Searching the Red Sea

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Rhapsody Adventure by Karina & Tom Figl

Nowadays, in the time of space travel and satellite photography, it is difficult to find a truly adventurous undertaking. Where do you go to find a great spot, with reliable wind and a decent wave? Hawaii, South Africa or Australia definitely have all there is to offer yet crowds do seem to be part of the deal. The dream was borne to discover new spots in far The Red Sea has one formidable character. The wind always seems to blow. Due to the south westerly monsoon between April and September over the north Indian Ocean and the high over the Azores, the pressure gradient channels the wind in a north to south direction within the constraints of the Red Sea.

Karina and Tom Figl
Karina speeds turquoise waters
(click pics to enlarge)

Furthermore, the chop which is caused by this consistent wind should build up considerably over the length of the 1200NM Red Sea. Add to this the very arid environment and a cultural interaction beyond anything we had as yet experienced, and we were bound for an adventure of magnitude.

Karina (28, Austrian) and Tom (32, South African) have a history of watersports and both decided to give up their jobs as a knowledge manager at an internet consulting company and a managing director of a water efficiency company respectively in order to experience the thrills of life again. We wanted to discover new spots, deserted beaches and unridden waves... No security nets, no back doors, no options left open, the trip was no compromise, an adventure up and down the Red Sea, the last frontier...

We undertook the last alterations to Rhapsody, a 42ft catamaran which enabled enough deck space to carry 4 windsurfers, 2 kiteboards and 2 surfboards and then still allow us to rig up comfortably, and set forth from Cyprus towards the Red Sea. We had been forewarned of what we were going to encounter with regard to the Arab mentality. Yet all we encountered were the most friendly, helpful and generous people we had ever met.

As soon as we entered the Gulf of Suez, we realised we had come to the right place. The wind had suddenly increased from 15 knots to 45 knots and blew consistently from the north. And it didn’t stop! We took our time down to El Gouna, stopping at numerous and countless reefs and bays, the Sinai mountains towering dark and red in the background and offering an unbelievable setting. Generally, most places we found were not accessible by car as we simply anchored behind an outcrop of a reef, raced over the glassy water and launched ourselves into the windswell that had been generated. Our only spectators were the occasional fishermen who regularly came over and swamped our boat with fish, calamari and shrimps, sympathising with these crazy idiots out on these small boards in this inhumane wind.

Tom kiting
fishermen
market in Port Sudan

Sailing a yacht in these conditions isn’t fun. Rhapsody is an open bridgedeck cat and was reaching 17 knots under bare polls ( no sails up). She does though have a rotation wing mast with an area of 8 sq. meters which means it is quite difficult to slow her down. The wind in the Red Sea generally seems to be strongest around the Straights of Gubal, just at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Suez. Here, we concentrated our search for good conditions and found more than we bargained for! Yet initially our journey was south and the Egyptian, Sudanese, Eritrean and Yemenese coasts are pristine when it comes to secluded and remote areas. Upon leaving Hurghada, we didn’t realise that we were now entering no mans land when it comes to sailing and windsurfing. For the next 7 months, we saw no other windsurfers and even more astonishing, we saw no other yachts. It is so remote a place, that we only saw a total of 5 boats, of which 3 were fishermen on their dhougs and two Sudanese dive charter boats!

In summer the northerly wind blows the length of the Red Sea and joins the south westerly monsoon at the Straights of Bab El Mandeb, thus making sailing south a pleasant journey. Every day we would stop off at another bay or reef and either windsurf or kite or even dive. Our dives were generally at the same places where we windsurfed and a peek under the water was in most cases not a good idea if you wanted to continue windsurfing. Every dive in Sudan was with numerous shark encounters, including the rather tame white and black tip reef, the grey, the very moody silky and huge schools of hammerhead. But also always dolphin encounters, which would play with us sometimes for hours...

Karina in Cairo

Very occasionally we would be invited for dinner by some fishermen who had caught a turtle or shark and we thankfully declined. Other rules apply here, a different culture, where generosity and honesty and friendship are the parameters that determine a mans value and not, no, by no means his money. This never comes into the equasion. Sudan is amazing. The north Sudanese coast has multiple indentations, almost fjord like formations which enable you to anchor up to 15 km inland yet still among coral reefs and white sandy beaches. Yet this is mainly flat water sailing and therefore the Maui Project Style came in very handy. We would shoot up and down the various bays and sometimes venture out of the mouth, generally a very narrow inlet only too concerned of the sharks that prevailed here. But especially here the swell generated by 1000km of strong northerly breezes would beat upon the delicate coral and peel across the reef cliff for miles and miles.

The central Sudanese coast bears beauties such as Mesharifa Island and the Telat Islands where the chance of windsurfing with mantas is 100%. Likewise, we were often accompanied by dolphins, shooting about in front of the tip of our boards, coming so close sometimes that their erratic tail wagging would create enough turbulence to cause a spin out. Southern Sudan boasts numerous islands that are uninhabited and covered in green mangrove trees, quite a change from the desert like northern Red Sea. Here though, the immediate coast is to be avoided as the military which is in constant alert due to the ambiguous relation to Eritrea can be quite distasteful, as we experienced:

Upon entering Trinkitat Harbour, a Sudanese navy craft immediately embarked upon us and the 10 gentlemen aboard, armed to the teeth with kalasnikovs wanted to board us. A privilege I promptly refused, much to their dismay. They then refused us permission to anchor in their bay, only preceded by another daunting occurrence of them ramming us. Fortunately, their bow hit our dinghy and this acted as a very large fender, propelling us forward in one massive leap. After initial apologies, we were obliged to stay the night, something we were to regret as that night, without any prevail, a Haboob launched itself upon us. The Haboob is a local south Sudanese sandstorm that blew from the desert for 3 days, covering us in a thick layer of dust with outside temperatures reaching 50 degrees and no place to hide. We left after 3 days, with a visibility of no more than 2 meters and trusted our GPS to guide us the narrow coral minefield that barred the entrance.

Karina and Tom

Eritrea has an archipelago of 230 Islands just off the coast and opposite Massawa. Most have fantastic sandy beaches and are swept by the northerly winds in summer and southerly in winter. Although the summer winds are light, generally 10 to 15 knots, they are ideal for large sails and kitesurfing. The only problem is the heat and Eritrea is the hottest country in the world. Daytime temperatures reach 55 degrees at 90% humidity and up to 35 degrees water temperature. It was almost to warm to swim in it, so we took our surfboards out and went for a paddle instead... Our watermaker was running non stop just to supply enough drinking water to handle the heat. Our bodies didn’t and after coming out in all sorts of rashes and warts, we ventured through the pirate infested waters of Bab el Mandeb and south Yemen, eventually arriving in Aden.

Our trip should have taken us across to the Maldives yet the elements were against us and the north Indian Ocean is no joke, especially in a tropical depression! With winds consistently at 40 knots from the east and swells reaching 7 meters, Rhapsody was taking serious strain, the centreboard starting to crack. The decision was made and we would turn around and head for El Gouna, the little paradise where, in its immediate vicinity, conditions had been best. It took 2 months to get back to the first fresh water hose and decent shower but the trip was just as interesting as the one going south. Sailing here is like being alone on the planet. The fish had become so abundant that fishing was a matter of 5 minutes every 5 days. One time we caught a 40 kg yellow fin tuna and we would eat tuna for 8 days, breakfast, lunch and dinner: sushi, sashimi, pepper coated, soya sauce, honey mustard, bread crumbs, garlic, stir fry, ginger, coriander etc. We became very creative... The virgin spots we had discovered remain vivid in our minds and, especially now where we are back in the comforts of a secure environment, we are again yearning for a return to the remoteness of the Red Sea!

 

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   text and photos: Karina & Tom Figl windgirls 2003