were working overtime. Again and again we were soaked in sea water and swiftly licked dry and coated with sand by the building winds. The boat rebelled and our angels grew weary.

We lost a scupper screen and the alternator regulator was starting to go out which means our charging system was again at risk from overheating or not getting enough power. Water splashed through our sealed dorade vents onto the salon cushions and we found leaks in places we didn't know existed. Thankfully, at least, our new hatch and window seals are working flawlessly.

By 1300 hours we were within a few miles of an anchorage and debated pushing 12 miles on. The boat was still making good time but we were tired, salty, and concerned about pushing DK too hard. Gratefully, we dropped the hook in 54 feet of water behind a fleet of fishing boats and in front of an oil tanker. The sun seared through our decks while sand danced over the sea. Our cabin temperature was a debilitating 87 degrees. We hunkered down and welcomed the relief of the departure of the sun.

By 0200 the winds had laid down and we woke out of a deep sleep to a "SLAM" on our port side. We bolted out of bed and ripped the sleep from our eyes. A wooden fishing boat at anchor and tied to another had swung into us, hitting us broadside. Frantically, we rushed to put the boat in gear and grab a fender to place in between the boats before we hit again. Twice we hit hulls before we could move away from the boats. We yelled and yelled; surprisingly, no one was on board. Then our depth sounder went out. With patience, attention to the light winds, and swinging of the other boats, we were able to maneuver around both fishing boats and eventually lift our anchor. Steering cautiously and paying our rode in and out in a delicate dance, we avoided crossing anchors and further impact.

With light winds and adrenaline pumping through our veins we could have left in the dark stillness of early morning to move north but our depth sounder was out and we wanted it working. So we collapsed into bed again after a swift re-anchoring, well beyond any fishing boats.

The next morning (May 18th) we woke to light winds and we hoped we could escape this anchorage. Immediately, Gar went to work on the depth sounder. Then the entire Sea Talk system went out; we lost all of our instruments. We can't wait until we can replace our autopilot control head. Thankfully we had internet and while he was working on the unit I sleuthed around and got some good insight. It took all morning to get most of it working again. Then, at 10:30 we foolishly tried to leave.

Pounding into building waves and wind was a stupid decision. Making only 2-4 knots in what appeared to be rapidly building seas we weighed our options. Then our bow-sprit teak plank broke from too much sun and heat and half of it came floating towards us like a depressing souvenir. After 20 minutes of bashing into the steep massive breaking waves we acknowledged our defeat and turned around in the towering seas and hoped we wouldn't get pooped. Once again, back in our anchorage we dropped the hook in deeper water in effort to avoid another collision with a fishing boat.

The anchor windless jammed. I couldn't control it and cursed as chain rattled out of the locker reeling, dumping all 280 feet of chain. Only when the shackle that connects the bitter end jammed in the plate did the chain stop. I raced to put a backup on the chain. Thin strands of rope that we pulled up that morning wrapped around the drum of the windless and jammed the clutch plate. It was blowing 25-30. Thankfully we could get a snubber on it to take the pressure off while Gar cut away the thin tangled strands of rope that wrapped around our anchor drum and clutch plate.

It probably seems like I'm spinning a good yarn for your entertainment but all of this is true. We felt like crying.

Before lunch yesterday, Gar dove back into the boat again, trying to diagnose the charging regulator. It is broken, the second to have gone out in a few months. Thankfully we have one last working spare and it was easily replaced. By noon the sun climbed to his full power and scorched us from the inside out. We napped in a restless stupor.

Sand swirls around us, coating the deck and collecting in small piles in the corners of the boat. A thin layer sticks to Gar's foul weather coat. In attempts to keep it from invading every crevice of our beings we shut most of the port holes and hatches. But the heat is relentless even in these strong winds. The cabin temperature soars and we are listless and grumpy. Every counter and floor is covered in a thin layer of sand.

It is easy to understand why the desert people wear long robes and cover their heads and faces with large scarves. We feel like we are breathing fire and eating dirt even in the comfort of the boat. Desert people in Africa are tough and resourceful.

Today (May 19th) we slept in until 07:00. Since there is nothing left to fix today we cleaned the dust from the counters and floors and relish is the cooler temperatures. The wind is relentless and howls through the rigging. Gusting to 35 in the anchorage, we are happy to be securely anchored and out of the brunt of the seas. We will patiently await the abating winds and settling seas before departing again. Until then, the desert will make her mark. Our skin is weathered and wrinkling and the desert sands are again beginning to settle in our home.


RichC said...

Desert sailing is starting to sound like something to avoid. Thanks for sharing.

Travis and Maggie said...

Wow! You guys also sound tough and recourseful. As the saying goes, you're not given more then you can handle, and u seem to handle it all quite well. That was a good read!

John Miller said...

Unreal. Sending happiness, fair weather, and protection for you, Gar, and DK.