Ferdinand Magellan and me (22) -Disaster

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We were bound for Djibouti, a former French colony near the narrow neck that separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, about 1800 miles from Goa. The first few days were beautiful sailing but as we approached the Gulf of Aden the wind fell light and we had a day of drifting with a whale and her calf spouting noisily nearby. Then the wind came in from the west, dead on the nose. Finally, it began to rain, almost unknown in this area. The one hazard the Gulf of Aden is normally free from was to be our nemesis.
We caught a glimpse of the coast of South Yemen before the wind freshened, bringing heavy rain and lightning. Now followed two days of erratic wind with storms and calms; lightning, heavy rain and dark, threatening clouds. There was no sign of Sun or stars and observations were impossible. Once or twice I glimpsed the land and set a course to clear Ras Fartak, a headland jutting 20 miles out into the gulf.
Handing over the watch to Robin at midnight, I explained that if she could not maintain a course of 240 she should go on to the starboard tack, the wind at this time being southerly. I pointed to a light in the distance, which was a ship that had overtaken us earlier. Then I went to bed, only to be wakened three hours later by a crash and a jolt that nearly threw me out of the bunk.
Scrambling on deck stark naked I found Robin still gripping the wheel staring at the compass.
“Two four zero,” she said, almost in tears.
The yacht was grinding over the rocky bottom, still under way. Immediately I let go the anchor and Robin dropped the sails. With hindsight, this was a mistake. I should have left the mainsail up and run the engine to turn her into the wind. By dropping the sails the boat came upright and the diesel engine at full throttle could not shift her.
“Okay, we’ll have to try and lighten her up. Dump the fresh water, the books and the charts. That should lift her a couple of inches.”
Dressing hastily, I ran out the spare anchor on a long warp and winched on it, but it dragged on the rocky bottom. I began ferrying the books and charts ashore as Robin wrapped them in plastic bags. The rain had now eased but the wind was still fresh onshore and breaking seas pounded her on the rocks and swamped me in the dinghy.
Dawn revealed the bleakest prospect I had ever seen anywhere in the world. The rock-strewn coastal plain was backed by a range of hills rising to bare mountains in the distance. Less than a mile farther on the beach gave way to the cliffs of Ras Fartak fronted by reefs extending a mile or more into the sea. If we had struck on those reefs we’d be in worse trouble than we were now and God knows, I thought miserably, we’re in enough trouble as it is. The only sign of habitation was a distant group of mud houses. Thousands of yellow crabs swarmed over the beach. Bucko yapped at them. At least he was having fun.
Several inches of Wathara’s antifouling were now exposed and it was clear the tide was falling. We could only wait. As we huddled over toast and coffee, our hearts jumping into our mouths each time Wathara slammed on the rocks, there came a shout from the shore. Climbing on deck we saw two Arabs straight out of the movies standing on the shore gesticulating and shouting. They wore baggy trousers, jackets and turbans, with bandoliers of cartridges across their chest, ammunition for the ancient Lee Enfield rifles that they waved. Bucko was barking his head off and they ceased for a while but then resumed.
Hoping for the best, I smiled and waved regally, doing my impersonation of the Queen of England, at which one of the Arabs fired a shot over Wathara’s mast.
“Oh God,” Robin muttered and scuttled below.
I ducked down behind the cockpit coaming feeling thankful, not for the first time for Wathara’s steel hull. Now I remembered the scuttlebutt in Don Windsor’s establishment in Galle. Several yachts were choosing to go around the bottom of Africa rather than the Red Sea because of the danger of pirates, political and official corruption and training camps for terrorists. Had we fallen into a cauldron of political violence?
After a while the Arabs went away, which was possibly worse than having them in view. Had they gone for reinforcements? Fearfully, we gathered passports and important documents and packed a bag with clothes. Tearfully, Robin included a jar of Bucko’s soya bean pellets. Who could know what the future held?>/body>




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leonidas

Sailor from wayback with a Master's degree in Technology Management. Prefer classical music to rap and chicken curry to steak.

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