Sail Redwings

Redwings Round the World

Into the Red Sea

16 - 21 March, 1998

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16 March, Straits of Bab el Mandeb ("Gates of Sorrow")

Warning: the following account is rated S (for scary). This material is appropriate for readers interested in terror and drama on the high seas. Those who worry about us being on this trip, e.g. our parents, may not want to know about this night. Click Here to avoid the dribble and get to the good stuff.

The red line traces our route from Al Mukallah, Yemen, through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, our quick stop in the anchorage near Assab, beating towards Massawa (where we then stopped for 10 days), and then on towards Sudan.

Aaron - Smooth sailing all day with the wind behind us and increasing increasing as the gulf narrowed into a funnel. We passed Aden at midday and were impressed to see the towering old white fortress to the northeast of the port, which is situated atop cliffs several hundred feet above the crashing waves. Aden, or Djibouti across the way, is the traditional stopping point for yachts transiting Red Sea. We will, however, push on to Assab, Eritrea (which used to be part of Ethiopia) as conditions look good to pass through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb (or Gates of Sorrow) given the southeasterly winds.

Smooth Sailing East of the Straits

However, reports from Quest, which went through a couple of days ago, and La Scala who went through last night, indicate that as one approaches the Straits, the wind builds strongly and to expect a further ten knot increase in the wind speed once into the Red Sea. La Scala apparently had 35 to 40 knots and made it all the way through and to Assab at an average boat speed of 10 knots with just a "handkerchief" portion of their headsail rolled out. They felt extremely lucky that Lee on Quest had warned them of the big wind increase as they were initially approaching the Strait with full main and poled out genoa.

Thank God, Quest, and La Scala that we got the word as well or the Straits of Bab El Mandeb could truly have been our Gates of Sorrow.... It all happened pretty fast, but this is the way I remember our memorable transit into the Red Sea:

It all started deceivingly easy. Armed expecting a lot of positive current and winds, we had triple reefed the main before dark and rolled in the genoa most of the way and still made a steady 7-8 knots towards the strait in the evening pushed along by 25 knot winds through the early evening. We were ready for the winds and ready for traffic and at 1900, we easily slipped past Mayyun Island off the coast of Yemen and through the Straits into the Red Sea at an average speed of 9 knots!! Easy. Confidence built even as the wind started to gust to 30. No worries. We just used the extra steam and current to boost our speed to 10 knots and we quickly reached through the shipping lanes (we only saw one ship) and then pointed the nose back downwind towards Assab. Easy. Now, although the winds were still a steady 30 to 35 knots, the seas were abating as we got into the more open waters of the Red Sea and as we were going dead downwind the apparent wind was only 20 to 25 knots on average - not too scary really considering we already had a triple reefed main and no headsail at that point.

We thought we were through the worst of it and relaxed. Colleen and Laura went to bed at midnight and Kerry and I came "officially" on watch. As I had pretty much been up all day anyway, and as I wanted to be awake when we came into Assab in the morning, I decided to take a few hours rest as things seemed pretty easy - sail straight downwind and "try to keep the blue bits on the chart off to port".

Kerry promised to vigilantly plot our course to make sure we were on a safe heading. And she did. However, we were moving so fast, that even plotting every fifteen minutes or so things changed very quickly and we soon found ourselves over the "light blue" area on the chart which indicated 20 meters or less. Kerry woke me, but I was kind of hazy and just told her to steer a few degrees to starboard as I knew that along the edge of this bank, it was plenty deep and even at the shallowest depth of 4-5 meters we would be ok. Kerry tried to do this, but the wind, waves, and current kept pushing us in - at an alarming rate - and when she woke me again, I could detect more a bit of serious concern in her voice. Probably just being cautious. We can't be that far in already. I was really tired and in a pretty deep sleep - I had already mentally relaxed and and let down my guard as I felt we were through the dangerous bit so I was again pretty hazy. "Well", I asked groggily, "what's the depth?" "10 meters" "WHAT!!" Half conscious but aided by a sharp (probably too much) burst of adrenaline to my brain, I jumped off the settee and bounded out the companionway in just boxer shorts and a t-shirt. The depth sounder read 8 meters. The waves were big and breaking and the wind was gusting to 40 knots. I grabbed the wheel, flipped off the autopilot, and brought her further downwind, away from the shore - almost sailing by the lee - I can't see because my contacts are dry as a result of my quick awakening - WHAM - CRACK - BANG - "SHIITTTTTTT!!!!!" I screamed (apparently like a tortured animal). I've gybed her!! The boom was held out with a preventor and I can see the sail filled above my head as the boat laid over in slow motion exposing the beam to the breaking seas. My only hope is to steer back down quickly and pray that the boat had enough forward momentum to swing back to the other gybe. Otherwise, I'll have to somehow cut the preventor while we are being swamped and hope that when the boom flies across it does not smash someone, something, or itself. Luckily, within what was probably 5 seconds, the boom snapped back WHAK and we were again on port tack. I guess we still had enough forward momentum or perhaps the wind shift that gybed us shifted back.

Not us, but we felt like it could have been!

The main looks bad. Something's wrong. I probably trashed it. We have averted immediate disaster, but are getting pushed more and more into the shallows of Scilla Shoals. There are some 2-4 meter spots in here. We only draw two meters, but with these large and steep seas,

2 meter spots might be 0 meter spots in between waves.... The seas are also likely to break more and more as we get shallower..... and they are getting bigger and the wind is now a steady 40-45 knots..... I'm scared, but we still have plenty of water (room before we hit shore) to fight with and the boat is handling the chaos marvelously - it barely seems to notice.

By now, Laura, Kerry, and Colleen are poking their heads out of the cabin asking "what happened?" "We've got to tack out of here" I yell. I think all three of them came on deck and luckily, they all had their harnesses on. I did not get mine in the rush and can't let go of the wheel long enough to get one on. We are getting pounded by waved and I am completely drenched. I flipped on the engine - WHROOM - started like the charming lady she is. I brought the boat up into the wind and Laura started to winch in the main. Thank God we did not have to deal with a headsail. Finally, we got the main in on the centerline, and I brought her around - the boom is sticking - what the hell - "let off the running backstay" yelled Colleen. Good eye. We have not used them for so long given generally light to moderate conditions I forgot it was rigged.

Around on to starboard tack. WHAM - WHOOSH water water everywhere. A huge wave crashed down on us before we got speed up, knocking us flat in the water. Kerry says she saw the port lower spreader heading for the water before she shut her eyes to keep out the deluge of salt water. The cockpit looks like a hellish jaccuzzi. I am still not wearing a harness - this is very dangerous but I feel that if I let go of the wheel, we will be knocked down again. We focus on getting the boat moving - which we do. The boom gallows lies hanging and splintered where it was smashed by the wave or something during the knockdown. On this tack, we continue to get hit by big waves which come over the entire boat, but start to make positive progress out of the shallow area. However, we have moved more northward where even on the edge of the bank it gets as shallow as 5 meters. The waves are incredibly steep and choppy. The wind is now registering 45 to 50. Yikes! But we made it.

Back out in deeper water the waves lost their pitch and we were able to bear off a bit as we escaped the shallows. I got my harness and foul weather gear on, and when everyone was reasonably collected, we headed up into the wind and dropped the main. Kerry went to the mast and tussled with the sail, which took all of her body weight to pull down in the gusts. Kerry and Laura then both lashed the sail to the boom. Laura had lashed the splintered boom gallows into a serviceable position and we finally had the sail and boom lashed down and out of harms way. Colleen stayed vigilantly at the chart table steadily plotting our position and watching the depth.

It was still a tough slog to Assab. Motoring slowly under bare poles, we were making about 6 knots. I thought We might get better stability and speed with the staysail up and sent Kerry to the bow to untie it. WHAM - a huge wave hit us and completely covered her and the bow from view. She emerged ok and she and Laura got the sail up. Well sorry its really too windy - take it down. Back to the bow for Kerry and WHOOSH - whoops, sorry, shipped another greeny.... I was watching her both times rather than keeping an eye on my course and the waves.

Anyway, by 0500 "tomorrow" we were finally in the lee of the mass of islands off Assab and the seas flattened out. The winds also dropped to a more tenable 30 to 35 knots. We made our way under the close plotting supervision of Colleen into the flat (i.e. no waves - still a lot of wind) anchorage that Quest and La Scala were resting in. Well we made it. The boom gallows was the only real casualty. The mainsail is fine - just a Harken Battcar (thingy that slides up and down the mast and attaching to the sail) busted (we have spare parts and ball bearings). The forward head door is also stove in as a result of a flying emergency oxygen kit. But otherwise, we are ok and we finally got our thrill! Thanks Laura!

Laura -- This is a night of terror that deserves to be told from several perspectives, although I will try to keep it brief. First of all, it is true that earlier in the day I had said I was tired of playing cards and reading while coasting downwind and was feeling ready for more of a sailing challenge. And it is also true that when Colleen and I got off watch, when the wind was still blowing a mere 30-35, and she asked me if I was disappointed that going through the Straits hadn't been more exciting, I said "A bit." BUT, never in a million years would I have ASKED for the rest of the night. We have all chalked it up as the scariest sailing experience ever, that's for sure. Kerry has ranked it as the number one scariest experience of her life. I put it a close second with the time a wheel fell off the plane I was flying alone as an inexperienced student pilot and had to do an emergency landing.

All I know is that when I went to sleep, it was windy and wavy, but all was well. We were across the dreaded shipping lane and would be in Assab before my 9 a.m. watch. But, I couldn't sleep much and lay there for an hour instead. Then I heard this shriek, unlike anything I had heard from a human before and certainly unlike anything I had ever heard from Aaron, followed by a huge, violent, crash. When I climbed up through the main hatch mostly dressed, the world was crazy. The seas were massive and seemed to be knocking us everywhere. The wind was just howling. Aaron looked like a wild man at the wheel. I didn't know until later that we had gybed. All I knew was that we seemed to be in some pretty serious shape and when I glanced at the depth meter, which read 5 meters, I had this hollow feeling in my stomach that this was it, we were ending the trip in the Red Sea. But, it's funny how one doesn't panic when there really isn't the time. We had to get busy getting the boat under control. Everything was a struggle and we were soon absolutely soaked with salt water as the waves crashed over us. I stopped looking outside the boat because it was just too scary. When the knockdown came, I was fortunately hanging onto the hatch cover and sort of fell back under the dodger in time to see solid water come rushing over the rails and fill the cockpit. True, Redwings righted herself fairly quickly. The rest of the evening was a chaos of hanging on as waves came over the boat while we wrestled with sails and sail ties and ropes and the boom gallows. "HOLD ON!" were the most frequently spoken, or screamed, words of the evening.

In addition to the battcar getting ripped off the mast and the broken boom gallows, we also broke a baton, and lost a life ring and some buckets overboard. The remaining buckets and cat box were literally smashed and must be replaced. Down below, most everything was secure, except a suitcase-sized oxygen unit in the forward cabin to be used in case someone gets the bends while diving. That fell off it's shelf and smashed through the bathroom door.

Aaron - I think it's worth mentioning that we were not the only poor suckers to get pounded. At least two boats we know of shredded their mainsails and another snapped her boom in two. All three accidents were a result of an accidental gybe in 40+ knots of wind. Lesson: when its blowing +30 knots and you are traveling downwind, there is no reason to have any main up at all.

Check out our Photo Gallery for this day.

17 March, Assab, Eritrea

Laura - As the sun came up, we motored, or limped into Assab. I was steering and wearing sun glasses, although it was barely light, because salty spray crashed over the boat and salt dripped off the boom into my eyes, down my cheeks, down my neck and soaked my shirt under my foul weather gear. But, Assab and the masts of the few other yachts in the anchorage were in sight. I felt like I had been beaten up by the night before and the boat looked a mess. The wind was still honkin' at 35 or so. We pulled into the windy, but quiet anchorage and suddenly, just from relief I guess, we got goofy and started taking pictures of one another. I can't wait to see the photo of Colleen in her nightie and safety harness after the crazy night in Bab El Mandeb.

We really just slept and hung out most of the day as we were quite exhausted. Colleen got up at around 1 p.m. and broke out the Red Sea Pilot and began reading weather information and having a bit of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome over the night before. She hardly cracked a smile when I put on her apron with the four-leafed clovers all over it, brought out our one remaining Singha beer and did a jig in the main cabin to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Well, so okay, it wasn't the parade in Boston...

I think we got up to eat, but all went back to bed by 8 p.m. or something.

18 March, Assab, Eritrea

Laura - We pretty much lazed the morning away sleeping and reading. I used some of our beautiful brown bananas to make banana bread and was pretty happy with the results, especially since I didn't have a recipe. In the afternoon, we did further boom gallows repairs, replaced the battcar on the mast, made some water and prepared to leave in the morning. La Scala, anchored next to us, bagged out on our tentative dinner plans because they were too hung over from the night before. So, Hearts it was. (I had a good night.)

We haven't bothered to go ashore since it is about a mile away and none of us wants to blow up, let alone drive, the dinghy in this ferocious wind.

19 March, Assab, Eritrea en route for Massawa, Eritrea

Laura - We left the anchorage bound for Massawa at about 7 a.m. in a dead calm that seemed almost eerie after the racket of the wind for two days. Before getting to far, we changed genoas, packing away the biggest headsail, perhaps for the remainder of this leg of the journey.

We expected this 240 mile (as the seagull flies) trip to take a bit less than 2 days. Soon, the wind filled in again, but this time from the northwest. It soon became the wind for which the Red Sea is famous -- 20 knots northwest making steep seas of 6-10 feet. As we were trying to sail northwest and had a good number of coastal islands to deal with, our progress was slow. We spent the day sharply healed, bouncing up and down, tacking back and forth, and basically slogging it out. Toward the end of the day we discovered that the plate on which the high pressure pump for the water maker is mounted had cracked and can't be used until we get it welded back in place. So, no showers for the trip. Then, we started the engine and it stopped. Turned out there was salt water in the starboard fuel tank, meaning that about half our fuel supply was contaminated. It took some time to figure that one out, but we think what happened is that after I dumped the jerry cans of diesel into the tank in Al Mukallah, I didn't put the cap back on tightly enough. Apparently, you are supposed to put a screw driver in it and tap the end with a hammer to really crank it shut. I didn't know this. The cap also is minus a rubber seal it is supposed to have. So, probably when we took on tons of water going through the Straits, it entered the fuel tank through the cap, which is flush on the deck. I felt pretty badly about it, but it was too late.

Despite the newfound problems and the frustratingly slow progress made against the wind, I actually rather enjoyed the day. The air was cool and sunny. We all had on our foul weather gear as we got doused regularly by waves. The water had that flat grey look that the North Atlantic gets and just as the feeling that I was sailing off Cape Cod instead of in the Red Sea came over me, Aaron said that looking at all of us in our yellow suits made him feel like he was in Maine. Then Kerry said she had felt all day that she could be off Long Island. None of us could be further from home, but somehow the world was so familiar for a minute.

20 March, mid-day position: 14,12 N 41,36 E / 24 hr run 70 nm

Aaron - Slow slogging...... winds of 15-20 knots have, until the Red Sea, represented easy and comfortable sailing. But now they are coming right from where we want to go and with negative current thrown in, progress is very slow. We are tacking through about 120 degrees when under sail alone (due to current, waves, and the fact that we are not able to push the boat as though we were racing) and can just barely tack through 90 degrees when motor sailing. Unfortunately, as we only have about 20-24 hours of fuel in reserve, we can't use the engine much which would help us improve our progress. Not much else to say. We'll get there eventually.

21 March, mid-day position: 15,08 N 40,36 E / 24 hr run 80 nm

Aaron - Looks like we'll make it. 70-80 miles a day isn't so bad I suppose. Most of the other boats we were running with are still sitting in Assab waiting it out. Sounds like Assab is pretty boring. We're getting the hang of the weather pattern here. The wind comes out of the Northeast during the day time with the prevailing Northwesterly sucked in a bit (and accelerated) by the heat of the African continent on the Eastern shore, and then it eases a bit and shifts back to the Northwest in the evenings. So its made sense to head in towards the shore during daylight hours, and then tack back out for the evenings which also means less risk of running into reefs. Another plus is that we are getting better economy out our our fuel supply than I initially conservatively estimated and we are able to motor sail a bit more which helped us get inside the semi-protected outer Southern Massawa Channel. The waves then dropped further improving our motoring and sailing efficiency and significantly improving the morale of the crew. Hot foccacia gave us all a further boost and for the first time in 48 hours, it was giddiness all around.

As we made further progress up the narrowing channel, it became apparent that none of the coastal navigation lights are in service. No moon either and the radar is not working (blown magnetron I think). Lets hope the charts are accurate (there are reports of some islands and shoals being in positions 1-2 miles different than indicated on the charts in this area) and the GPS does not pack in!

We passed within a mile of several islands and saw nothing...... At midnight, the lights of Massawa are on the horizon 20 miles away. With just the main, we slowly proceed at 3-4 knots for a planned daylight landfall - hip hip hooray!

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Copyright 1998 All Rights Reserved by Aaron Henderson, Colleen Duggan, Laura Longsworth and Kerry Dinneen