Searching the Red Sea

the RhapsodyKarina & Tom in virgin watersRhapsody on tour

Spotguide Northern Red Sea  by Karina & Tom Figl

Upon sailing south from Suez, the northern tip of the Red Sea, the red towing cliffs and mountains of the Sinai accompanies one along a pristine coastline, tattered with jagged reefs and coastal outcrops where the persistent northerly winds whip up a considerable swell which can wrap around and break the continuous blue with streaks of white along the shallow reefs. Numerous locations can be found here, along the west Sinai coast, between Suez and Ras Mohammed, the southern most tip, where the anchorage is protected and the wind and kitesurfing is perfect. We have named these spots as they appear on the navigational charts, unknown to the world of windsurfing but for a few exceptions. Wadi Feiran, Ras Matarma and Shab Ali are to mention just a few. Yet our trip took us to a location, more remote yet more pristine; the archipelago!

As the Gulf of Suez again begins to narrow into the Straits of Gubal and the southern tip of Sinai compresses the airflow against the great African continent, a litter of islands appear on the horizon. For centuries these islands have plagued seafarers as navigational hazards and many a ship, even to the most recent times has found a permanent mooring. Therefore, wrecks like the Ghannis D, Crisola and the Thistlegorm, not to mentions the deep and treacherous Rosalie Moller which lies at 64 meters have become world renown and are visited frequently by dive charter boats that operate in the area.

The whole year round winds are northerly. In April and May as well as October, an occasional southerly may make its way up the Red Sea only to be cast back by a ferocious bellow of the Ghamsin, the resuming north wind which we have experienced not only once. A frightening experience which may last for days and brings winds exceeding 55 knots as well as sand! But, especially during these times, the waves are great and it doesn’t get much better on the north side of the reef! Winds at the islands are generally 5 to 10 knots more than in Hurghada and in the 7 months I spent in the area, there were very few days which had too little wind. The combination of deserts on either side of the Red Sea as well as a high over the Azores and the consistent south westerly monsoon over the north Indian Ocean generates this very reliable wind. Add to that, the continental compression and wow, this place works!

Access to the islands can be either via Hurghada or from El Gouna, a 30 minute drive north of Hurghada airport, this magnificent resort offers ample top notch accommodation, rental facilities from numerous windsurf rentals and boat charter, the vital element when trying to get to the islands.Upon leaving El Gouna marina, you will head in an easterly direction bearing straight towards the largest yet forbidden island, Shadwan. Shadwan has a military camp on its southern end and has been mined considerably. It is unlikely that you get a ride there as most charterboat captains avoid it with a passion. There have been incidents of the military shooting their AK47’s at boats in the area. If you do go, the eastern bay (GPS Position) is the only bay we have as yet found which offers shelter from the wind, except for the 1km long white sandy beach which acts as a spit and reaches out into the sea, making for perfect flat water speeding and kiting. Yet don’t go for long walks too far from the beach as the area still has not been cleared from landmines!!!

Half way to Shadwan, after passing the narrow gap between the Shab Tawila reefs, lie three islands, all in a row:

Tawila (GPS), the long one in arabic, has a large inner lagoon where oysters can be found on the remainders of what was a military pier. We usually anchored to the around the pier, where both east and west of the pier two sandy beaches stretch. Kiting here is especially good as you can race along the flattest waters, a meter from the beach and then lift off to incredible heights. East of the pier, the water is shallow varying between 20cm and a meter at high tide. So when friends came on board, this was their beginners playground.

Just north, the second largest island, Gubal Kebir can not be overseen and is approximately half an hour north. The two are separated by a blue green lagoon with isolated reefs, behind which anchorage can be taken. Windsurfing here is like in Lake Garda, perfectly sized chop yet the water colour reminds one of an obvious difference. The water temperature year round varies between 23 and 27 degrees. On the southern tip of Gubal Kebir, a sand spit jots out into the lagoon which makes for a perfect kiting beach. We numerously enjoyed the glassy waters behind the spit, then launched ourselves into the chop immediately after the spit. Also, many fish crowd the numerous coral bommies that lurk treacherously beneath the surface in this area making exciting snorkelling and fishing. And if you’re lucky, you may catch the occasional lobster. We often went snorkelling at night along the reef top, during the new moon and armed with a torch. When you see a lobster, simply shine the torch in its face and pick it up!

5 nautical miles east of Gubal Kebir is the reef complex of Shab Umm Usch (GPS) a horse shoe shaped atoll 3 miles in diameter. Within the lagoon the anchorage is superb and obviously the windsurfing great. At high tide, this is the first place one can experience the Red Sea swell, which wraps itself around the entire atoll. We literally went screaming over the shallow reef, choosing a narrow channel and an area where the waves were more sideshore and launched ourselves into the first of what seems impossible in the Red Sea, waves. The waves break shallow on the sharp edges of coral reef, at a lower tide this is impossible as it almost sucks dry. Yet up to 3 meter waves spoilt us days on end and heavy hearted we ventured forth in search of what we had not yet discovered.

Gubal Shagira (GPS) or rather Bluff Point marks the narrowest part of the straits of Gubal, dividing Africa and Asia and is immediately north of Gubal Kebir. Getting here can be tough as once past Big Gubal you are in the Straits and even the local diving boats often hesitate to venture into this area. But once tacked up to the surrounding reef, the reward becomes immediately revealed. The island is 19 meters high boasting the old and new light house, a view point from which a decision can be made to whether it will be a flat water or wave day today. The north is entirely exposed and is the best wave spot we have found on our one and a half year journey. On the southern end of this elongated reef, north of the island, the waves are sideshore and down the line sailing is possible. The water above the reef is between 20 and 80cm, depending on tides and is as flat as a pancake. The reef drops off on a 100 meter vertical wall where all pelagic species can be found, adding to the excitement of the spot. Here, the largest waves break and curl perfectly towards the protected reef-top. Rarely a dinghy from a dive boat comes up from the protected waters south of Bluff Point, comprising the only spectators we ever had! Just beware, the reef is shallow and wrong landings from high jumps can be costly on equipment and body. The nearest hospital is in El Gouna, at least 3 hours away. Fortunately I had three friends on board, two doctors and a nurse when I split my head open and got stitched up! The southern side of the island displays numerous white sandy beaches and, with a good skipper on board the passage through the reef is do-able, making embarkation almost on the sand itself possible. Kiting here is magnificent, the colours unimaginable and the coral bommies often in the way!

The northernmost islands are the Ashrafi group in Shab Muwarat. Once through the narrow entry into the atoll (GPS), head for the western most island where a good anchorage can be found in about 6 meters. The oval shaped reef complex has a total of 9 islands and from the eastern most, kiting and windsurfing within the protected waters is very good. The island is covered in shells of all sized. Unfortunately, one night we experienced a Ghamsin exceeding our wind reading instrument of 55 knots and tearing both anchors out of their holding, and this all at 4am, before sunrise. With only 200 meters to spare before ‘Rhapsody’ would also have found her last resting ground, we threw the engines on and tried to re-anchor. Luckily first the sand anchor dug in with a tremendous jolt and then the heavy admiralty. At daylight broke we visualised that we had no more than a few meters to spare.

Anxiously we departed as soon as the light allowed and headed, under bare poles (mast only), for South Queisum Island, a rather large island offering shelter form the northerly swell. When sailing with no sails and you’re still moving at 17 knots, you know the winds not doing you a favour! Fortunately South Queisum lies south of Ahsrafi and west of Bluff Point so we rode the swell all the way. South Queisum has 3 possible flat water spots, the northernmost offering great protection from the swell as you can again anchor very close to the beach. This is flat water heaven as you can tear along in glassy waters, no more than 1 meter from the beach and that for about about 2 km! Karina and I often sailed together, she on the windsurfer, I kiting, racing each other, simply ripping. This is a relaxation spot pure as they come! The adventurous can windsurf from here directly across to Bluff Point and shred the waves. Its about a 15 minute sail across the Tawila channel and the reef protruding north of Bluff Point. Just make sure nothing goes wrong!

Besides the above mentioned Islands, there are numerous reefs where the consistent winds offer great sailing. Such reefs are the infamous Abu Nuhas (because of its 7 wrecks), Siyul Kebira, Shab El Erg and on the Sinai side, Shab Ali near shag Rock. After 6 months we still have not discovered all. Looking at the charts, the area between South and North Queisum looks like another very interesting spot... It waits to be discovered. The islands have huge potential for all sorts of water sports. Yet for us the attraction is as they now are, isolated and deserted, the occasional fishermen greeting us in the most friendly manner and offering fish for a little money, a cigarette or simply a gift. The rewards this area has to offer are beyond comparison, not only with regards to the wind and waves, but also on a journey towards yourself.

Useful Contacts:
Abu Tig Marina, El Gouna: Mr. Phillip Jones: 0020 65 580073
Abydos Marina, El Gouna: Mr. Said: 0020 12 3280054
Windsurf and Boat Rentals: Mr. Harby Rashid:0020 12 3169397
Restaurants and Bars
The Club House: Hoda
Halikarnas: Barbaros
The Sand Bar: Clayton
Seventh Star Bakery: Jaques and Tascha
Sheraton, Mövenpick, Paradisio, Dawar El Omda, Captains Inn & Turtles Inn (Marina), Mangrovy Beach Bar (good kite and windsurfing beach)

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   text and photos: Karina & Tom Figl © windgirls 2003