We eventually left the comfort and protection of the Lamu anchorage in a convoy of three boats and turned left to head north towards the a Gulf of Oman. Notoriously the most dangerous stretch of water in the world – sailing up the Somalian coast towards Yemen. Nearly all the yachts transitting the Red Sea come from India in effect bypassing most of the Somalian coastline but we were sailing right alongside the coast for over 1000 miles – the first boats for years to do this run. Having done our due diligence we discovered that rather than dangerous, it was now very quiet and had the added bonus of overhead flying military aircraft, patrols boats from at least 4 countries and daily logging into the UKMTO of our position. We were all in close communication with each other and felt apprehensive but pleased to eventually be on our way. What followed was the most frustrating sail we have ever done! We had been waiting for the right weather window with either southerlies to push us up or very weak northerlies to enable us to motor through but Mr weather app was wrong again and our promised good weather turned out to be strong northerlies and a horrendous current of 3-4 knots pushing us down and west towards the Somalian coast. Our plan of sailing at least 100nm off the coast was thwarted and we only managed 25-50nm which was a bit disconcerting. On some days we only covered 66nm which seriously put a strain in the diesel consumption along with the time line to get round the Horn of Africa before more bad weather came in. We lost sight of Vamanos after 24 hours and Proud Cat after 3 days. We did spy them both during the sail but as we had our AIS turned off, and at night sailed with all our lights off it was pot luck if we saw them again. We had one disconcerting moment when a large fishing boat with 10 guys on board turned round and approached us, coming right up to our starboard hull and started yelling at us. Luckily they only wanted to sell us some fish but we had no Somalian money so they left. Scary at the time but innocent.
The 14 days expected journey to Socotra was never going to happen so we decided not to go there and head straight to Djibouti. The first 15 days we were beating against wind and current, tacking continuously and watching our track on the plotter move very slowly upwards. When we reached the Horn of Africa though things changed dramatically and we had a fabulous sail along the coast towards Djibouti reaching unheard of speeds on this journey of over 8 knots. 17 long weary days later we pulled in, dropped the anchor and were happy to see both Paseafique and Proud Cat safely tied up. Vamanos followed a day later having run into trouble with a fishing net that got entangled in his rudder, costing him $400 to the irate fishermen, and an altercation with another fishing boat who boarded him, robbed him of some gear and who then got bashed with his trusty cricket bat as a reward for their foolishness. In the marine world this is called piracy as it is theft on the high seas but with all the hysteria around pirates in this area, who historically kidnap people, we were loathe to call it that as everyone seems to have their own armchair opinion. Our friend was very unlucky, the local Somali fishermen are desperately poor and see a cruising yacht as easy pickings. This kind of thing happens all the time in the Caribbean and cruisers know it is just another thing to deal with so our friend remains stoic and appreciates he was lucky. Either way it was a frightening experience and on reflection we have not got any defence weapons on board so with us it may have had a different outcome.
Djibouti is a dull place with a couple of very modern shopping malls stuck in a desert of sand, dust and dilapidated cars. We were happy to get a good coffee and stock up our provisions that had been seriously depleted. We wandered around the town, found a great bar, the boys found their hardware shop and we managed to get some cheap beer.
There were about 6 boats in the anchorage, so the evening were spent socialising on the cats and discussing the upcoming journey through the Red Sea. We only spent a couple days here and then upped anchor and the off for Eritrea.
We called into an island on the way up the coast to get a good nights sleep and were surprised to see camels wandering along the beach, so we dropped the dinghy in and went ashore. We were greeted by a group of young men and boys who wanted us to go to their village. We walked for a while but as the sun was starting to sink we told them we had run out of time as we had to get back. We gave them some water and biscuits and they wanted us to come back the next morning but we knew we would be leaving at the crack of dawn. When we arrived in Massawa we found out that it is highly illegal to step on shore before check in, and our friends had been chucked out of their anchorage at gunpoint. Everyone was amazed we not only managed to stay a night but even got to walk around the island….. could have got into serious trouble then!
Now Eritrea has been a real surprise. It used to be part of Ethiopia but they decided to try and gain their independence which resulted in a 30 year war, which decimated parts of their country. They were not expected to win the war and gain their independence, but win they did and they are now finally free albeit in their terms. We found it dictatorial and the people seemed to want more freedom. For example.
– passports only given to men over 60 and married worn only after 35.
– special permission needs to be granted for a SIM card
– military service is for life
– communication and media very restricted
We called into the port of Massawa and found it surprisingly quiet
Most ports are bustling entities that have ships waiting to unload and people running around, but Massawa was like a ghost port. One day we did see a shipment of goods being unloaded but mostly it was deserted. They guards at the gate still wanted to check our paperwork every time we went through though! Sadly the war had left many buildings bomb damaged and many abandoned houses lay in ruins. The original town dates back to the Ottoman times and the beauty of the town still shines through.
The newer town consisted of ramshackled houses, dusty streets with camels wandering through and a large traditional markets made from bamboo and canvas awnings. Eritrea has the 2nd lowest GDP in the world which is apparent as it seemed barren and empty. There were no supermarkets, hardware stores or malls and incredibly no traffic. The roads were empty with the exception of if the local buses and a few tricycles. I have never seen a town devoid of cars but it made walking a breeze!
The night life was a few plastic chairs outside the bars which we frequented often, joined by locals keen to learn about the world outside their borders. In the market, young boys run around selling stock cubes, cigarettes, biscuits and chillies – all desperately trying to make a buck. The women man the stalls and the men sit around talking and smoking. The situation was startlingly harsh to us but as I have learnt, happiness is a frame of mind not measured by living standards and they all seem very content. On our way back from to the anchorage we were invited to sit and have a beer with some guys and they were very happy to have us there. On the way back my hat blew into the water and immediately two boys jumped in to retrieve it. They were so pleased to help me out and got $1 each for their help. They ran off laughing with a story to tell their mates about how they helped a tourist lady …
After a few days we visited Asmara, the Eritrean capital with Mike and Proud from Proud Cat. The 5 hour bus journey was an adventure in itself, with the landscape going from very dry, rocky and inhospitable to greener pastures with valleys and villages nestled into the hillside.
The city of Asmara is in the centre of Eritrea and surrounded by mountains and everything is brought here by truck via the very sharp hairpin bends and the steep mountainside. We saw truck after truck negotiating these bends but saw no accidents, unlike Uganda where there seemed to be a smashed truck on every corner. I think the Eritreans must be better drivers. We got a seat in the bus but many people missed out and the aisle was always full of people squatting down or being shaken around. It was an entertaining journey but we arrived tired and hungry so we grabbed the nearest hotel, had a shower and headed out for a pizza. We spent the next day exploring Asmara but there is really nothing to see, except the obligatory traditional market (one of the biggest we have ever seen) and the Cathedral.
The bombing seemed to have left Asmara unscathed and we were surprised to see a well laid out small city with a definite Italian feel. The Main Street is wide and lined with palm trees and there are small parks everywhere. On our second night we caught up with our friends Gigi and Patricia and the French family we were anchored with. Patricia had a bottle of Ouzo but we only had a couple of glasses before she knocked it over and it smashed. No problem normally but it was in their room and they had to sleep that night with the smell of Ouzo wafting around! Glad we were in a different hotel.
The bus trip back was just as much fun as the one up. We stopped for a spot of lunch at a road side cafe, watched the camels wander down the side of the road, and watched the landscape change from greenish back to dusty rock.
We arrived back in Massawa and did a spot of last minute provisioning before catching the local bus back to the port. To my utter amazement they put a goat on the roof rack which is normal practice here. I watched In horror as the bus turned the corner and the goat didn’t, landing with a thump in the road. I screamed at the driver to stop along with the owner of the said goat who saw her dinner about to be run over. The bus conductor jumped out and picked it up, put it inside the bus and it seemed to be unhurt. I know what the ending was to be for this unfortunate creature but poor thing had a very rough last few hours on this earth.
We decided to take advantage of the weather window and leave the next morning in company with Paseafique. We were low on diesel so we sailed for most of the way albeit slowly, and did something we swore we would never do, we sailed into a new port at night. We had friends who had done it and they gave us very good waypoints so we felt confident we would be OK. It was an amazing entry with dilapidated houses all along the shore. We arrived safely at 2am to see Paseafique and Donazita already anchored. Another country to explore….