SEA GEM LOG
Wed, 12 Apr 2000 16:42:53 EDT
Red Sea Rising -- Clay Henderson's Log of the Red Sea
introduction to the Red Sea was from my seventh floor balcony of
the Hurghada Hilton following an hour plane ride from Cairo.
On opening the sliding glass doors the gusts of strong northeast
winds disheveled everything in my hotel room. It was a sign of things
to come. The next morning I experienced a 60 km taxi drive along
the Eastern Desert to the phosphate port city of Safaga to meet
Sea Gem on her round the world Millennium Odyssey. Along this
coastal drive were many conflicting sights including bombed out
buildings from recent wars, world class diving resorts, and
Bedouin nomads with camels and goat herds. My taxi driver
made me put away my VHF radio and portable GPS when we cleared military
checkpoints for fear they would consider me a spy. Along this ride
one could see the stark contrast between the green and blue hues
of the Red Sea and the shades of brown of the Arabian Desert and
the 2000m peaks of the Eastern Mountains. As we headed south
the wind continued to build and whipped up sandstorms in cylindrical
cyclones much like the pillars of fire and cloud so vividly described
in Exodus. After an interesting conflict with local customs, I found
Sea Gem with Charlie and Saundra Gray well in tact. The 55
foot motorsailor was docked next to a 750 foot phosphate ship.
I did not realize at the time that we would be this close to other
such large ships during the next week. At sunset, we pulled
away from the dock and threaded through coral reefs and narrow passages
to the anchorage opposite Millennium Odyssey headquarters at Lotus
The 2 hour trip covering a mere 2 miles gave us another lesson of
the Red Sea. Charts are not always as they appear and coral reefs
and obstructions are not properly marked. While the reefs at Safaga
are apparently a great tourism draw, it was not for me. The water
temperature of 62 degrees and a 21 knot wind was perfect for Russian
and German tourists. My snorkel, mask, and underwater camera
remained in their bags. Following a couple days in Safaga and an
outstanding side trip to Luxor to view the antiquities, we weighed
anchor at sunset in 18knots of wind to head north 204 miles to Suez.
Within a couple of hours the winds and seas began to build
and it seemed that no matter which point of north we sailed, the
wind was on our nose. In this part of the world, winds have
their own names and we were being introduced to "khamseen,"
a springtime gale that lasts for 50 days. Soon, the winds gusted
to 35 and seas became more soupy with thick based and steep irregular
waves. The more we headed north, the more the wind funneled
south against us between the steep coastal mountains on opposite
shores. We were literally sailing into a wind tunnel.
Sea Gem is a stout and heavy yacht and it would glance off the top of the first wave and pound down into the next with water slashing across the deck reducing visibility. Sailing in
these conditions is that fine line between being uncomfortable and miserable. Everything is more difficult and fatigue is an ever present gremlin which eats away at your judgment. At
first light the next morning we arrived at a point outside the reef where the Gulf of Suez and Aquaba intersect to give the Red Sea its "y" appearance. The waters here are very
confused and currents from the conflicting gulfs collide against the reefs. The plan was to divert inside the reef to the light green waters protected from the winds and waves. We rode
along the outside of the reef bouncing up and down looking at the dive boats with German tourists on the other side but could not find the way through. What we did see were several
hulks rusting atop the edge of the reef. Those boats were obviously desperate to find their way into the calmer waters before meeting their fate. Failing to see the way in, we sucked it
upand pushed into the teeth of it. We soon knew we had made the right decision. Our sunrise that morning cast down beams from the peak of Mount Sinai and reflected color
across the mountains of the Eastern Desert. We considered it a good sign from on high. Now fully in the Gulf of Suez, we spent the remainder of the trip dodging oil platforms, wells,
and fishing boats while coaxing Robbie, the automatic pilot along. During the course of the day the sand and hyper saline waters of the Red Sea rendered the two freshwater makers
inoperable which only added to our discomfort. Soon, we were without fresh water while cruising in a desert sea. Our second night on the Red Sea was hard work under
uncomfortable conditions. Navigation and steering were somewhat problematic. As we headed north through several active oil fields there was always gas burning at the wellhead.
But the red glare of the burning gas was hard to distinguish from a red port running light. At one point we noted nine large ships on our radar screen as the southbound traffic from the
Suez Canal made their way past us. We had two close calls during this time. First, we observed a fishing boat coming closer and closer to us. Once it was within a quarter mile, it
turned around. As we continued to watch it, we heard louder Arabic voices on the radio. Eventually, we noticed the fishing boat turned around because a 1000 foot oil tanker was
bearing down on us. Another time we were hit to the port quarter by a rogue wave. We turned back into it to find we were staring broadside into a large freighter. Too close for
comfort in uncomfortable seas. About 44 hours into our trip, the seas calmed, the winds dropped, and it was a beautiful cruise into Suez Bay. There had been a lot of Bible reading
during this trip and Saundra came across a passage in the New Testament that helped shed light on an old story. Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews says that God calmed the Red Sea for
Moses and the Israelites crossed it "by faith as if on dry land." To me, this is a far more probable explanation than the story told in Exodus which is burned into our memories by
Hollywood filmmakers. The Red Sea is a wicked place, but it will calm down for a fewhours at a time. Maybe Moses hit it at the right time on the right tide before the wall of water
returned with the next gale. But Paul has it right in an important respect. You've got to have faith to tackle the Red Sea. Our journey came to an end as we approached the Suez Canal.
As we headed north, the mountains of Sinai and the Eastern Desert began to converge to a low point of the desert where the city of Suez and its canal begins. We passed in close
proximity to over 25 freighters and tankers waiting to go north through the canal. At 2:30 we joked that school was out as we watched the southbound collection of container ships,
tankers, freighters, and luxuryyachts head south through the desert mist into the gulf. The Red Sea Cruising Guide has it right: There is a great feeling of euphoria for all
northboundsailors on seeing the Port of Suez. We covered 294 nautical miles in 47 exhausting, sleepless hours. No where have I found the origin of the name Red Sea.
Obviously, it is a name that has been with this place since before the time of Moses and the Pharaohs. On seeing the pillars of fire in the desert, it is obvious that some things have not
changed in several thousand years. On my first night onthe Red Sea, I watched the full moon rise and reflect a deep bloody color from the desert sands misting across the sea. On
successive sunrises over Sinai and sunsets of the Eastern Desert, I watched subtle shades of beige transformed into the red hues of sunset. It is a reminder that three of the world's great
religions stemmed from prophets who have emerged from the desert surrounding this place to tell of the word of God. Given that there has been an historic connection to the Creator of
these parts, I will always believe it was named from on high.