Flying fish for breakfast!
A novice ocean sailor’s diary of a month aboard Boo Too from the Red Sea to Indian Ocean
Captain: Oliver – ‘Ollie’
Engineer: Francis – ‘Fran’
First Mate: Wendy
Chef: Joanna – ‘Jo’
Prologue: September 2006
Ollie sends an e-mail to friends offering two beds on Boo Too for an ocean passage from Egypt to the Maldives. “This could turn out to be quite exciting” he writes. I sense it is a perfect invitation to get back into sailing after a long absence, having enjoyed dinghy racing in my youth, and for the social aspect. Within hours I accept and Ollie agrees, even though I am a novice at ocean sailing. I am left wondering what he means by “exciting” and a chuckle of “assuming we get there!”
What I cannot appreciate at this stage is how ocean sailing will turn your lifestyle routine upside down and replace it with the intensity of ‘24-hours’ living, relentless challenges and the unfolding marvels of nature.
Sat 4 Nov
John and I meet at Gatwick for a fully occupied BA flight to Hurghada. What is the attraction for everyone beyond escaping the gloom of an English November? The descent is curious, as if you are going to land far-flung in the desert, then suddenly a coastline of new-built hotels and swimming pools appears. On landing we find we have to negotiate visas, suspecting our £12 each is going straight into the back pocket of the young ‘official’.
Outside, in the warm bask of an Egyptian late afternoon, we find no haggling is necessary with the taxi drivers but they gabble between themselves before we are on our way to the Abu Tig marina. Arriving at a gleaming Boo Too we meet Isabel who has flown out a few days earlier. Indeed, there is plenty to do from Hurghada and its neighbourhood. Diving schools are aplenty, this being one of the world’s best areas with lengthy unexplored reefs. El Gouna itself is an ideal place to learn kite surfing on long shallow water beaches. We learn over dinner that Wendy and Fran had set off around 1am that morning for an extensive ‘day-trip to Cairo and the Pyramids, taking in a camel ride too.
Sun 5 Nov
The day starts for the amateur crew with the first of two safety talks by Luke. Fireworks night is not entirely forgotten as one box of tricks in the cockpit has a variety of flares that might also be useful to deter any pirate attack. The theory is to create a safety zone around a yacht, to stop pirates boarding, and some yachts do this with a variety of technology. John’s hunch is to stun any trouble makers with a few blasts of the hand-held fog-horn!
The marina contains mainly motor cruisers but there are sailing yachts too, including one ‘old salt’ solo sailor with his dog guarding the bows. Has this old salt learned plenty about not relying on technology at sea?
Mon 6 Nov
Ollie arrives to a well-prepared yacht, seemingly the only snag being a lack of quality meat at the local markets, to stock the boat for three weeks at sea. Fishing rods are therefore positioned. We depart at about 5pm under engine and quickly encounter a big swell and a soaking for anyone on the front deck sorting out the jib. I soon end up with my head over the loo but sea sickness only seems to be a problem in the first day or so, as you adjust. It is a good idea to stay up on deck and look at the horizon; lying flat out helps too. Jo makes a nice chicken curry dinner and there does seem truth in the old yarns about chilli and ginger for combating sea sickness.
Ollie has displayed the watch rota and my first week’s stint – from 2am to 4am – is actually a welcome relief to get out of bed on a bumpy night, a portent of what the Red Sea can unleash.
Above deck with Ollie it is a balmy starlit night. One of the unique aspects of ocean sailing is the heavens revealed in their full majesty instead of the modest number of stars you see ashore (due to so many electrical lights). In front of all the sophisticated navigational dials it is like being on the Star-ship Enterprise.
Tue 7 Nov
On the 4am to 6am watch, Isabel and Luke catch a tuna. We arrive at Port Ghalib soon after 8am for fuel also meat from a local hotel. Two catamarans follow us in, ‘Flawless’ being quite an impressive example of modern cat-design, about sixty feet long.
Ollie gets the amateur crew to recall and explain to him, yesterday’s safety briefing, which helps to consolidate the learning. Piracy is left for a special talk!
On departure the port officials seem friendly enough but insist on a thorough inspection of the boat below decks, as if looking for drugs or firearms.
With the mainsail unfurled it feels like we are now on our way.
Wed 8 Nov
An eventful day starts with my muesli bowl and its contents flying as we crash through waves. Below deck can be deceptive as to the prevailing conditions: the wind is getting up. Luke has caught another – and sizeable – tuna, which will be eaten fresh for lunch.
Ollie discusses piracy with we amateurs and believes the hotspot offshore Somalia should not present serious risk given a new Islamic government decree for it to stop, and so long as we remain a good distance off the Somali coast.
On a fast reach Ollie requests a reef in the mainsail and Luke moves forward with the rig’s power control box. Suddenly a gust strikes and the boat heels just as a large wave smashes into the leeward port side, washing Luke off his feet and over the side. Thankfully he hangs onto the rail, hauls himself back on board and flops into the cockpit – but he is gasping wide-eyed and clutching his chest. Ollie manages to haul back the electronic control box which also went overboard and is cracked and sodden with salt water. Remarkably, John has captured the incident on camera, from his seat aft on the starboard side. The anticipated first aid talk becomes a real case, of Luke’s cracked ribs.
Suddenly there a noise as the boom lets out a few turns of mainsail; the rig control box now seems to have a mind of its own! We resort to a human information chain of instructions from Ollie on deck at the mast, down to Fran at controls in the bow. An animated ten minutes later, the rig appears under control with a reef in the main.
Jo prepares a delicious medium-rare tuna and salad for lunch but there is little time for relaxation. I sense a parallel between ocean sailing and mountaineering in which I engage: an extended and relentless test of human spirit!
Thu 9 Nov
A few more problems emerge, with the air conditioning and fresh water maker, then in the afternoon the saloon navigation computer starts becoming temperamental, dispensing with Ollie’s carefully input way points for the passage. It starts to feel like one thing going wrong after another but to put them in perspective they are more like luxury than essential issues. Ollie has wisely ensured traditional charts are on board.
None of this spoils a pleasant lunch on deck and afternoon’s cruising under a comfortable force four breeze, although Luke’s pain weighs on all our minds. A decision is made to put into Port Sudan for him to fly home.
Fri 10 Nov
We reach Port Sudan which is hot and infested with zealous flies yet is a well developed port with lots of containers, ships and cranes, also its own Hilton hotel. Improvised identity photos are required for the Port Official, so we each pose against a white bed-sheet held up.
Small world: the catamaran ‘Flawless’ has also called into Port Sudan on its way to the Seychelles. Operated by a French crew for a Swiss owner, one of its members – Daniel – helped us with a few local issues and ferrying the Port Official with a shore pass for Luke and John, in the cat’s tender. It is notable how ‘yachties’ as a community are generally social and supportive of each other. By way of return Ollie invites the French over for early evening drinks and dinner.
Jo, Wendy and Isabel don bikinis and leap off the transom, with a growing crowd of Muslims keeping watch from the shore. All is fun until Fran announces the hydraulics for the transom steps (for the girls to get back in) are not working and another Port Official speeds over in a tender warning about a recent shark attack. Some hasty, improvised rope climbing and hauling ensues, to get bodies back safely.
A low-flying bi-plane (flying below the height of Boo Too’s mast) swoops over with insecticide to disperse the flies, and thankfully by evening it is pleasant to sit out in the cockpit. The French arrive with champagne on ice and flutes, and we proceed to enjoy Jo’s excellent dinner. Despite the popular sense that the English and French do not easily see eye to eye, we sailors find a lot in common – starting with no confidence whatsoever in our respective politicians. Daniel has some good advice for a novice ocean sailor like me: be philosophical about time!
Sat 11 Nov
The day is devoted to ensuring Luke is sorted out to get a flight home, resolving the salt water pump for the water maker (apparently the only spare part missing on the boat!) and air conditioner. Two Sudanese engineers come aboard to look at the pump which has one key element corroded and needs re-wiring. The satellite phone is not working either. Such is modern technology when put to the test! Ships’ engineers are most likely their unsung heroes although on Boo Too we already respect Fran’s genius at tackling virtually any repair at any time of day or night. Meanwhile I grapple with the ‘basic introduction to a diesel engine’ pamphlet in the boat’s manuals.
Sun 12 Nov
With the watermaker up and running again and a full tank of diesel, we depart Port Sudan in the afternoon. Flying fish and a few cheeky seabirds hitching a lift, accompany us against a background of African sunset.
Mon 13 Nov
We wake to find the deck littered with flying fish that have leapt aboard, prompting John to provide a tasty quick-fry breakfast. Ollie confesses he has not seen so many flying fish on deck in all his years of ocean sailing. It makes you realise how natural phenomena like this could easily be interpreted as a gift from the gods; and maybe it is.
A whale and dolphins are sighted mid-morning!
Tue 14 Nov
Progressing down into the Southern Red Sea, we prepare for life to get bumpier.
Ollie gives a dolphin alert and we are accompanied for a few minutes. Do the dolphins befriend boats for purpose or pleasure? Their arrival strikes me as a special blessing about being at sea. You may have read that ‘swimming with dolphins’ has been rated people’s ‘top of the top ten things to do before you die’; well maybe so and I have yet to try in the mostly controlled aquarium settings where this kind of promotion boosts tourism. But surely what is special is the company of dolphins, which is especially true when they are in their natural wild setting, are actually choosing to accompany your boat displaying their energy and natural beauty of movement chasing the bows – both below water and leaping above.
Later in the afternoon, Fran rescues a swallow that has flown into the saloon. Cute little face in the sweaty engineer’s hands!
Wed 15 Nov
Wendy and Fran get a 4.30am drenching as a wave crashes onto the forward deck, washing through cabin hatches left open (without the air conditioning working) and onto port and starboard bunks.
We enjoy an interesting afternoon offshore Eritrea. Ollie decides to drop anchor near one of three ‘mountain top’ islands in order to inspect the salt water intakes since the water maker is having difficulty drawing water. Wendy can recall the amount of plastic bags hauled up with the anchor in Port Sudan, so we speculate this could be part of the problem. John, acting as ‘rocks lookout’ in the bows, misses a heartbeat on sighting a 5 foot object right next to the hull – then in relief, calls us over to see a giant turtle swimming past. The island is a haven for cormorants and what looks like a sea eagle through binoculars. Ollie dons scuba gear and dips beneath the hull, Fran following with a snorkel. Jammed in the water maker lead-pipe has been a Sudanese plastic coffee cup! The rest of us enjoy a much-needed swim to cool off.
Thu 16 Nov
With Boo Too head into wind, we motor down the final section of the Red Sea – an exhilarating roller coaster of sunshine and sea spray if you are on deck.
But Jo is feeling increasingly unwell, staying mainly below and eating very little. Ollie decides to put into port again, also to get a replacement water pump flown out by an engineer from the Cornish boat builder’s yard. After negotiating the straights dividing the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, we head for the small African republic of Djibouti whose capital and port share the same name.
I too have felt rather giddy and Ollie queries water and salt intake across the crew. Jo and I are the only two not adding salt to our food. A hydration salts drink sorts me out within a few hours and the salt shaker becomes mandatory at lunch and dinner. It is easy to overlook this essential need when doctors’ advice in a temperate climate is to cut down salt intake.
Fri 17 Nov
As we approach Djibouti, a small and quite fast motor boat comes alongside, with three young African fellows urging us to stop the boat – allegedly on the request of the port. Ollie lets them know Boo Too has been given clearance and told to proceed, but they return at high speed insisting again that we stop. Ollie then gets on the VHF, pretending to speak with the Port Authority and relaying the order to proceed, across to our pursuers. Finally they let us alone!
The port appears well organised as we are guided by Mohammed, a port official, on the VHF radio, and catch sight of a flashing ambulance waiting to take Jo to hospital. Given my rusty but reasonable French it is decided I should accompany her and we set off at speed with the siren going; such excitement! The hospital turns out to be in a French military compound, overseen by burly African and Caucasian soldiers in brief camouflaged shorts. One of these well-built chaps arrests me while I am outside the Accident & Emergency centre, speaking to Boo Too on the hand-held VHF radio. He politely but firmly takes both shore passes and leads me to the Security Office where I am told 15,000 Djibouti francs must be paid for Jo’s consultation – also, to get our passes back (which are effectively passports as these have been surrendered on arrival) to be able to leave.
Mohammed sorts out a taxi for Ollie to come over to see Jo and bring some sterling and 90 US dollars I had given him, after Luke was given the boat’s dollars to ensure safe travel home. Evidently Djibouti has had bouts of inflation as 15,000 of its francs turn out to be a modest 85 dollars; but we are foiled when my dollars cannot be accepted because they are ‘old dollars’ (so much for relying on Uncle Sam’s currency!). Fortunately, Mohammed is able to resolve the situation. We three visit Jo who is eager to be back on the boat instead of lying alone on a drip in a foreign hospital room; however later on the doctor conveys his opinion that she must stay for three days for tests.
Mohammed then has the taxi take us to Djibouti’s foreign exchange dealing centre: a particular street corner where a woman smiles her gold tooth fillings and has the necessary francs well concealed in a bag under her arm.
The mood on Boo Too is not ecstatic when we return, since the Cornish engineer who was meant to be arriving with a new water pump, other spares and some dollars, has bailed out at the last moment, too frightened to fly to Djibouti.
We cannot appreciate why Djibouti should instil fear for a European. Yes it has a well-organised military, clear to see when you arrive, but this does mean things are organised. Jo was sped instantly to hospital compared with Luke having to wait on the boat in Sudan for some 18 hours, in pain, simply to get a shore pass processed. How parochial can some people in Cornwall get?
Sat 18 Nov
We are relieved that Jo’s doctor now decides she can leave hospital later in the morning, apparently after gastric flu is diagnosed although Ollie believes part of the problem was dehydration.
Too little salt, and yet too much on deck! A comprehensive deck-wash reveals just how saline is the Red Sea: merely touching the side rails your hands become covered with salt crystals from the recent days’ sailing.
Isabel and Fran return from exploring onshore to share pictures of a safari park. There does not seem to be anything to fear for Europeans getting around Djibouti; indeed from childhood I recall there was probably more chance of your hand being taken off at Cornwall’s St Agnes sea-lion centre!
Wendy succeeds as the stand-in chef with preparing her first and excellent roast dinner, of chicken with all the trimmings enjoyed under the bimini.
Sun 19 Nov
A quiet morning involves a shopping party going ashore while I tackle a ‘stainless rub’ on the deck fittings. It is remarkable how corrosion creeps on, unless quickly tackled.
Hopefully, another engineer is due from Cornwall first thing Tuesday morning. There is lingering frustration about this as our ‘schedule’ (sic) for the passage keeps being extended, yet we in the amateur crew are settling in to appreciate how you must take sailing life as it comes.
The relaxed mood after lunch is punctured by Mohammed on the radio, urgently requesting Ollie to come over to the office. A higher-ranked official is asking if any bribery has been requested but Ollie tells him that Djibouti is the most professional port he has experienced.
We entertain more French sailors for early evening drinks: Eric, who has taken a year off work to sail from France with his wife and young family, also his sister in law and her partner who have just flown in. If only Anglo-French relations were as warm as when we get together on boats!
Mon 20 Nov
We wake to find the boat pirated overnight, of Ollie and John’s mobile phones and cameras. Someone must have slipped deftly in and out of the saloon and study, quietly unzipping the canvas flap over the companionway and back up again – quite an achievement, not to be detected although all cabin doors were closed. Boo Too has been moored amid various Yemeni fishing boats and small western sailing boats, so who knows – except that the stuff was stolen.
Perhaps it is all a cunning ploy by the ghost of Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail around the world solo, in his self-built boat in the late 19th century, to progressively strip us of all modern yachting technology and revive total reliance on the spirit!
Teatime heralds another cordial party with the French in the form of Frederic, Jo’s doctor, bringing his family out to Boo Too. We all indulge in strawberry cream and rich chocolate cakes.
Tue 21 Nov
Two policemen arrive to inquire about the robbery with a strong hunch the culprit must be Mohammed. It seems as if the incident could now genuinely turn problematic but Ollie repeatedly insists it cannot be Mohammed but perhaps one of the yachts nearby is short of cash. Susan, Ollie’s secretary in London, is proving a star by sending out another mobile phone with the replacement courrier from Cornwall (hopefully) arriving this morning.
Darren, an adept South African engineer now working in Cornwall, arrives with a new salt water pump for the water maker and helps Fran with the key issues – up the mast to sort out navigation and communications equipment, also in the engine room. We are encouraged to read in the latest edition of Yachting World, he has brought too, that the Extreme Islamic Council of Somalia has indeed made piracy a specific target, with those convicted sentenced to amputation or death by stabbing. The Gulf of Aden, which we are about to enter, and the south-east Somali coastline, has recently been a renowned hotspot of piracy – with 37 incidents since March 2005, 15 including hijackings where some victims have yet to be freed.
Despite some last-minute problems with the tender’s outboard motor, finally we take up anchor and slip away into a calm sea and a full night sky unfolding as we leave land. It is good to be back on the Star Ship Enterprise!
Wed 22 Nov
Steady progress motoring into the wind again, at about 5 knots. We are all hoping for a bit of a wind shift to allow the mainsail to go up.
We overhear an amusing VHF conversation between ‘Foxtrot’, a coalition forces warship, and what seems to be a large private yacht also heading to Male. Foxtrot is requesting much detail from the yacht’s captain who obviously feels obliged to supply, albeit in a politically correct way to satisfy the military’s inquiries. Yet is also aware that others could well be listening in. The conversation goes:
“Do you have any security guards on board?”
“No, but the crew also serve as security.”
“What nationalities are your crew?”
“We have British, French and Nepalese.”
(John cannot resist the quip: “SAS, Foreign Legion and Gurkhas.”)
“Do you have firearms aboard?”
“No, but we have shotguns – for clay pigeon shooting.”
Thu 23 Nov
Very few ships can be sighted at all, as we progress East North East across the Gulf of Aden; just the regular and pleasant company of dolphins in the bows.
Less bumpy conditions for heading into the wind, at last, or so we think!
Fri 24 Nov
With the boat still motoring head to wind, it is easy to feel giddy and I succumb to motion sickness again. I learn the hard way (all afternoon) it is useless trying to fight it, best to just pop a couple of pills and lay flat out preferably on deck in the fresh air.
Such are the excellent blankets on Boo Too: it is almost a luxury to fall ill and get wrapped up in one of these up on deck. It is a ‘Carthenni’, a traditional Welsh woollen blanket. Ollie later tells me that Boo had sourced various things locally in Wales when designing the yacht’s interior.
To reduce the slamming going into the waves, Ollie bears away which will also take us closer to the island of Socotra. A bit of tension is apparent among a few crew members, as to potential pirate risk! Others feel confident that the warnings ensure more mileage (to keep clear) than is really needed - especially now a new hard-line Islamic state in Somalia has declared its own war on piracy.
Sat 25 Nov
With both the main and jib up, and approaching the Indian Ocean, we are genuinely sailing A fresh force 4-5 puts Boo Too on a decent heel, so Ollie puts in one reef; even so, the boat is touching 9 knots.
As we approach the ocean wilderness, there now seems very little wildlife, at least above the surface. Worse, we have yet to catch any tasty fish since Luke’s early morning catches!
Fran seems a bit the worst for wear – ‘deep in the engine room, on a pitching yacht’ – which is not too surprising.
Sun 26 Nov
The water maker is on the blink again, most likely due to the ‘cavitations’ i.e. bubbles of air under the hull, when crashing into waves. Fran and Jo spend the morning resting.
Ollie bears away to keep the sails drawing, such that we are on course for Sri Lanka, in order to make our way point and then head for the Maldives – on a close reach. No chance of the spinnaker then!
John sights a large whale or maybe two. There she blows!
As the day progresses, stratus cloud gives way to some threatening nimbus.
Mon 27 Nov
Fran and I spot various squalls by radar, on our midnight to 2am watch – one of which hits the cockpit, prompting Ollie out of bed to help save the cushions before they get soaked.
At about 7am, dozing, I hear some fishermen on the VHF chatting up Wendy, and seemingly determined to sell us fish, until Ollie appears on the blower!
Thankfully the tropical sun is back – and getting more intense – so it is a good morning for washing and drying.
By evening the prospect of various squalls is clear from the radar, just as the autopilot turns temperamental!
Tue 28 Nov
Mid-morning, we sail into an exciting squall i.e. a decent heel on the boat and various crashes in the galley, although the wind soon eases to a gentle force 1-2 thereafter. If seems as if the larger squalls absorb local wind.
After an indulgent late lunch, just as our attention is about to drift, comes a shout of “Man Overboard!” It’s a surprise drill but no less reason to take seriously! It takes us 7 minutes to retrieve the buoy but this is in relatively calm weather and sea, without the need to take sails down. Ollie is understandably serious about getting our reactions well-honed, otherwise when the boat is genuinely moving in rougher conditions a life would be quickly lost.
Engaged in a silver-rub I spot a splendid red sunset evolving, with mixed and moving shades among the clouds, which prompts a bevy of camera snapping on deck. ‘Red sky at night…?’
Wed 29 Nov
Ollie wakes John and me at 4am, shifts having changed to give some variety in ship’s routines. I clamber up to a balmy night on deck, an incredible tapestry of stars, which later on Ollie reckons is probably the best he has experienced too. My earlier quip about ‘Star-ship Enterprise’ was not tongue in cheek: it really can feel as if you are charting outer space, especially when like this, stars appear right down to the horizon. It actually becomes hard to discern what might be a fishing boat! All around there are flashes of lightning from distant squalls, and yet Nature is fundamentally at peace.
You would be overcome by the intense beauty and tranquillity, especially on a light sea like this. ‘Sublime’ is indeed the only way to describe it: how the Earth and Universe can be at peace, besides so fierce. How our planet is so unique being two-thirds covered with water like this, supporting life, or who else could be out there when you truly recognise the extent of (just our area of) the Universe?
Whether it prompts religious questions as to the probability this could all happen merely by chance, or simply awe, it is a defining moment of the voyage.
Ironically, as dawn advances, so do clouds and the day starts with a few showers and is overcast. Yet the day evolves with fine sailing, achieving 9-10 knots with 11-13 knots of true wind, in calm seas and sunshine. At last!
Thu 30 Nov
Early morning dolphins entertain Wendy and Jo, on watch, and delicious porridge with Greek honey which Jo made for Wendy and herself and which I found gently simmering in the galley and so ate it all!!
With the wind and sun making a sparkling morning, John and I retreat to the aft pulpit seats for a spectacular ocean ride.
An indulgent sunbathing afternoon follows on deck while Boo Too puts on a graceful show of powering to windward!
Fri 1 Dec
Each day seems to be rolling effortlessly into the next as we approach the 200 mile point to the Maldives. Watch duties become deceptively relaxed and we have not seen any boats for four days. Ollie advances clocks by another hour.
It is a true wilderness situation with a relatively calm sea against a hazy blue skyline; and very little by way of wildlife to notice. For a few minutes after sunset the sea turns a surreal red, to starboard, reflecting the clouds.
John and Ollie feel convinced we will be dropping anchor in Male at 8pm tomorrow; I am a bit wary!
Sat 2 Dec
Negotiating squalls at about 4am, the wind shifts significantly to the South, requiring the jib to be furled, accompanied by brief engine failure, although soon we are back to about 8 knots.
A school of dolphins skirts past at about midday, the first mammalian life seen for a while, and by mid-afternoon we spot the first Maldives’ atoll.
The weather is overcast with a few spots of rain as we approach Male commercial harbour, yet the evening clears and we drop anchor at about 8pm – for a balmy champagne celebration and re-union with Luke!
So how does your outlook change, going to sea?
Certainly we graduated as Stoics, coming to terms with adversities, and yet Epicureans and Pantheists too – taking special pleasures from the wonders of nature. Within such variety there is a deeper meaning to life on the ocean wave.
Perhaps the gods were not simply playing with us, as if for sport, dealing one problem after another. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, there is a strong moral lesson about seafaring and in a 21st century context it is this: to thwart our modern instinct always to turn to technology to solve virtually every aspect of modern life – which tends only to impoverish human spirit. Ocean sailing, you are presented with a new and refreshing framework for life: being dealt situations where you are thrown back to essential skills of awareness, mutual support and being fully in touch with Nature: how to read and respond to it. As if in reward, you are blessed with natural wonder – from the simple pleasures of sunshine and sea-spray, the surprise company of dolphins and a rare breakfast of flying fish, to the enormously contrasting moods of the sea, the sheer extent of the Universe and appreciating how insignificant yet unique and precious is the Earth and our existence.
Ocean sailing’s constant communion with nature, far fetched from urban existence, affirms a fuller extent of human spirit which triumphs in the end. Call it enlightenment, a religious experience, experiencing the sublime, if you want to make the most of life then consider voyaging!
Male, 3 Dec 2006