Monday, March 09, 2009

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

From the anchorage in Aden, Yemen, we had been monitoring the weather forecasts to pick the right time to head off to the Red Sea which is known for dramatic weather changes and therefore challenging sailing. When the weather reports forecasted 4 days of 15 - 20 knots winds coming from the south, we set out for Port Sudan which is a 5 day sail North along the African coast

The first 12 hours were perfect sailing and we settled into our “on passage” routine. Steve mentioned that he had read once that sailing is long stretches of boredom broken occasionally by periods of sheer terror. We joked about how true that was. We must have jinxed ourselves. Shortly thereafter the winds picked up to 30 knots, then 35 knots and gusting to 40 and 45. The waves were breaking, high, steep and close together. Unlike the waves we had experienced for days on end in the ocean which were higher and further apart, these waves were dangerous because they were high but steep and close together. We decided the best thing to do was turn from the wind, take down the main sail, put out a small patch of foresail and ride it out.

We tried to get an updated weather forecast through our SSB radio but we could not get a connection. After 12 hours of “running from the wind”, we realized that this was not a freak squall that was going to blow over. Although Toboggan was handling the wind and the waves well, it was the kind of weather where accidents happen, things break and people get hurt. We decided to take shelter.

We altered our course slightly and headed for shelter in the Hanish Islands which were 6 hours away. The Hanish Islands are part of Yemen and in 1995, Eritrea invaded the Islands and tried to take possession. There was armed conflict at the time but currently, the islands were supposed to be uninhabited.

We arrived at Little Hanish island and anchored on the North side where we were sheltered from the howling South winds. We continued to try to get an updated weather forecast every hour or soon the SSB but it wasn’t until 1:30 in the morning that we finally got a connection. The updated weather forecast showed that the wind would stay very strong but shift to the North within 24 hours. That meant we were soon going to have to switch anchorages to one that was protected from the North.

Of course, the wind shifted in the middle of the night so we pulled up our anchor in the dark and headed to the island 5 miles to the North of us. The “Red Sea Guide” said that this island was uninhabited but there were some buildings there occasionally used by the military. When we got close, we could see many lights on shore (so obviously it wasn’t uninhabited) but we needed to take shelter so we proceeded into the small bay in the dark using our computer charts and radar. We were just about to drop our anchor, when shots were fired.

We immediately turned around and left. We had made it about 1 mile when we saw the light of a boat coming after us. We could not see the boat or crew in the dark. Different possibilities were going through our minds. Obviously, they weren’t fishermen. When they came closer, they were shining a flashlight towards us, so we still couldn’t see but we assumed they were either military or worse, and we had probably scared them entering their bay at night. As they got closer still, we could see there were several men in the boat dressed in camouflage. Two of them had machine guns. One of the men with the guns was very excited, and was yelling in Arabic.

We had turned on all the deck lights, and cabin lights, and shined the flashlight on ourselves and our Canadian flag so that they could see that we were just cruisers, not Eritreans come to take the island. They kept yelling in Arabic. The only Arabic we know is “Salaam alaikum” (Peace be with You) and “Shukran” (Thank you) so we just kept saying “Salaam alaikum”. It didn’t seem to help. The boat came along side Toboggan and some of the men tried to board us but by then we were outside of the shelter of the island and it was too rough. Steve pushed their boat away with his foot as it rammed into our toe rail. They tried one more time to climb aboard, and again Steve pushed their boat away when they tried to come alongside. Eventually, they motioned for us to follow them back to shore. Other than the one angry soldier, the expression on the faces of the rest of them showed that they understood we were no threat to them.

We had lost sight of their boat while we were anchoring and when it returned, it had more men aboard. Luckily, one spoke some English and the other spoke a little French. Now that we were anchored in the calm bay, the military boat was able to safely come along side Toboggan. There was no more yelling. We put out fenders for them and tied off their bow line. Four of the men came aboard. The guy with the gun and two others stayed in the boat.

The conversation in broken English was very difficult for any of us to understand. They could see that we were no threat to them but they kept saying “You go”. Steve calmly explained to them that we couldn’t go because we needed shelter from the howling winds. Then they said, “How many days?” Steve said “two or three“. They said: “OK you go”. I thought I would try talking to the man who spoke a little French but he didn’t seem to understand the concept of taking shelter from the wind either so it was back to the first guy who said “You good man. You go”. We decided they meant we were free to go (or stay) as the case may be. By the time they left, they were saying Thank You and Hello and Canada, and good night and basically any English words they could think of (most of which didn’t make any sense but made us feel somewhat better).

After they left, we took turns through the night keeping watch. We wanted to keep an eye out in case they returned and also we wanted to make sure Toboggan was safe since we anchored in the dark under duress and we were closer to the reef than we wanted to be. When the sun came up, we pulled up the anchor and we went around the point to the next bay which was also protected from the howling North wind, but out of sight of the military. Although Steve and I had remained calm the night before, I had truly been terrified and I just wanted to be away from that place (even though we were only 10 minutes away on the same island).

Later that next day, a military man came out to our boat. He had hitched a ride from shore with a small fishing boat. We talked to him for a bit then Steve traded with the fisherman a pack of smokes for a nice fish. As they were leaving, the fisherman and the military guy split the pack of smokes so we assume everyone was happy and we could finally relax but I was extremely happy when the wind calmed down the following day and we were on our way again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Guys!
Just wanted to let you know it has been lots of fun following your blog... though lately it sounds like it may have been a little more exciting than you wanted!
Safe voyage.
Dave Gosnell
Port Dover Yacht Club (racing div)

5:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Nancy & Steve:
We love reading your blog. I've tried to e-mail, but it does not seem to get through. You are in our thoughts and prayers. Love, Nancy. (

4:04 AM  

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