Diesel run in Port Suakin

Port Suakin, Sudan

A line in a famous college graduation speech by Bazz Luhrman goes like this:

Don’t worry about the things that scare you. The real troubles in your life are apt to be ones that never crossed your worried mind… the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

We’ve noted several times the truth of these words in recent years as we’ve encountered countless troubles we never expected, and rarely encountered those we did. Sharks, surprise storms at sea, uncharted reefs, and pirate attacks have all absorbed us with concern at various times in our journey… far more so than loose mud in an anchorage, a casual dinghy ride in the dark, or a loose rope sitting on the deck. But the latter group has put us in far more actual danger than the former, with our greatest fears never becoming a reality.

In the past week it has again been the hidden dangers that have put us at risk. Several days ago we pulled out of the pirate affected Gulf and entered Aden, an official Yemeni port, to buy diesel and food supplies. As we dropped the anchor at 4am in front of the port authority, yellow flag up, ready to make a formal entry into the country, we began hearing gunfire from the shore and warning shots hitting the water near our bow. We were already on the radio with the port authority who was explaining to us we had anchored on the wrong side of the bay, but by the time we retrieved our anchor we had been approached by two camouflage skiffs with 15 or so heavily armed cammo wearing militant looking guys aboard. Within a few minutes of yelling in Arabic, several of them boarded us, some with bandanans, some with camouflage sarongs, some with knives on their hips, and all with large automatic firearms over their shoulders… if not for the conversation we were having with the Port Authority on the VHF, we certainly would have presumed them to be pirates. They proceeded to ransack and search everything on the boat, and when they found our assault rifles, things went from bad to absolutely awful. At this point we had no idea who these people were because none identified themselves, no badges or signage on the boat, and no uniforms – their authority in our eyes deriving only from their aggressive display of AK 47s and other weapons. Then in the most broken imaginable English we were told we were going to shore to a military holding camp for the night, apparently on the belief we were planning an attack on their nation… or something of the sort. The Port Authority officer pleaded with them on the radio to leave us alone, trying to explain we’d done nothing illegal and were following the described entry procedure. But Arabic yelling just erupted on the VHF and they refused to disembark, ignoring the orders of the Port Authority. An English speaking white-unifromed official approached on a larger coast guard looking boat, hoping to board us and talk some sense into the militant cammos. But in an unbelievable scene of anarchy, the militants refused to allow him aboard, and more yelling and weapons brandishing followed – the uniformed official appeared to be out-gunned, and therefore out-ranked, so he left into the darkness. For nearly another hour it was a scene of third world chaos and confusion, but eventually the militants agreed to let us re-anchor, sleep for a few hours on our boat, and face some kind of military proceeding in the morning. “Don’t move” was their final instruction as they finally got back on their skiffs and finally left us alone. We knew the sun would be up within an hour, so with them just barely out of sight, we of course put the lights off and headed for sea at full steam under cover of darkness. Goodbye Yemen… we won’t be back, ever.

By sunset we were entering into the straits of Bab Al Mandab, the narrow entry to the Red Sea and by far the highest risk and most feared portion of the voyage from a piracy perspectie. These are territorial waters of Muslim countries, and coalition warships aren’t permitted to do piracy patrols here, so the waters are unprotected and universally feared by mariners, including us. With brisk winds from behind, we kept a speed of 8 knots through the “danger zone” and saw not a single fishing skiff or anything even remotely suspicious. We had expected up to 50 encounters with fishing skiffs, deploying warning flares, putting guns on the deck, and so on…. instead nothing but perfect sailing conditions and an occasional dolphin on the bow.

Two days later we were further north than the most northerly pirate attack ever, meaning the danger zone was clearly behind us. We deep-sixed our bullet proof shield, lightening us up by almost a thousand pounds, and then unloaded our weapons at the 18N floating armory. Complete safety at last.

Now as we work our way up the Red Sea, with wind on the face expected for the next week, we’re still in need of the diesel we failed to buy back in Aden. But entering any port is a huge challenge because we have an Israeli citizen on board, and we’re learning the hard way that every country bordering the Red Sea is an enemy of Israel. Entry for Israelis is simply not permitted, and the tensions and emotions are very high (Israeli bombs were dropped here less than 12 months ago). So before entering Port Suakin we put Lee onto the Shapirit, and are now hoping no Sudanese military patrol boats do any routine checks on us or them and discover an Israeli ob board… the consequences of that remain unknown to us. Needeless to say, we’re doing everything we can to get the Isralis among as into less hostile waters and just get this passage behind us. And so it goes.

6 Comments

  1. Jen Huntzicker

    WOW!!! What an adventure! Somehow we thought that once you got into the Red Sea you were safe, so this is all quite startling. All of your previous encounters have certainly prepared you for facing down this final gauntlet. Well done! And well done for your entire voyage. I am going to miss your reports, I’ve lived your journey with you and it has lifted my spirits with your pix and narrative each time it arrived. THANK YOU for sharing it all!! All the Best! Jen

  2. Mom

    Courageous and smart quick thinking saved the day…or in your case, the night. Good on yer, Salties! Aden could be the last of your huge challenges as there’s just the last half of the Red Sea and a portion of the Med. to go. See you south of Rhodes next month…. a dream-come-true reunion.xx

  3. Bruce Byall

    Thrilled to see you progress up the Red Sea.
    Take care and double filter the diesel,
    if it’s coming out of old barrels.

  4. Richard

    OMG, and I thought from a conversation a couple of weeks ago that all was copacetic! Even reading your blog after the fact got my pulse well up into double digits. In any case, all’s well that ends well (I hope). Congratulations!!

  5. sam

    Dude what a sick story! Be safe during the final portion of your trip. Amazing thing you are about to complete!

  6. Katherine Conway

    What a scary account of Yemeni hospitality at the port of Aden…I nearly fell off my stool..I am here eating Lentil soup at Rainbow Acres in the Marina….Good that you got out fof there fast. Lee (your Israeli friend) I hope he can do some good accents…….keep safe …you have a definite book to publish when you get home!. …..Katherine

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