The Pleasures of the Red Sea

We had come up to a small island, Jabal Al Tair, in the southern part of the Red Sea. It was an unusual calm for this unruly sea and we were enjoying the soft afternoon and the special luxury of knowing exactly where we were. This island has one of the few, dependable, working lighthouses in the area we were able to get a positive, visual fix of our position. There is nothing like a lighthouse. They are one of the very few inventions of man that cannot offer harm or be perceived as a threat to anyone. Or so we thought.

We were half a mile off at about two in the afternoon when three black military jets came twisting out of nowhere and shattered the calm of then day. They screamed over us at masthead height, headed straight for the innocent island and laid three bombs on the poor dear defensless lighthouse. They powered straight up after the bombing run and started back down. I was sure they were after us since we were the only witness to this particular piece of madness. But they went back and laid three more shattering explosions around the building that mounted the light. Not satisfied, they made a third run and strafed the island from end to end.

It is difficult to describe how...the only word is naked...and without defenses a close in view of such an attack makes you feel. Our first thought was to run for it but our top speed of six knots was little comfort against their twelve hundred. We waited for the attack and the end of our world. If an absolutely harmless lighthouse could precipitate such insensate violence, our heavily armed cruising sailboat (sling shot, safety flares and etc) must certainly be the next target. Ignoring us, but not disappointing us, the jets disappeared in a flash of black.

I thought that a war had started of which, being out of touch, we were ignorant. I quickly got on the emergency VHF channel and asked anyone who was listening whether World War Three had started without us. An American accent came back.

"Hi Y'all, what seems to be the problem?"

I repeated my scary tale. There was silence for a moment.

"Ah ain't surprised."

I said we sure were...and scared too. What about war?

"Ain't no war I know 'bout."

Did it not seem odd to him, I inquired, that someone should bomb a lighthouse?

"Shore is somthin' diffrent", he drawled," but ya' see some funny things in this dumb ocean."

Who, we asked, could have done the bombing...let alone why?

"Sorry fella, don't rightly know who, don't rightly know why. All Ah know is they's lotsa' queer fish out hyeah an' lotsa' queer doin's."

Reassured, but nervous still, I asked this unsurprisable sailor what he was doing in the Red Sea. He told us that he had been a long time in the Sea as skipper on a rich Saudi yacht and, "See'd stuff, man, you all just ain't no way gonna believe."

I love stuff that I can't believe so I started collecting some of the more outrageous Red Sea tales both from my direct experience and from the misadventures of others. I list here a choice few out of hundreds.

Item. Should you happen to be in Saudi Arabia on a Friday afternoon you might want to join the throng viewing the punishment of a thief. It is very direct. In full public view, they cut off his left hand. In this part of the world this is considered not only a just punishment but a merciful one since, if they cut off his right hand, the poor devil would starve to death. Seems that the right hand is the exclusive 'eating' hand while the left is used for the lower physiological functions.

Item. In sailing up the Gulf of Suez, you must not pause on the Sinai shore as the Egyptian Army posted along it every mile is more likely to let go a few rounds at you as not. If you think that the shore of the Sinai is inhospitable try the coast of Yemen or even of Ethiopia. Should you touch there, even in an emergency, you may, like a recent sailor who became embayed on the Yemeni coast, lose you boat to the local Pasha.

Item. There is an island at the southern entrance to the Red Sea which should not be approached. It is called Socotra and if a yacht should get in range, let alone try to land, it is not unlikely that it will be blasted out of the water. More than one has.

Item. The Red Sea is dotted with oil rigs, most of which have petered out. Whilst sailing along one night we came upon six in a row in the course of only a few miles. In the darkening mists they looked like nothing less frightening than the looming robots of The War of the Worlds. A brush with any would have sunk us. Two of the six were lighted, barely, by a feeble bulb, flashing the Morse code for the letter 'U'. We took that to stand for 'Unlighted'.

Item. Elsewhere, I tell the tale of an Egyptian assistant harbormaster (the harbor shall remain blessedly unidentified) who demanded backsheesh of every conceivable kind. When he ran out of stuff to ask for (cash, radios, watches, binoculars etc) he inquired, with a perfectly straight face, if we had any medication aboard which might clear up his case of sexual impotency.

Item. While in Port Sudan, should you want to fly out of Sudan, you must first travel to the capital, Khartoum, in order to buy an international flight ticket. It is, however, not permitted to travel to Khartoum unless you already have an international flight ticket in hand. An interesting problem.

Item. In Djibouti I met an enterprising yachtsman who was fed up with the petty extortion practiced by officials who considered any rag of a sail to be the sign of great wealth. On one passage up the Sea he brewed for each cantankerous demander of backsheesh a cup of coffee heavily laced with a powerful laxative. In ten minutes, he reported to me, the official would bolt off his boat and not be seen for a week. By that time our sailor was long since gone.

Item. A rather less Protean method of resisting backsheesh was described to me while we were awaiting for convoy through the Canal. One of the most common demands is for cigarettes, foreign (read 'American') cigarettes. This can become very expensive since there exists in every port a Backsheesh Hotline which exchanges extortionate information among officials. Should you give one minor official a pack, his superior will appear and demand a carton. As there is a forbidding array of bureaus and offices who have some undefined and tenuous reason to deal with you, the list of cigarette seekers can strtch out endlessly. The Hotline has identified you as a mark and you become a target for all.

My ingenious friend heard of a merchant ship which had been impounded for seventeen years (there are lots of them in the Red Sea) for some real or imagined infraction. When the courts and lawyers got through and there was nothing left to squeeze out of the owners, the cargo, or what was left of it, was auctioned off. Among the offerings were two thousand cartons of seventeen year old Camel cigarettes which my friend aquired for mere haulage. No one else wanted anything to do with such ancient and odious fags. His ploy was simple. As soon as the first official in any port appeared he was presented with a pack of these mummified Lucifers. So bad was the experience of smoking one, that the Hotline was quickly warned to look elsewhere for its smokes. Worked like a charm.

Item. All of this does not begin to touch on zero to sixty knot winds in under ten seconds. Reefs as much as five miles away from their place on the charts. Magnetic anomalies which, Circelike, beckon to destruction. Stonewalling seas built straight up, like hedgerows in a country lane, and contrary currents of no predictable direction. Sharks, skates, poisonous fish and coral which can sear the skin off you and your vessel at the merest touch.

Item. Should all of this not daunt, then think of the milliards of tons of 20 knot behemoths roaring up and down the same narrow channel in which your little chip of a vessel is laboring at 3 knots.

"Hold," you say,"their radar will certainly warn in plenty of time."

Think so? Let me tell you of the sailing ship, Elmo's Fire. She was no mere mote of a vessel, being 71 feet overall and equipped with an array of radar reflectors. Coming down the Sea one night she was struck on her port side by a large tanker. The collision buckled her decks, stove in one side and carried away her towering mizzen mast. The tanker continued blithely on. Not knowing the full extent of her damage, Elmo's skipper sent out a Mayday which was answered by the offending tanker. What is your position?, the tanker asked and when the position of the damaged ketch was sent the tanker answered that they must be mistaken since that was the tanker's own position. It took ten minutes to get across that the tanker had, insensately, rammed them and it was not until it dawned on them that the 71 foot boat had not even showed up on their radar that the tanker realized what had happened.

Item. Here is a VHF conversation which took place on another occasion between me and a fast freighter.

"Big ship, Big ship, this is the sailing vessel Unlikely. You are about a mile to our port on a collision course. Do you see us?

"Who's calling? What is your position. where are you? We see no vessel at all in the vicinity."

"Big ship, Big ship, this is Unlikely again. You show on our radar at 3/4 of a mile. Still on a collision course."

"Where, Where. Tell us where you are"

"Big ship you are 1/2 mile off our port quarter bearing down upon us. We see red and green. Check your radar. Check your radar."

"Nothing seen. You must be seeing a different vessel. We will light our funnel."

"Big ship you are 1/4 mile off and we cannot maneuver out of your way. Your funnel is green and bears a large yellow 'P'. For God's sake do something!"

"Tell us where to turn. Quick, quick what shall we do? Our radar shows nothing." "Go to starboard! To starboard, to starboard."

And with that their green starboard light dimmed and finaly was obscured as the freighter roared past our stern not a boat's length off. The only thing that saved us was our own instructions to the blind vessel about to chop us in half. Radar reflectors? Baloney.

As we were being tossed by his bow wave, we shone our brightest searchlight directly at his bridge and heard softly over the radio,

"Well, I'll be damned..."