Wed, 12 Apr 2000 16:42:53 EDT

Red Sea Rising -- Clay Henderson's Log of the Red Sea

My 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 Bay. 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.