Chapter 25



From letters 14 March 1985 Port Sudan and 2 May 1985 Port Suez

Last night at sunset, we arrived in Port Sudan halfway up the dreaded Red Sea. So far, so good. Our masts still stand, all sails are intact, and three-quarters of our fuel and water remain. That’s far better than most in the fleet of a dozen yachts, where torn sails, equipment failures and excessive water/fuel consumption are a grave concern.

Blasted into this challenging sea of conflict by a “you can’t turn back” southerly gale, both big seas and ships have scared the blazes out of us. Starting that first night, when we screamed through its narrow entrance called Bab el Mandeb, which means, get this, “The Gates of Hell.” Next we survived another day of strong south winds that pushed us into a treeless moonscape of rocky, volcanic islands. Then unbelievably, at the point of no turning back, the wind swung in a 180-degree about-turn that clobbered us from directly ahead. And we’ve been battling headwinds ever since.

The land on either side is lifeless and flat, appearing just sand and rock, horrible and blah. Ships stream down the centre of this narrow sea, causing grey hairs for yacht skippers, and frightening nights for the crews. There are few navigational lights, no friendly ports, and both shores are fringed with dangerous reefs. And the wind is always from ahead, straight from our destination. Everything challenges our determination.

Eritrea ~
We’ve encountered one very frightening time so far, and it wasn’t with a tanker or cargo ship, but with a gunboat off the coast of Eritrea.

Geography divides the people of Eritrea, which is about half the size of Victoria or one-hundred-twenty-thousand square kilometres. Eritrea is dominated by a central highland with elevations of two-thousand metres rising to three-thousand. South of this are extinct volcanoes and fields of broken lava. To the west are plains, crossed by rivers with fertile lowlands. East of the highlands and plunging to the Red Sea, is a narrow coastal strip of barren scrub and desert.

In the Eritrean highlands live Orthodox Christians, related to Coptic Christians who split from mainstream Christianity in the sixth century. Surrounding them, nomadic or semi-nomadic Muslims inhabit the lowlands. Eritrea’s four million people are divided between the two religions.

Eritrea is suffering famine caused by drought and the erosion of land that once yielded food, as is much of sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, areas described as jungle by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Tarzan novels are now lands of dust.

The history of Eritrea has been recorded since the second millennium B.C. when Egyptian pharaohs traded with Red Sea coastal chiefs. After that, the region saw invasions by Egyptians and Turks, and later in 1890 it became an Italian colony and given the name Eritrea from the Greek word for red. Italy lost the territory to a British invasion in 1941, and after World War II, a United Nations resolution made Eritrea an autonomous, self-governing region of neighbouring Ethiopia.

Ethiopia would be landlocked without Eritrea, and so in 1962 Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie took control of Eritrea. He discarded its flag and forced the people to adopt the Ethiopian Amharic language.

A year before that crushing blow, Eritrean exiles in Cairo founded the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) and began an armed revolt. In the first two decades of their struggle, the mostly Marxist EPLF rebels received aid from Arab allies of the Soviet Union. But when Ethiopian military officers overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974 and imposed a Marxist government on Ethiopia’s thirty-three million people, the U.S.S.R. began to send billions of dollars’ worth of arms to the new Ethiopian government, which let them field one of the most significant armed forces on the African Continent. As many as one-hundred-fifty-thousand Ethiopian troops battled to contain independence movements in Eritrea where the EPLF has perhaps twenty-thousand freedom fighters.

In this complex war of Marxist killing Marxist, a senior United Nations official called it one of the greatest tragedies of our time. With an estimated one-hundred-seventy-thousand combatants and civilians killed, the war still threatens another seven-hundred-fifty-thousand Eritreans with starvation.

Gunship ~
We knew nothing of this tragedy or that the Russian’s had established a naval support facility in the Daclac Archipelago, off the Eritrean coast.

Late one night lit only by a half-moon, when beating towards Eritrean shores a powerful beam of light searched us out as we made slow progress against a headwind.

Jude’s Diary:
On watch at two this morning going up into the cockpit where everywhere is black because we’re sailing without lights, hoping to avoid pirates. Just after standing on the seat to get a better look around, a startling blast of light zags back and forth about a half-mile astern. As it began to zero in, I knew straight away it couldn’t be a regular ship and screeched for Jack to get up…

When it locked onto Banyandah, machine-gun fire rent the air like a string of exploding firecrackers turning the night into a light show of tracers. Jude scared, as we both were, wailed, “Please don’t shoot us.”

Fetching the gun, I yelled for the boys to wake up, thinking it would be best to let this mysterious gunship see a family with children on board. I felt they’d not attack children.

Then I lined us up along the hand railing, so we all stood openly on deck as the searchlight illuminated an easy target for any marksmen. Suddenly extinguished, there a few boat lengths away, we could see this no-nonsense gunship silhouetted in the scant moonlight. Next a loudhailer broke the night’s silence.

“Drop your sails – come alongside.” blared across the wind in an Eastern European voice.

What a crazy notion! So I waved my arms in an emphatic “NO!”

For an hour that unlit, unmarked ship pursued us like a cat playing with a mouse; searchlight flashing across our sails, sporadic gunfire cracking the night air as they attempted to stop us. But we defiantly pushed on…


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