Red Sea Passage Part Two: Old Suakin, Sudan

Gene at his thinnest and weakest. It hurt me to look at him.

We finally left Aden in light winds from the right direction. We motored out the long channel and when we were well away, raised the sails. The wind was too light for the wind vane, so we engaged our new Raymarine autopilot. It started moving us through the water like a sidewinder on speed. Forty degrees to the left of our course, then forty degrees back. The little motor was working hard and it got very hot to the touch after working for only a few minutes. Gene was spewing profanities. What a waste of $1,230 (that includes baksheesh). We should have figured we’d have a problem when we noticed the backward wiring. It was back to hand steering; a tedious and miserable way to spend time. Later, we were on the radio with Julia lamenting our bad choice. Julia’s first mate is an electronics wizard and he gave us some advice. We were supposed to clear all the data and reset it with the same numbers. Gene went into his stubborn mode and refused to try it. THAT wasn’t going to do any good. Theoretically, he was right. Why should clearing the computer and resetting it with the same info do anything? Still, I was desperate; I could not, would not, hand steer for the next 700 miles. After some not so gentle persuading, Gene tried the trick. It helped a lot. We were still snaking, but not anymore than while I was hand steering. A day or so later, Gene tried out the Hydraulic Steering option even though we don’t have hydraulic steering, and guess what, it works perfectly! I guess it wasn’t just the wiring that was backward.
We weren't out long before the dreaded northerlies started blowing hard. We had to motor slowly into fierce winds. As soon as we could, we found refuge behind a small island and dropped anchor. We spread the word by radio, and soon there were five of us anchored. The forecast was for southerlies the next day. We were all skeptical about that. We couldn’t believe that 25 knots from the north would give way and turn that fast. Unbelievably, the wind from the north suddenly stopped, and the southerlies immediately filled in. We were now anchored on a lee shore. Next morning we all headed out with good wind behind us. Some decided to utilize the southerlies and do overnighters to either Massawa, Eritrea or Suakin, Sudan. Fuel was not available in Massawa, so Suakin (approximately 500 miles) was our goal. Gene and I decided to day hop. We thought afternoon anchoring, sundowners and a good nights sleep sounded better than three hours on three hours off for an unknown period.
Most of the anchorages didn’t merit us getting out the deflated dink, pumping it up, deploying it, and mounting the engine, so until we got to Shumma Island seven days later, we hadn’t gone ashore. I took a relaxing walk amongst the acacias, and saw five new bird species. It was really good to put my feet on terra firma. Gene stayed aboard Peregrine because his foot was not healing and he didn’t want to get it wet. The barnacle gouge he got in Aden now looked like a miniature Grand Canyon that spanned the width of the top of his foot. Every time he stepped, the thing would flex and it wouldn’t mend. It was getting scary looking. I insisted that he douse it with betadine twice a day rather than once, and suggested keeping it covered for awhile to see if that helped. In the meantime, he developed a boil like thing on the shin of the same leg. Three days before arriving in Suakin, Gene’s boil erupted. I don’t want to get as graphic as I should to describe how sickening this bloody, oozing, two-inch wide impaction was. Just believe me, it was a stomach turner. I was very worried, and Gene was lethargic.
Awad at the hospital
The morning of the day we arrived in Suakin, the engine overheated. We turned the engine off and let it cool. The “radiator” was empty. Gene refilled it and we motor-sailed into big winds with a mostly furled genoa and a doubled reefed main. We figured we were at least a week behind everybody. We blew into Suakin in 25 to 30 knot winds, and were surprised to see quite a few boats still in the anchorage. Some had been waiting a week for the winds to die down. Seven or eight people were also using the break to recuperate from the Dengue Fever that they’d picked up in Massawa, Eritrea. I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that we passed by Masawa. It was good to see some friendly faces. I was particularly happy to see, an American catamaran that had a surgeon and physician’s assistant onboard. I badgered Gene to go immediately and see the Dr.. He put it off until the next morning and even then I had to nag. Gene came back from his visit visibly shaken. He was told to go to the local hospital. Dr. told him that his impaction could cause an amputation if he didn’t get immediate attention. He also told us that if we didn’t see a big improvement in five days, we should go elsewhere. That would be very difficult; that would mean flights. Flights would mean money. Americans can not get money in Sudan, and we were almost out.
We had time to visit and trade books before the winds subsided and everyone left. We were alone again. I have to admit that even after meeting our friendly and efficient agent, Mohammed Ahmed, I was a little worried about being the only boat in Suakin. Our chart guide told us that, until recently, the current regime in Sudan supported terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. However, oil was discovered in W. Sudan, and the regime joined the international anti-terrorist alliance. Apparently, they’d like to do business with the west now. So there we were, the only westerners in Suakin, Sudan. We couldn’t leave. Gene had to go to the hospital twice a day for a least a week, and we had to find out why the engine overheated and try to fix it.
My worries turned out to be unfounded. We were treated very well by the Sudanese in Old Suakin. I could freely wander in the market, and was greeted with smiles and hellos. Mohammed picked Gene up twice a day and drove him to the hospital. He drove into New Suakin to pick up the prescribed antibiotics. He found us a welder, drove into Port Sudan to look for an alternator (which he couldn’t find), got us water and fuel, and never charged more than his original agent fee. (In Arab countries, you use an agent to do your check ins and outs.) We were not conned in Suakin like we were in Aden. One of Gene’s nurses, Awad, invited us to his house for coffee. It would have been very rude not to accept, so after Gene’s leg was dressed, we all climbed into Mohammed’s truck and drove to Awad’s place.
The first impression of Old Suakin is that the place is nothing but ruins. We were told that the ruined coral buildings were about five hundred years old, and that they had collapsed from age, not war. Closer inspection reveals some patched up buildings serving as small stores and residences. Beyond the ruins, newer slump stone homes sprawl out across the barren landscape. There were also fenced in places that we couldn’t see. Awad’s place was surrounded by a wall made of sticks and woven matting. Mohammed dropped us off and we said we’d get back ourselves. We went through a wooden gate and entered Awad’s humble compound. His house was a sort of permanent tent. Woven mats, plastic and fabric sheets covered a framework to create the walls. He had a smaller version of this for his mother in the compound. I believe his home was representative of the average home. The floors are dirt. There is no running water. Water is delivered by truck. Awad had a plastic container that looked as if it held about 50 gallons. He gave us a tour of his house. It consisted of two bedrooms and the living-room/kitchen. We sat in the seven by five living room /kitchen while Asa, Awad’s wife, made coffee over coals in an aluminum casserole pan. We soon realized that having a cup of coffee was going to be a time consuming event. It’s a social thing, like a tea party. Asa roasted coffee beans then ground them with a mortar and pestle. She added ginger and other spices and put the mixture into a small coffeepot of boiling water she had over her coal stove. She served it very strong in little cups with lots of sugar, a bit like Turkish coffee. By the time this process was complete, it was lunchtime and Awad insisted that we have lunch. Asa made beans and bread. They shared what they had with pride, warmth and humor. We enjoyed our visit, but I felt a little guilty.
It didn’t seem right take anything from them. We invited Awad, Asa and their four kids out to the boat for our weak coffee the following day. Unfortunately, they did not come because Awad was needed at the hospital. I had purchased a few small gifts to present to them when they came to the boat, so I had Gene take them to the hospital before we left.
These people are very poor, but they were honest in the markets, and I don’t think anyone on the yachts had anything stolen. I hope that Sudan can iron out tribal problems, militant problems, regime problems, whatever it is that has made life so difficult for them. I don’t know if all of Sudan can be represented by the people in Old Suakin, I only know what I experienced in that small community. I wish them only the best.
Gene’s leg was looking pretty good, and he was finished with the antibiotics. We had our cracked exhaust elbow welded, and after cutting a new gasket for it because the old one disintegrated, Gene reinstalled it. He had to cut three gaskets because the gasket material we had on board was really thin and it took three layers to approximate the thickness of the original. We hoped the water wouldn’t just squeeze through. We fired the engine up and ran it for an hour. No water poured from the gasket, the repaired elbow didn’t leak, and we held an acceptable temperature. The alternator still didn’t work, but we were patched up enough to get to Port Ghalib, Egypt, where we could get parts. We had a weather window, so we had Mohammed clear us, said our thanks and goodbyes, and went to bed early in preparation for leaving in the weak first light of the morning.
Next morning, we took up anchor and headed out. We didn’t even get through the first bend in the channel before we started overheating. We thought we had sucked up a jellyfish because there were hundreds of them in the anchorage. Gene went to check-- no jellyfish. We went back to almost the same spot we were in and dropped anchor. My worst moments were yet to come, but this was Gene’s lowest moment. He looked pitiful as he sat in the cockpit, head in hands, bloody bandage on his leg. I have never seen Gene in such a state. I decided I had to be upbeat and helpful. At least we weren’t out at sea. We were safe and comfortable. I passed tools and did what I could while Gene went over the engine.
Mohammed came out to see if there was anything he could do. He said he got the report from the Port officials that we started out and turned around. We told him we didn’t know what the problem was yet. He said he would call us on the radio at 3:00 to check on us. What a prince!
Gene discovered that the fresh water used as a coolant for the engine wasn’t circulating properly. He figured the blockage was in our hot water heater, so we bypassed it to allow the coolant to circulate better. It seemed to do the trick. We had to use a temporary hose for that and it was clear. We could see the water going through. Hallelujah!! We would head out first light the next morning.

Next time...The Voyage of the Damned, the 420 miles of HELL, the leg that turned me into a screaming, crying mad woman with bloody patches on my scalp were hair should have been, the little stretch that caused me to serious ask myself, “What the HELL are you doing?”, and tell myself, “You could have a better time if you went home, bought a cat-o-nine tails, and practiced self flagellation three times a day.”

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