Skippers log 6 / Djibouti towards Koroni, Greece.
After embarking our new voyage crew, namely Lars DK, who sailed from Tahiti to Sydney in 2011, now re-joining after a 12-year absence. Pauline AUS, who had sailed to Port Davey a couple of years back and Anne AUS, who we were yet to meet in person.
We took the opportunity to take an overnight excursion inland and up into the Wayboudka mountains of the Day Forrest National Park. Our eventual goal was the Toha Falls, so with driver, Abdullah, and guide Hameda, we shoehorned into the back of a Toyota troop carrier, armed with an esky of cold drinks, and hit the road.
By late morning, our first stop Lake Assal officially the lowest point of the African continent at 155 meters below sea level. It’s a Dead Sea type of swim, with salinity absurdly high. It was hardly what I would call refreshing, salt factories abound, and local villagers sell the stuff roadside in small souvenir bags for the few passing tourists. We had lunch at a windswept family run restaurant on an isolated headland, surrounded by stunning scenery. This gulf of Tadjoura forms the start of the ´Great African rift valley´, with three tectonic plates meeting in the region, the junction is an amazing valley with no visual vegetation. The giant plates of the earth’s crust moving apart at a rate of 10 mm per year so to stand on the unfenced edge of this gale blown precipice is to look down on a young crust in formation.
Our trip today was to eventually make it to the mountain village of Dittilo, as we turned off the bitumen and wound our way toward a dry riverbed, we stopped first to pay respects to the local chief and his herd of camels, watching them milk, having a chat. A cluster of young camels corralled and braying thirstily at the scent of milk. The riverbed road was a test to any vehicles suspension and at times it was quicker to get out and stretch our legs and cut across the terrain and re-join later. This countryside was indeed beautiful, around dusk the evening light slanting on special purply rock faces it reminded me of my native south Australia up around the Flinders Ranges. In the end Hameda suggested we all get out and walk, so we could experience the lovely dusk. As we walked the final half hour into what turns out was his grandparents summer village, just to think 2 generations ago the lands of Afar people, of which the country of Djibouti is now part, were nomadic herdsmen, it’s a quick development to say the least.
Our arrival at nightfall at the village campsite with traditionally constructed Lapa, a round hut with a thatched roof and made beds inside, was far grander than any of us expected. Freshwater showers and a dining hall encased in monkey proof wire. The stage was set for a great meal of barbequed lamb, followed by dessert, wow it was like being on holidays. The kitchen full of talk and fireside exclamations none of which we were parlay to, none the less adding to a great atmosphere. This was the first time our guide had returned to his homeland since before covid days so there was a buzz in the air.
We all slept like logs the lovely mountain air wafting through the wicker walls of the hut.
The following morning breakfasted and rested; it was hike time. Hamadas cousin Ahmada was our guide striding ahead in the steep terrain, we sailors our legs unconditioned after months at sea doing our best to hold tempo. We passed through several abandoned farms, left to fall after a tough drought about ten years ago, mangos, herbs, tomatoes, beans, potatoes, this place irrespective of its drought history struck me as the most verdant landscape I had seen in Djibouti. Further on, up and down dale we strove pausing to be shown the remains of a light aircraft wreckage on a distant cliff face, whoops. Finally descending into the very same river bed we drove up the previous day only a kilometre upstream, large white boulders were navigated over and ever so gently signs of water began to appear, rock pools and a deeper higher chasm of gold, red sandstone scoured by eons of flow. It was magnificent, cool air flowing downstream on this hot day, suddenly a waterfall around 20 metres high, flowing, a steady stream about 10 cm in diameter, we all took turns to stand under the pummelling torrent to cool down, it was great, what a spot.
We took our time to savour this space, life at sea especially in this part of the world where we had not experienced rain since Sri Lanka 3 months before, fresh water is a prized element.
Cleansed we walked down stream and back up towards the campsite traversing the old, terraced gardens of the village, beautifully built from stone.
Our return trip to Djibouti, about 3 hours, we stopped to watch a camel train carrying firewood cross the highway, great to see such beasts of burden at work as they have done for centuries
All hands back aboard provisioning done, the ghastliest load of pot water ever loaded. It was time to head north, first a night of tacking to weather. Cape Ras Bir and around 0400 Friday 10th march, we could ease sheets, set the square and reach up toward the straights of Bab El Mandeb, “the gate of Sorrow” entrance to the Red Sea. We were making good time, the wind on the quarter 126 miles to noon the log reads. We knew it would not last.
We celebrate 10,000 miles on the log from Franklin and realise: we are two thirds of the way home. We unfortunately must push on, passing a multitude of beautiful coral islands due to the civil unrest in Eritrea. Our destination the southernmost anchorage in Sudan, Khor Nawarat. This pretty coral encrusted group of islands just north of the boarder is a prime anchorage, the silence upon anchoring mid-afternoon is like an awakening to this vast land, a high mountainous landscape in the distance, with low lying sandy coast and no people around, well that’s at least what we thought.
The following morning, boats launched, and crew splashing round in the shallows, snorkelling etc, we are approached by 2 lanky figures in robes, Bedu goat shepherds walking gently across the shallows, like some biblical apparition, greeting us warmly with broad smiles, our Arabic non-existent. They invited us for coffee. Er yeah that sounds great we are thinking, where the hell did these guys come from? Suddenly a whole family appears, standing on the gently sloping crest above the anchorage, mothers, daughters all clad in the Sudanese black burka, the wind sweeping their apparel like a scene from that David Lean movie, Ok we are not alone in this isolated anchorage.
Coffee, a wonderful ritual of mortar and pestle, ginger, tiny cups on a tray and stacks of sugar, under a flapping shade cloth, strung between scrubby trees. On our arrival at camp, we gave them one of our facemasks so diving on the reef would be a little easier, in return we received bead bracelets. One of the daughters suffering from cerebral palsy treated with such tenderness by her father Mohamed a man in his mid-twenties and his brother. His other girls ranging in age from 8 to 12 and their wives. They lived in such incredibly basic conditions on this hot, sparsely vegetated strip of land, it was humbling and memorable to be invited on to the mat.
Our next stop Port Sawakin was like nothing I have ever seen, an ancient city, crumbled to ruin, on a small island in the middle of an inland bay. The anchorage popular with the cruising fraternity, for some a first stop since India or the Maldives, traditionally where the head winds of the Red Sea will eventually find you.
Famous in the 15th century under the Arabs and then the Ottoman Turks this fabled city of four-story arcaded streets with running water was considered the height of opulence, the gateway to the east before ships regularly rounded the Cape of Good Hope, the southern Red Sea was the one of the portals to the Silk Road. Even more remarkable the community lives on, strong, industrious, thriving in the most fundamental of styles. Amid the rubble, the marketplace was buzzing, mosques calling to prayer, donkeys towing water carts around to lodgings, camels wandering the streets of the ruins.
Our agent Mohammed upon boarding to do clearance took one sip of our Djiboutian water which we had been suffering under, salty he exclaimed, and spat, no good he said, water could be found, diesel as well, basic provisions, tomatoes were in season, spuds and egg plant, we asked about beer he laughed at our infidel ambition there is no beer in Sudan he proclaimed , oh well we thought, not far to Egypt ,
Our days in Sudan were remarkable, an ancient culture, friendly people, clear blue skies and stark light on amazing, ruined architecture and terrain. We enjoyed several more “hole in the wall” anchorages, the final being Marsa Gwilaib in which we were forbidden to leave the vessel by the local military, tensions were on the rise and little did we know it was going to get worse, pretty soon.
Head winds up to 30 knots sometimes for days on end are common in the northern half of the Red Sea. I had been dreading this part of the trip and allowed heaps of time to push north toward Suez. What I didn’t calculate was how difficult it would be regarding access to Egyptian anchorages, this is a paranoid military regime who seems to look upon visiting mariners as a hassle. What were on the chart excellent anchorages, natural forms of shelter from the prevailing winds were in reality no go military zones subject to heavy fines and change of availability at short notice. I managed to extract current info through our agents on the sat phone these marine agents seem to be working hard to liaise with the military to provide an air of welcome to the now growing numbers of cruising sailors beginning to revisit the Red Sea now that the piracy risk is reduced.
We motor sailed in fairly miserable conditions for three days finally anchoring at the much hoped for Wadi Gimmel a long sandy spit extending a couple of miles seaward providing much needed shelter from the coming gales. Five days at anchor without shore leave blowing hard, we managed to resew the clew on the mainsail, get a stack of varnishing done and get the main yard lowered to deck and oiled. Got some serious reading of books done and wait, wait on weather.
Finally after packing up what looked like a building site on deck we sailed, 0500, Monday morning the 3rd of April, the calm 48 hours predicted a long enough window to make it to Soma Bay, or as we had dubbed it ´Crack a tinny bay´ due to the rumour that a boat came out to visiting vessels with sim cards, food, fuel and beer.
You have to admire the entrepreneurial initiative of the locals, visiting vessels that had not even cleared into the country were getting good service.
This much discussed destination was not to be, I was concerned about our fuel levels, the thought of running out of diesel in a no anchor zone and head winds was bordering on nightmarish, so we erred on the side of caution and called at Port Ghalib about 60 miles north of our last anchorage.
Port Ghalib is a resort, modern facilities, bars, restaurants and loads of tourists straight from the airport. After weeks of Sudan and wind-swept Egyptian anchorages, it was like landing in another time zone. We sat on sofas and enjoyed cold beverages, ate food that we hadn’t made ourselves, someone else even washed up the dishes …wow. We also enjoyed a day trip to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings amazing! What a place, the famous Egyptian images of our lives suddenly materializing to reality.
A few days of indulging in freshwater washdowns and restaurants, a new weather window, not to be ignored presented itself, so it was time to go, next stop Port Suez and the start of the canal.
Good Friday the 7th of April we bunkered diesel and made for sea, the forecast was for steadily building southerlies, almost unheard of in these waters, so in mainly calm conditions. We motored the 280 miles stopping occasionally to swim and mainly only sailing in the evenings and dark hours. Arriving at the south anchorage to the Suez Canal on Easter Monday just ahead of the 25 knot southerly we had been dreaming of. This made the anchorage a bit bumpy, so it was nice to get clearance to proceed the 1 mile up the canal to the more sheltered Port Suez Yacht club anchorage, here we picked a couple of moorings. We were promptly measured and given our Suez Canal tonnage certificate, and approval for transit on the Wednesday via our agent. The paperwork is the artwork, its complicated and for a vessel such as Yukon with 10 crew onboard its obligatory to hire an agent.
Whilst wandering the back streets of Port Suez the following day I spied a proper ships chandler a purchased a 220-metre coil of mooring line. On arrival back at the yacht club gate the guard looked at me like I was trying to smuggle out some ancient relic! The agent needed to be called, an understanding had to be reached over the phone. I sat upon the offending coil of line as the conversation went on for a considerable length of time. Finally, it seemed that 50 us dollars was the solution to the complex problem, but I was not allowed to pay it, that would be against the law. The agent would fix it up and put it on our bill. It is what it is.
Paul joined us here from Strynø, he had booked on for a couple of the Australian East Coast legs back in pre covid days and had to postpone, as we did. It was great that finally we were going to be able to make it happen. He had been travelling about Egypt for a week or so before joining and we bumped into him at Luxor its funny to meet people you know when you’re on the road.
The following morning the pilot boarded at 0430 a little earlier than expected, and we were under way.
The last time I transited the Suez Canal was aboard HMAV Bounty on our way to England 35 years ago.
Somehow, I ended up with the Egyptian courtesy flag which we proudly flew off the starboard yard arm as is custom. The Canal itself is amazing, massive in its infrastructure yet simple, unlike our last canal 13 years ago the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal has no locks, 80 large ships make the 195 km transit each day. Their massiveness impressed upon us, as they silently creep along. We notice small work boats been hoisted aboard the decks of all transiting ships, these turned out to be line boats, used to run mooring lines ashore to the bollards which line the entire length of the canal, in the case of an engine or steering gear failure. The transiting vessels are organised into north or south bound convoys as not all the canal is duel laned yet. About 4 miles after the start of our transit our trusty engine ‘Henry’, pushing us handsomely along at 6 knots, we spy a freshly constructed monument which stands at the location of the container vessel Evergiven’s grounding site. The backlog of traffic caused by this 6-day incident is testimony to the commercial importance of this waterway. There are in fact many monuments which line the banks of the canal.
I can remember when I transited in the 80s some of these were burnt out tanks but now many years later the reminders of frontline conflicts are restricted to military watchtowers and plaques.
An elaborate system of ready to launch pontoon bridges is in place and being expanded canals are connectors but they are also protectors. Egypt views this enormous source of income also as a final line of military defence in the event of land-based invasion across the Sinai Peninsula.
Nine hours later after pitching through a one-and-a-half-meter chop in the Great Bitter Lakes on this cold windy day, in the middle of the bloody desert! we all had enough by the time we dropped anchor for the evening, at Al Ismailiyah yacht club. Sounds comfy, but the club house was a building site. We did manage to get a lovely dinner ashore at the neighbouring rowing club
Its Ramadan so the evening meal, Iftar or breakfast at sunset is an awaited occasion with food aplenty.
Whilst travelling by bus to the Valley of the Kings, we could see the great effort gone to every day in all the small village squares and roadside eateries in preparation for Iftar. Not a soul would sit at the long neatly laid tables, but with the firing of a ceremonial canon in Cairo at sunset and the reciting of the Maghrib (evening prayer) dinner is served and the fast is broken, dried fruits, dates, bean soup, or Ful Nabed is served in generous helpings, all of it delicious.
This was to be our last evening ashore in an Arabic land.
Yukon’s voyage from Socotra to Djibouti and then onto Sudan and Egypt a distance of 1500 miles and over a period of only 2 months has been fascinating for me with regards to touching on Islamic culture and custom both architecturally, and communally.
Incredibly there is no longer a small vessel anchorage available at Port Said the northern end of the canal, although we were assured it was possible, I had my doubts.
This meant once we started our second day of transiting the Suez Canal, we had to keep on going out into the Mediterranean, so it was imperative that the conditions were favourable. North westerlies are dominant in the spring in the south-eastern Med, so we needed a 4-day window to make for the Greek islands. It would seem that the Gods favoured us and after committing to and completing our final days transit and waving our friendly pilot goodbye, we were off once again in the open sea. It was a bit surreal suddenly Yukon was in the mythical Mediterranean Sea bound for the beautiful island of Crete 400 miles to the northwest.
A messy old sea presented itself in the early evening as we cleared the Suez Canal. Breakwater at Port Said traffic abounded, we were all pretty tired as well. Motor sailing under working sail we pushed on through the night to be welcomed the following morning with sunny skies and beautiful azure waters, wind gently working for us out of the easterly quadrant, who could ask for more? The sailing was fairly light the following four days, we made for the eastern end of Crete making land fall on April 17th rounding Cape Sadero light, in the early evening. We shortened sail and spent the night mooching gently for the final 30 miles, dropping anchor at daybreak on the western end of Mirobello Bay just outside the marina at Ayo’s Nikolaos.
Great little town, not too touristy. Officially we were back in Europe after an absence of 12 years, this required a bit of paperwork, but the mood of the Cretan authorities was one of accommodation and calm, it was lovely to be here. Tavernas, good food and wine, amazingly cheap, so we indulged in the pleasures of shore life. Car rental was 20 euros a day so exploring this amazing island was easy.
This was the completion of our longest leg of the voyage, time wise 40 days our voyage crew had been on board, so it was goodbye to Lars heading home to Denmark, Pauline travelling further on to Ireland and Paul heading north via Santorini and then home to Strynø. Anne was staying on as was joined by her sister Helen. We also embarked Ola, Nanna and Enok. Ola was our sturdy Norwegian bosun aboard Yukon from Tenerife to Tonga all those years ago, it was great to see him again. Nanna was voyage crew from Panama to Galapagos they must have exchanged warm glances during their time aboard our fair ship because now they have the beautiful Enok, 6 years old and full of energy! We had kept in touch with them over the past 10 years and finally here they were, ready to get some sailing in.
After a week or so it was time to start making our way along the northern coast of Crete, soaking up the complicated history of this crossroads island as we went. We spent a couple of days anchored around Elounda and Spina Longa Island waiting for a hefty westerly to blow through, there were heaps of sweet little anchorages, with good opportunities to wander ashore amongst the myriad of ruined farmhouses which were ringed by incredible dry-stone walls. This type of mortarless stone wall about a meter or so high and half as thick. They are a dominant feature in the landscape often used to create terracing on slopes or to define property boundaries. They date back thousands of years and stand, silently whispering of countless hours of human toil, the gentleness of their form allows them to at length, follow contour lines of the landscape only to charge suddenly up a slope to close a required area. From a distance at sea, they are even more striking in some cases they are the landscape. Some examples include small Shepard’s huts nestled in a corner only the door plinth standing alone to prompt the memory.
Spinalonga Island is dominated on its northern coast, and its only navigable approach, by a large Venetian fortress. The Venetians conquered Crete in the 13th century and their 400-year occupation has left a legacy of among other things of beautiful stone masonry in the form of fortress, harbours and castles. The island looked like a giant stone battleship from the deck of Yukon and after spending the day exploring and eating ice cream, we were getting ready to move on.
The capital Iraklion was our next port of call, we wanted to bunker diesel and top up provisions. This was another beautiful spot with extensive stonework around the harbour including large Venetian built slipways and massive arched shelters or arsenals for trireme ships the classic looking three deck oared warship.
The port Capitan was a friendly chap who managed to eventually find a truck willing to bring fuel on this May Day with typical Cretan hospitality after a good chat on the wharf the truck driver pulls out a bottle of wine from his hometown as a gift to us. This is the opposite to baksheesh, I wonder what that’s called. With warm hearts and feeling good about the world and all that’s in it, we let go the following morning toward the island of Kithira, the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite. This mountainous place set halfway between the isle of Crete and the southern point of the Peloponnese was a logical stop over. It was a bit of a short choppy sea on this Mediterranean night, with a fair breeze on the beam, moonless, chilly, wind swept and mythical was among the comments from the deck at daybreak. Initially we tried a tiny little inlet guarded by Avlemonas Castle a mini Venetian stronghold. By the time we had manoeuvred Yukon into the handkerchief sized anchorage it became evident it was not suited, so we chugged out again and made for the larger capital of the island Diakofti on the north coast which afforded a better anchorage.
Testing out anchorages is part of the game, snug, but not too small, out of the swell so no rolling, good holding so no dragging, close to facilities but not too noisy, the list of requirements goes on, but I have always enjoyed the challenges of finding the better spots.
We arrived at Porto Kagio on the 4th of May one of the southernmost harbours on the Peloponnese Peninsular this was a beautiful spot, ringed by edgy ridges about 100 metres high dotted with a castle and monastic structures and a large, ruined watch tower, Castle Rio straddled the ridge to the next gulf to the west.
I couldn’t resist scrambling through the bush and broken dry stone walls to gain the summit and check out this vantage point, looking across to Kalamata and the city of Koroni. Gazing across to a neighbouring summit I spied a tiny figure next to an old church which I recognised a quick text message and the confirming arm of Kristopher waving back, we tried the customary Australian Coooeeee in the mountain stillness, it worked.
Travelling with family has always been the style of Yukon, from before the boys took their first steps it’s been on the deck of our little ship.
Beach expeditions, Lego on the foredeck.
Now 20 years on Kristopher stands a watch and Aron is Cook and all-rounder both of our boys’ excellent seamen.
A circumnavigation under their belts at the early time of their lives for better or worse.
Next port, Koroni I was diagnosed with a large cancerous tumour in my abdomen, symptoms had been building over the past month suspicions as well, that something was not as it should be.
No choice for me, surgery. Next thing I know Kristopher is helping me get to Athen’s airport so I can fly to Denmark and be with Ea and prepare for surgery.
Leaving Yukon in the port of Koroni.
First Mate Greg got a quick promotion to Captain.
I have every confidence that my crew can carry on the work and the skippers log as well until Ea and I get back aboard.
Fair winds to you all David.