Offshore Log: A Close Call in the Red Sea
Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. — Proverbs 16:18
I alone was responsible for running Calypso onto a reef in the Red Sea. It was a classic error, a crime of hubris, a mistake that someone with 30 years of experience should never have made, one that sailors everywhere make every day. This I tell you, so that you, too, may learn.
We were racing a setting sun, trying desperately to make a small, reef-bound anchorage off the coast of Eritrea before nightfall. We had been at sea for a week, sailing non-stop from Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, headed as far into the Red Sea as we could go before fatigue and northerly winds brought this phase of our voyage to a halt.
We were tired. The trip through the Gulf of Aden had been unbelievably stressful, despite days of easy sailing. The stress came primarily from a single source: the threat of piracy.
Rogues and Rascals
In Oman, the authors of the Red Sea Pilot, an essential cruising guide to this part of the world, called a meeting of cruisers anchored there for the sole purpose of debunking the piracy threat in the region. These are merely fishermen, they said, looking for a Coke, a pack of smokes, a couple of cookies. Welcome them, give them a gift, send them on their way with a good impression of cruisers. Hug the coast of Yemen to avoid the real threat of Somali pirates further offshore.
The meeting was held aboard the catamaran Ocean Swan, the only boat with a cockpit big enough to hold a dozen or more sailors.
Less than a week later, Ocean Swan was attacked just five miles off the Yemeni coast, shot up with automatic weapons, the woman aboard held at knifepoint while demands were made of her husband for the valuables aboard. We know this for a fact, for we helped relay Ocean Swan’s mayday call to Omani officials, who called Yemeni officials, who promised to do something with the few resources they have to deal with such things.
What the pirates took seemed almost whimsical: cash, binoculars, a couple of stereos, VHF radios, a folding bicycle, an anchor. But they really took much more. They took away the cruising community’s desire to coast hop, or to interact at all with local craft and local people. They gave us fear in return.
The pirates then ransacked the tiny sailboat that Ocean Swan had been towing, but her solo English crew had nothing worth stealing except a pair of binoculars.
As far as we were concerned, any local vessel sighted offshore became a potential threat.
With an ad hoc convoy of four other boats, we set off from Oman for the Red Sea, following a path some 40 miles offshore. We had coded waypoints, we stayed within a mile of each other, usually even less, we communicated only by SSB or by VHF on low power on a US-only frequency. We felt we were walking a tightrope, with Somali rogues on one side, Yemenirascals on the other.
It was a relief to get past Aden, where a US warship was bombed not long ago. This can be a violent part of the world, and wealthy, friendly Oman seemed a planet away. The Mediterranean seemed even farther.
As we approached the Strait of Bab el Mandeb — the often-difficult entrance to the Red Sea — the winds were a pleasant 20 knots or so. Nevertheless, we spent hours securing everything on deck and below.
We had been talking to another boat that had entered the Red Sea just a few days before. They had experienced gale-force southerly winds for days in the southern Red Sea, waves constantly breaking over the stern and filling the cockpit. Our condition seemed benign, but we wanted to be ready for the worst.
It seemed almost laughable as we threaded our way through ship traffic, entering the strait at midnight, sailing with only a scrap of headsail, the mainsail lashed, the boom secured amidships with tackles, all deck gear stowed. In a jovial mood at having passed the Gates of Sorrow in good weather, I intoned a solemn “welcome to the Red Sea” to our travelling companions via the radio. I regretted it almost instantly.
Within an hour of entering the Red Sea, our winds rose to a steady 35 to 40 knots, higher in gusts. The scrap of headsail was more than enough to drive us at more than six knots..
Visibility dropped to less than two miles, and the sea built quickly. We were very grateful that the technician in Singapore had sorted out the problems with our Furuno 1831 radar.
Weaving our way back across the shipping lanes in order to get to the west coast of the Red Sea, the radar was the only way we could pick out southbound ships. We finally found a gap in the steady flow of traffic-no mean feat with a steady 40 knots of wind - and dashed through to the relative safety of the Eritrean coast.
For almost 24 hours, it blew hard. On deck, it was wet and more than a little scary, dawn bringing light but little reassurance. Through the day, we looked for diminishing winds, and seized upon each lull to below 30 knots as a harbinger of better weather.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the winds moderated, so that by midnight a steady 25 knots seemed like a zephyr. Maryann and I got some rest in turns, both of us having been up for 24 hours or more while in narrow waters with lots of traffic.
Headed for Trouble
But the mental stress of the Gulf of Aden and an unexpected gale had taken their toll. I had definitely lost my edge.
Unable to make Massawa, Eritrea before the next nightfall, we located a tiny offshore refuge with the deceptively reassuring name of Port Smyth. It required a precision approach through a narrow break in the reef, and we had been warned that there were no longer any markers for help.The hard part would be getting there before dark.
All four boats remaining in our little fleet — a crew of young Irishmen on the fifth boat had departed company with us near Aden, desiring to press on faster—pushed hard, motorsailing if necessary to try to maintain enough speed for a daylight entry.
The Australian Cal 46 Tyra led the way, her big diesel giving her more speed than anyone else could maintain.
Just before sunset she picked her way into the anchorage, giving waypoints and depths as she went. Calypso was just a mile behind, and the sun had not quite set.
The sun did not exactly set. It disappeared behind a dust cloud while still above the horizon, and it was if someone had turned off a light. We went from marginal light to no light at all in a matter of two minutes. I slowed the boat to a crawl, realizing we were in danger.
Fortunately, the wind and sea shut down with the sunset, and it was flat calm.
Suddenly, the bearings on the GPS made no sense to me. The bearings that Maryann was calling out from below seemed impossible, and I yelled angrily at her.
At the same time, the water was shoaling rapidly, and instead of leveling off at 20', as it had for Tyra, the bottom got steadily closer. We were out of gear, coasting. I had lost my bearings in the sudden darkness.
It was with a firm but gentle thump that Calypso struck the reef. The next thump was firmer, less gentle, and it shook the rig. In a calm but strained voice Maryann called the two boats just behind us to warn them off. My throat was so tight I could barely croak out a few words.
This was no joke. This was not a sandy shoal in Florida, nor a muddy mangrove creek in Thailand—we have been on the bottom in both—but a coral reef in the Red Sea.
The moon rose quickly in the east, rising out of the dust cloud that had just swallowed the sun to the west. The reef appeared almost as clear as day beneath the boat—a solid, intricate mass of coral that Calypso had just impacted.
My mind was numb. I felt a moment of panic, thinking my 20 years of planning, my decade of building, our four years of cruising over 20,000 miles, all were going to end ignominiously, and we would be just another pair of foolish yachties eaten by a coral reef.
But we weren’t finished yet.
Colin aboard Tyra had dropped his dinghy from the davits the moment he heard our call, and somehow his presence alongside was reassuring even though his voice was wracked with the same tension we all felt.
It was flat calm, but we had no idea of the state of the tide. The depth sounder read 7.4 feet, which, if correct, meant that we should still be floating. We clearly, however, were aground, as the same white coral head next to the boat stayed in the same position.
Our ticket to freedom came in an unlikely package the size of a flashlight. I handed Colin the Speedtech Instruments pocket depthsounder, which we use from the dinghy for feeling our way into suspect places before risking Calypso.
From our position just before losing my bearings, I figured we had cut the corner slightly, clipping the reef on the starboard side of the entrance.
Sure enough, a boatlength to port, Colin found 30' of water. Just 20' to port, there was an achingly accessible 13' of water. Sounding in an arc across the bow, we determined that the closest deep water, with no intervening shelf of coral shallower than our present location, was on our port beam.
Under power, with Colin’s dinghy pushing from the starboard bow, we tried to pivot to port, but Calypso was firmly wedged.
I lowered the 60-pound CQR with its heavy chain, into Tyra’s half-swamped dinghy, and Colin —a big, strapping young Australian—muscled the anchor and chain across the reef into deeper water to port aft of abeam.
This was to be a test of ground tackle against coral, and it started out as no contest. Our big Lofrans Falkon windlass took the strain, and the circuit breaker tripped. We took more strain, and the 150-amp breaker tripped again. The chain stood bar-taut abeam, but the windlass had done all it could.
I muttered a prayer for our massive stemhead anchor fitting. Never have I been more grateful for our grossly oversized anchoring equipment.
Colin reported several inches of bottom paint was showing aft, which meant Calypso’s stern was hung up. Maryann opened the taps, and we began to pump water overboard. Emptying our water tanks —completely, full after a day of running the watermaker — would lighten the stern by several inches, perhaps giving us the margin we needed.
In a moment of inspiration, I shoved the gearshift into astern, giving the engine half throttle. I had already determined that the rudder was free, and was in no immediate danger of being wrenched off.
Going forward, I called on the windlass once again. The breaker tripped several more times, but we had gained a little chain back. Was it just the anchor coming home, or was the bow pivoting?
Suddenly, the bow swung over 90 degrees to port, almost sinking Colin in the dinghy. I ran aft and pulled the engine out of gear, ran back forward to the windlass control, and started winding in chain.
“Eight feet!” Maryann called from the instruments, then “13 feet, 25 feet.” We were floating. Calypso was still alive!
In the dinghy, Colin moved slowly toward Tyra’s lights just 100 yards away, calling soundings as he went.
With 20 feet of water under the keel, we dropped the anchor once again. Our companions outside the reef wisely carried on, leaving Tyra and Calypso alone inside.
I pulled up the floorboards, but there was no water. I hadn’t expected any, for Calypso was designed and built for groundings of this type.
Her keel is long but not flat on the bottom, drawing a foot and a half more at the aft end of the keel than at the forward end. The ballast is 11,000 pounds of external iron, a single casting averaging about 2 feet deep. We have always, jokingly, called this iron backbone the “coral crusher.” This time, it was no joke.
At the aft end of the iron casting, a sacrificial solid glass section—a separate molding from the hull—fairs the keel into the rudder. The glass section is shallower than the casting ahead if it, and the bottom of the rudder is about 6 inches above the point of maximum draft.
When the boat grounds at her deepest point, she grounds on solid iron at least four inches thick and almost two feet in depth. This gives Calypso a stiff, unyielding spine.
Early the next morning, I dove to look for damage. There was none, other than some scraped bottom paint on the keel. We had already cleaned the paint off the bottom of the keel going up a creek in Thailand, and this time we had just removed the barnacles that were growing there.
Calypso was safe and sound, despite my stupidity. Once again, she had cared for us. It is no wonder that we spend so much time taking care of her.
Forty-five minutes after we grounded, Colin and I were having a beer in the cockpit, basking in the moonlight. Colin was soaked with saltwater and sweat from his efforts, I was soaked with the sweat of relieved tension. We laughed at the close call, but it was a laugh tinged with hysteria. My hands trembled for two days.
Here Beginnith the Lesson
I cannot imagine cruising in a boat with encapsulated ballast, except perhaps a steel or aluminum boat with tough integral shell plating holding the ballast. Even a “moderate” grounding such as ours on coral or rock could seriously damage a fiberglass-encapsulated keel.
An external lead keel might give better shock-absorbing properties, but our iron keel is tough. The lower density of iron works to your benefit in a long-keel design such as Calypso, as you need more volume of iron, spread out over a longer distance, to give the same center of gravity you could achieve with higher-density lead.
We wanted a long keel to stiffen the hull and provide more protection, and we got it. A lead keel requires much less maintenance, however, and is the only rational solution for a fin-keel boat.
A keel with wings of any type could have been a serious detriment in a grounding such as ours. The larger footprint of a wing keel could hang the boat up more easily.
A bow thruster could have been a real help here, pivoting the boat toward deeper water. The typical cruising dinghy with a modestly-sized outboard won’t provide as much side thrust as a properly-designed bow thruster.
Our oversized ground tackle, including anchor, chain, windlass, and stemhead fitting, paid for itself in half an hour. Most stemhead fittings and rollers would have been ripped off by the sideways strain we applied in wrenching our boat around.
Because we have huge wiring for our windlass—4/0 gauge— we could probably use a bigger circuit breaker than the 150-amp breaker I installed. Other electrical components of the windlass system are only rated for 150 amps continuous, however, so you must size the breaker for the weakest link.
Our Lofrans Falkon 1500-watt windlass is suitable or boats up to 55 feet in length. It is bulky and heavy. We think it’s also beautiful. Many windlasses you see on 40-footers are, by comparison, toys. A windlass is not meant to pull you off a reef. In a pinch, however, it can make the difference between success and failure.
The handheld Speedtech pocket depthsounder, available through West Marine and other catalogs, is worth its weight in gold. In the dark, its illuminated readout lets you take and read soundings instantly. It is far faster than any leadline.
In the future, I will mount a GPS in the cockpit, so that I can monitor things instantly. Having someone call up numbers from below can be confusing, whereas if you can see the pattern emerging on the instrument before your eyes, you can better anticipate problems.
Panic is the enemy. For about a minute, I was paralyzed with fear and anger: fear at the possibility of losing my boat, anger at myself for getting into such a predicament. Panic solves nothing.
I made an appalling series of errors in seamanship. We place too much faith in our modern electronics without thinking of the errors inherent in the system. Even if the GPS system were flawless, and had I been perfectly on course by the cross-track error, and at exactly at Tyra’s waypoint, the repeatability of a GPS position is not accurate enough for the type of navigation we were attempting without suitable visibility. In our case, an error of position of less than 50 feet meant the difference between safety and possible destruction.
However, the instruments may sometimes make more sense than your gut feelings. The strange bearing to waypoint we got the few seconds before we struck was right, and it meant I was out of position. In this case, I should have trusted the instrument.
In instrument flight training, you learn to trust your instruments completely, with all sensory input removed. In instrument sailing, sensory input can be a plus or a minus. Keep your head to figure out which it is in a given situation.
Do not attempt difficult navigation when you are seriously fatigued. Fatigue is your constant companion near the end of a long, difficult passage.
Leave yourself some margin. When the light disappeared five minutes before we expected, we were in trouble.
Be flexible. When I realized we had lost the light, I should have bailed out and retraced our steps offshore, even though we had only 200 yards to go to the anchorage. As tempting as it was to spend the night at anchor rather than at sea, it was the wrong choice.
Be conservative. As a racing navigator, I take chances—with the owner’s permission—that save us seconds or minutes, even if they put the boat at risk. Races are sometimes decided by seconds, often by minutes. This attitude has no place in cruising.
A serious grounding when racing can mean an expensive haulout. A serious grounding when cruising can mean walking away from your dream forever. We have a second chance. We mean to make the most of it.