Africa to the Middle East

After 2 weeks at sea, with no sight of land, nothing but ocean in every direction, we sail through a dense fog, and arrive at the giant commercial port of Salalah, in Oman. This is a massive container port that can handle 6 to 8 container ships at any one time, each around 200 to 300 metres in length, all at various stages of being loaded or unloaded. And here we are on Mai Tai, sitting at anchor right in the middle of all the action, not another sailing yacht to be seen. How we came to get here is what this story is all about.

We left Kilifi, Kenya, on Africa’s east coast on the 14th September, right after hauling Mai Tai at the Kilifi Boat Yard to paint her bottom, and having stocked the cupboards with plenty of food and fresh supplies for what could be several weeks at sea. Our passage was to take us to Djibouti at the southern end of the Red Sea.

The weather conditions were perfect and we could really enjoy the passage of the days, from beautiful sun rises, moon rises, sun sets and glorious days in between.

We had opted to stay well east of the Somalian coast due to the history of pirates in this region.  Even though there have been no reports of piracy for the past couple of years, we weren’t prepared to take any chances. We sailed a course parallel to the Somalian coast, but 200nms out to sea. Even being so far out, we continued to keep a sharp eye out for anything suspicious.

We were 6 days out and about half way to our first waypoint at the Island of Socotra, when Kay looked out to scan the horizon as we do every half hour, and was surprised to see a boat maybe 4 miles away off our starboard bow, heading in a southerly direction. There was no AIS so we could not identify the vessel, even with binoculars.  It looked as though he was heading away from us. It was 0630 and now we were both on deck with nerves bristling, hoping it will continue on its way. Just as we were breathing a sigh of relief, the vessel turned and headed straight for us. No doubt about it, it was approaching quickly and came within 100 metres on our starboard side. We could read the name and used our Sat Phone to call Watchkeepers at UKMTO, the navy fleet command that watches over these waters to protect the shipping fleet from pirates. This vessel was not showing on our AIS, so it was running “dark”. We took the preventer off the main boom in case we had to make a fast turn to avoid this vessel. We called it on VHF with no response. Now, we were getting nervous!!!  Then, all of a sudden, it turned away to continue on its way south. Watchkeepers remained in touch until we were happy to be free of any danger.

Later, through the research efforts of our son Loic, and Peter on Steel Sapphire, we were able to find out that this was a Fisheries Patrol Vessel registered in the Seychelles and most likely searching for foreign fishing vessels in their waters. We still wish they would have answered our radio calls to identify themselves.

We didn’t see any other traffic except for a couple of 300 metre tankers, heading south that passed within 4 miles of us. A reminder we need to keep constant watch.

On the evening of the 8th day out, still 200nms away from the Island of Socotra, at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Aden, the wind and sea conditions suddenly changed. These changes were expected as we had read about the compression zone, but didn’t really know what we would actually get. The southeast trade winds blowing from the Indian Ocean into Eastern Africa, are compressed as they bend to the northeast along the Somalian coast. Then they screech into Socotra Island as they enter the Gulf of Aden, setting up winds that can reach 40 to 50 knots and produce monster waves. However, during the month of September each year, the weather patterns begin to change into the Northeast Monsoon season and the winds around Socotra ease off to 25 to 30 knots. That is why we have chosen to make our run north now.

We approached Socotra from the south east, with 25 knot prevailing winds blowing from the south west. But it was the topsy turvy sea state with huge waves peaking and breaking in all directions that was the worst. We had full moon during this part of the passage, and under the bright moonlight, the ocean became a spectacular portrait of chaos.

While beautiful to look at, it was very strenuous sailing conditions, just bracing ourselves every waking moment, and trying to produce meals, albeit kept very simple, was a real mission. Sleep was interrupted with the constant crashing and banging of sails and rigging and the occasional pots and pans.

The huge waves breaking over the boat found leaks that we didn’t know we had and deposited hundreds of small fish all over the decks. The squid were the worst, as they squirt their ink everywhere as they sense danger. We even have huge ink spots up on the mainsail. Our sea berths became damp and by now the carpets were soaking. But as we kept inching towards Socotra, with winds over 30 knots, we were also battling a 2.5 to 3 knot current on our nose. So, we are sailing at 7.5 knots in this horribly messy sea and the GPS says we are only making 4 knots over the ground. We were so glad to be able to tuck in safe and dry behind our cockpit passage awning, during this passage.

This is our 9th day at sea and we are getting pretty tired, so maybe tomorrow we will get around to the lee side of Socotra and possibly try to anchor there for a rest, if we find some shelter.

However, rest was not on the cards for us at this place. Socotra is a long narrow island that lays from the southwest to northeast. As the trade winds curve out from Somalia toward Socotra, they blow with equal strength along both sides. There is no lee shore. Yikes—now what?

Tired and frustrated, we rounded Socotra and headed west. Now on a tight reach with a current pushing us further north from our intended course. We continue through the night of day 10 and are forced to sail as close into the wind as possible in order to make any westing at all.  However the big crashing seas kept knocking our bow towards the north. The autopilot was having difficulty keeping us on course. We would work up into the wind and then, WHAM, a big wave would knock us back. Three times we were slammed so hard by the waves that we jibed the main. Since we were triple reefed with the preventer tied to the end of the boom we dodged catastrophe.

However, as we took stock of our situation, we noticed that the wind direction instrument had been blown off the top of the mast. We lost one of our trash buckets that was lashed to the stern rail and the shackle securing the 3rd reef in the mainsail was literally straightened out flat. It was daylight when we noticed the shackle, the threaded pin was caught in the reefing cringle, the only thing holding the reef in place. We quickly set a plan in motion.

There was no turning to head up into the wind in these seas, so we eased the main sheets until it was completely luffing. We set up the lazy jacks and tried to lower the mainsail, but Lane still had to go forward to the mast to pull down on the sail with all his weight to get the sail down. Once down and contained in the lazy jacks, we brought the boom amidships to secure it where Lane could work at replacing the old shackle. Meanwhile we were racing along in breaking seas under staysail alone. Job done, mainsail hoisted. That could have been a disaster had it actually given way during the night.

We downloaded the current weather forecast and could see that the next day, day 11, would bring very light wind. Yeah, we say!!! We could almost feel the wind beginning to ease a little. Was it wishful thinking?

Lane went below to check the engine over, oil levels and coolant levels, knowing we would be needing it soon. The oil was very low – off the dip stick. He added two litres of oil and decided to start the engine to see if we could detect an oil leak somewhere. Sure enough, oil was dripping freely into the bilge. We ran the engine for am hour while topping up the water tanks with the water maker. On checking the oil again after an hour of running the engine, we were down 2 litres again. The leak appeared to be from a small tube which feeds oil from the engine block to the high pressure diesel fuel pump in order to keep it lubricated during operation. So it only leaks when the engine is running.  We did a quick calculation of how much oil we have on board and how far that would allow us to go while losing 2 litres per hour. We have 10 litres, so a maximum running time of 5 hrs.  Another complication is that we use our engine to drive our water maker. No engine, no water, and it doesn’t rain in this part of the world.

This cruising life is full of challenges. We discussed our options and both agreed that to continue toward Djibouti (680 nms to the west) in a region of light to zero winds in one of the busiest commercial shipping lanes in the world, with no engine, was a bit mad. It could take us weeks to make it to Djibouti with no motor and with no way to replenish our water along the way, we could be in serious trouble. We had carried extra diesel fuel on deck just for this part of the trip because we were expecting to have to motor much of the way.

Turning back to Socotra would have meant battling wind and seas on our nose and with limited resources for engine repairs. So, looking north, we see that the Port of Salalah, in Oman, that was just 185 nms down wind of where we are. A quick decision was made. We are heading for Oman.

We changed course immediately as reality hit us that we didn’t really have any other choice. We sent emails via our Sat phone to our support team, including Des (our weather guru) Javerne, Blue Wave, Steel Sapphire, our son Loic and Peter Bateman at Kilifi Boat yard. They all went to work on the internet to get current information about weather, Covid restrictions, visas, clearance issues, port rates and everything else we could think of.  We have a satellite phone to send and receive emails but we cannot get information from the internet. We received the contact details for the Salalah Port Authority, so Lane immediately sent an email explaining that we had no engine and we were requesting an emergency entry permit so we could make necessary repairs. They authorised us to enter the port and told us where we could anchor. It is mandatory, here in Oman, for all vessels, to use an agent to assist with formalities. We hired a local agent, recommended by a superyacht agent based in Dubai, that a friend of Loic’s knows.

The wind was from the southwest and now, sailing north, it was a lot smoother and quieter sailing right up to about 50 miles out from Salalah, when the wind just died. The sea was like a lake. It was early hours of the morning, and slowly but surely A land breeze filled in and soon we were back slowly sailing along towards our destination, with full main and our light wind genoa. We were going to make it today after all. As we neared the coast a thick fog surrounded us, with less than 1 mile visibility. We called the Port Captain who reassured us the visibility in the port was around 5 miles. Relieved, we continued. After all, we have never been to this port before, we are sailing in with no engine, and the last thing we needed was dense fog. We sailed past the breakwater and container wharf to enter a large open bay with no obvious hazards, rounded up into the wind, dropped the genoa, dropped the anchor in 12metres of water, then dropped the main as we ghosted to a stop. We were very pleased with how it all went, and very pleased to finally stop. It was 10.00am on the 28th September, two weeks after leaving Kilifi.

It took us 2 days to reach Port Salalah from the time we made the decision to change course to when we dropped the anchor in port. We will never forget the people who rallied to help us in our time of need. Our paperwork is under way as we write this, but it will probably take days before we can go ashore, go shopping. And get sim cards so we can post this blog,

Then Lane can tackle the oil leak.

I remember saying to Lane that I needed to see other things than miles of white sandy beaches and coconut palms.  This was not exactly what I meant!!

One comment

  1. OMG. Your life certainly is anything but boring. Wouldn’t have wanted to change places with you in those conditions. All the best with getting the engine sorted. What a fascinating read though. Fingers x all going well for the next leg of your journey once you leave Salalah

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