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Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Red Sea - Spring 2006

The Red Sea, marvellous as it is with its coral reefs, desert landscapes and ancient ports, is not very user- friendly for a yacht going north.  Prevailing northerly winds funnel down this narrow sea, blowing force 5/6 for days on end, kicking up short steep waves which stop you in your tracks.  Progress ranges from painfully slow to impossible….and it’s 1000 miles. Until now, our passage around the world has been within the trade wind belt, where favourable winds push you along in the direction you want to go.  Normally, we would expect to knock off 1000 miles in 10 days.  Not any more; it takes more like two months to get up the Red Sea, most of it spent waiting in sheltered water behind the reefs until the wind drops enough to get a bit further up the coast before diving for cover again. 

Dolphins   dolphins 2
                                                   Dolphins bowriding while sailing north uo the Red Sea

Having said all that, the first challenge of the Red Sea is actually the southerly wind which blows through the Bab El Mandeb, the narrow strait between Yemen and Djibouti at the bottom. We entered the Bab at dawn on 17th April in a rising wind which, sure enough, then blew at gale force all morning. At least it was from behind, so we were off to a boisterous start, racing into the Red Sea at 7 knots. The next drama was to cross the busy shipping lanes. The ships keep to the middle to be clear of reefs, so once we’d passed through them across to the west side, we never saw them again.

Masawa    Masawa train
                                                                  Massawa        railway construction

Our first port was Massawa, in Eritrea.  Massawa was a strategic trading post during the Ottoman Empire and the old town by the port is a relic of architectural splendour; imposing buildings with magnificent arches and intricate balconies of wood or stone.  But 30 years of war with Ethiopia, in particular for control of this important port, has devastated the place and left it in ruins. The fine town hall, the splendid palace are bombed-out shells beyond repair. Some restoration work is in progress, but Eritrea, fiercely going it alone since independence in 1991, has not the money to preserve what’s left of this heritage. There’s a rather subdued atmosphere and tight security in the restricted area around the dock, though people are friendly enough and quick to tell you their country is at peace. Life goes on amidst the ruins where simple cafes and bars spill out through huge old doors onto the sand streets. Families camp in the ruins, sleeping outside on rough beds, whether to be cool or for fear of falling masonry, we weren’t sure!  But it was oppressively hot in Massawa and it being dry with no mosquitoes, we followed their example and slept out in the cockpit.

Asmara   Asmara 2
                                                        Art deco architecture - Asmara

We visited Eritrea’s famous capital, Asmara, high up in the cool mountains.  On the long, twisty drive through a desert mountain landscape we saw the rural community with their herds of cattle, goats, donkeys etc on the move, -a classic African scene, men swathed in white robes and turbans, women in bright colours.  It got greener as we climbed and we saw much evidence of the government terracing and reforestation programme. Asmara, isolated from the war with Ethiopia, has survived intact. It’s a stylish twentieth century city, carefully planned and built by the Italians during the 1920s and 30s, providing a perfect opportunity for architects to experiment.  And it’s all here:  rationalist, cubist, neo-romanesque, functionalist, with plenty of expressionism and art deco….an education in modern architecture. We were extremely fortunate to have contacts in Asmara, through Nick’s brother, Chris.  Amanuel and Tsehainesh proved very knowledgeable indeed about their city.  They opened our eyes to its architectural gems, pointing out details, like art deco fittings in the post office, and telling us fascinating stories about the history of some of the buildings, like the hidden balcony designed for Mussolini to wave from, (though he never did).  As well as a guided tour of the architecture, they took us to see the results of their 15 years’ work to establish a pre-school nursery and an infants school, both clearly flourishing.  The energy, guts, enthusiasm and sheer hard graft to achieve this in post-war Eritrea is pretty amazing. They’re not even teachers; he an engineer, she a social anthropologist, they have demanding jobs, so it seems they did all this in their spare time!  We were very impressed.  (They are always looking for teachers, and/or teacher trainers….great kids, nice climate!)

recycling asmara  recycling asmara 2
                                                         Recycling in Asmara - Eritrea

The African sun shines all day in Asmara but at 2300 metres, it’s like a spring day in the Mediterranean, so you can stroll comfortably along Liberation Avenue with its stately palms, enormous catholic cathedral and pavement cafes, or wander through the markets.  The covered market, also built in the 1930s, blends with the nearby mosque, echoing its dome, arches and columns, giving an Arab feel to this part of town.  Then comes a maze of ramshackle workshops on the site of the old caravanserai on the ancient trading route across the desert.  Today it’s still busy, recycling scrap metal to make household utensils. On a hill overlooking everything is the orthodox church, Nda Mariam, built on the site of a 700 year old Coptic church and designed in the original style.  And so it goes on….Asmara is really unique. 

shopping in Asmara   shopping in Asmara 2
                                                                     Asmara Markets

Back in the heat and dust of Massawa we set about organising diesel and water, quite complicated as diesel is rationed and water is scarce.  We spent a morning waiting around in offices to get our coupons, and an afternoon lugging jerry cans into the dinghy, having bribed the fishermen to let us use their quay.  People are edgy as the border dispute with Ethiopia goes on. UN peace keepers have been told to leave, and there’s a bit of ‘walls have ears’ paranoia in the cafes. 

yellow bird   Rusty Volkvagen

 We left on 30th April and in light winds managed to get 200 miles north in two days before anchoring off a tiny island amongst the reefs, just south of Port Suakin in Sudan.  It felt great to be anchored in clear clean water again, and Nick had a good go at scraping the barnacles off the hull; it’s amazing how much the accumulation of crud slows the boat down. Next day we entered the little port of Suakin, rather dramatically as it turned out.  The afternoon had been a slow punch into a north wind.  About 5.30 the wind dropped as we turned to enter the buoyed channel into the harbour.  We’d noticed the sky looking quite spooky, yellow clouds obscuring the sun, and were anxious to get in. Then all of a sudden the wind shot through 180 degrees and blew hard from the south, gusts quickly increasing to 45 knots, along with thunder, lightening and torrential rain. We struggled to lash everything down, hold the boat in the channel, find our way in through the rain and get the anchor down. A hot dry wind blew all night (a ‘haboob’) and in the morning, instead of a boat rinsed clean by the rain, all was coated in desert sand.  Welcome to Sudan!
Suakin Sudan   Suakin Street
                                                        Suakin       old and..................... new

Suakin is the most destitute place we’ve seen yet. The old town is a heap of ruins, only a couple of sturdy Ottoman-style mosques rise above the rubble. The ‘new’ town is not much better.  More ruins, dirt roads and collapsing wooden shacks, it looks desperately poor and broken down.  In 1906 the British developed Port Sudan, more suitable for big steam ships, so Suakin, a centre of trade for thousands of years, lost its importance. Anyway, we soon saw past the poverty and the wreckage and realised that a pleasant community of nice people is living a peaceful, normal life here.  Well water is delivered daily by donkey cart.  People greeted us kindly in the street (even women) and some came to shake hands and chat in very good English. We were invited in to a rough and rustic cafe and served strong, sweet coffee in tiny cups. The market has a gentle atmosphere;  soft natural colours, wooden carts, wide baskets heaped with lentils and grains, people sitting on the ground cleaning beans, donkeys waiting patiently in the shade. It was easy to get ashore and we went everyday to stretch our legs and buy fresh warm loaves from the charcoal oven. We had to stay a while because the formalities for checking in to and then out of Sudan were extremely slow.  Mohammed, who usually does it, was in Khartoum, and the guys he left in charge didn’t seem too sure how to get things done, though they were very welcoming and trying their best.  One afternoon they came out to Tokomaru in a boat and we thought, oh good, here comes our cruising permit so we can leave.  But no, they were bringing a couple of newly-weds, all dressed up, who wanted to be photographed on a yacht!  So we hastily tidied up and instead of progressing on up the Red Sea spent a pleasant afternoon with our new Sudanese friends.  
Girls Suakin   Donkey Suakin
                                                          Sudanese  girls ..........................water suply

We left Suakin on 7 May and managed to get 120 miles further north to anchor in our first marsa, Khor Shinab.  (A marsa is an inlet through the coral reef into the desert.)  Since then, the famous northerly winds have been blowing force 6 for two weeks and we’ve progressed only 35 miles up the coast of  Sudan, spending days on end anchored up these reefy creeks.  It’s often calm in the early morning, so we leave our marsa at first light, creeping cautiously between the banks of coral into the open sea.  Then we head north until the wind picks up to its usual 20/25 knots, at which point it’s useless to continue as our speed drops to 2 knots, tacking gets you nowhere, and it’s extremely uncomfortable pitching into steep seas.  Fortunately, there’s always another marsa along the Sudanese coast so in we go, anxiously watching the reefs on either side of the entrance. We drop anchor again; it’s still early morning and we’ve only progressed 10 miles. The sun blazes down all day, lighting up the low sand cliffs -every shade from almost-white to a deep gold/brown, and sparkling on the brilliant blue/green of the sea.  It’s bleakly beautiful. All around is the endless empty desert. One day we climbed a hill and all we saw was more hills stretching away into the purple beyond.  We’ve snorkelled a couple of times and gazed upon gorgeous coral and exotic fish.  But mostly it’s too rough for exploring or swimming.  Instead, with the windmill filling the batteries, we watch pirated movies on our lap top which takes our minds off the racket of wind in the rigging. By evening it calms down, but it would be dangerous to leave a marsa in the dark; obviously there are no buoys or anything to mark the way out through the reef.  Instead we sit in the cockpit with our Eritrean gin and watch the changing colours of the hills as the sun sets over the Nubian desert.
Camels Marsa Umbeila   Lion fish
                     Camels drinking Marsa Umbeila                                                               Lion fish

After two weeks of this, we’ve managed to stay sane. It’s remote and lonely, but there are occasional signs of life.  The odd lorry goes by along the coast road in a cloud of dust, camels come to graze on the shore and interesting birds sit on the sand spits. In one of the marsas there’s a refugee village; the refugees are from an area up the coast near the border with Egypt, which is disputed territory. We went ashore here and struggled across the windswept sand to see what we could see; and found a bakery, like something from the middle ages, producing little round loaves, baked while you wait; the nicest bread we’ve had anywhere.  We were stuck here for four days in strong winds, so Nick struggled ashore again to look for diesel.  He spent an interesting morning with helpful men who gave him breakfast and eventually lead him to someone who was happy to get some Yankee dollars for 60 litres. This gave us enough to motor all the way to Egypt if necessary. Apart from the welcome contact with people in this marsa, we’re quite alone. A highlight of our day is the radio net when we can chat to other yachties who are waiting it out ahead of us in Egypt or behind us in Eritrea. Everyone is very frustrated. We’re now in the last possible anchorage, Marsa Ombeila, about a mile from the border with Egypt.  After this comes Foul Bay, 150 miles of reef with nowhere to stop, and then another 100 miles to Port Ghalib in Egypt.  We believe there’s a weather window coming up, three or four days of calm, enough time, we hope, to motor north, 250 miles.  It’s strange to be waiting for a chance to drive on flat seas with no wind.  Usually we want wind, (as in the Arabian Sea).

Moored Port Ghalib
Tokomaru2 in Port Ghalib   curlew    Dugong  Turtle                                                           Dugong               and      Turtle   Marsa Abu Dabbab - Marsa Aalam
29 May.  The weather window came and we have reached Port Ghalib (Marsa Alam) in Egypt.   We’re so discouraged by our lack of progress that we’ve decided to leave the boat here and return to UK.  We both need to be home in June for family reasons and it’s doubtful we could make it into the Mediterranean in time to get home from Cyprus, as planned.  And so we add yet another year to our round-the-world cruise!  At least there’ll be lots of time to visit Egypt.

Red sea sunset   Red sea sunset 2
                                           Sunset over the Sahara from the Red Sea

So, no more news from Tokomaru for a while.  Best wishes from Liz and Nick
Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008