Picnic on Zabargad Island, Red Sea | photo by Roger Lean-Vercoe
Until now, the Red Sea has not featured high on the list of favoured cruising grounds for superyachts. At the close of the northern summer season, yachts are either laid-up or migrate to the Caribbean. And while the Red Sea can offer equal or, usually, even better weather conditions, it has in the past lacked an infrastructure that could support the needs of a superyacht. But the area is changing fast. New airports and marinas, together with the logistics that accompany such developments, have opened up its northern shores.
So, once in the Red Sea, what is there to do? This area has little in common with the overcrowded hot spots of the Mediterranean, but what is on offer – diving, water sports, visiting world-heritage antiquities and exploring remote islands in great weather – often beats the Mediterranean and the Caribbean by a wide margin. Six of the world’s top 20 scuba diving sites are to be found in the northern Red Sea, while world-class antiquities such as the Pharaonic temples at Thebes, Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula and Petra, the amazing city carved from stone in Jordan, are all within easy travelling distance.
Starting at Port Ghalib where our yacht, the 43 metre Hana was berthed, our plan was to head south towards some famous diving sites near the Sudanese border, then retrace our steps to Port Ghalib, before motoring onwards towards Sharm el Sheikh and the Gulf of Aqaba. We left Port Ghalib after dinner for an overnight passage to Fury Shoals, where we would make our first dive.
Diving these open-water sites is a strange experience in that, out of sight of land, there is no hint of a reef other than a slight disturbance of the surface until the sun is high and the water colour changes. Many reefs are named after the ships that sank there, but the East India company schooner Fury, which first reported this collection of reefs, was fortunate in that its encounter was in daylight.
Divers accustomed to the murky waters of the North Atlantic seaboard or the almost sterile Mediterranean are sure to be amazed by the Red Sea, where coral-topped pinnacles of rock, some as much as 900 metres tall and alive with marine life of all types, extend upwards from the sea bed to the surface through crystal clear water.
That night we dined on deck as Hana headed southwards surrounded by a dark, still and balmy night beneath a canopy of amazingly bright stars. The day started with a morning dive on Rocky Island, a nearby plate-shaped islet where the terraced drop-offs descend to a staggering 600 metres. This time there were huge areas of beautiful soft corals and plenty of the larger fish, including schools of tuna, but the dive was not a long one due to strong currents.
Leaving Hana outside Zabargad’s closed reef, we took a picnic ashore and spent the rest of the day exploring the island and enjoying watersports in the turquoise lagoon.
That evening, weary from an excess of walking, swimming and jet-skiing, we relaxed on the sun deck as Hana turned northwards in now calm seas, heading for our next stopover: the Daedalus Reef near the mid-point of the Red Sea between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Just 450 metres long and 100 metres wide, this isolated reef stands directly in the path of shipping headed for Suez or the Gulf of Aqaba and because of this a lighthouse was erected here in 1863 by the French Suez Canal Company. Being built of riveted cast iron this must have been a nightmare to operate in the heat, but rust steadily destroyed it and a 30 metre high stone replacement was built by the British in 1931.
Being an isolated reef so far from land the dive was spectacular, with a plethora of all the usual colourful reef fish, as well as predators like tuna and barracuda, and even schooling hammerhead sharks – around 17 of them including three pups, swimming lazily beneath, paying us not the slightest attention.
That night we headed north-westwards back towards Port Ghalib where we took the opportunity to look around the local resort that would be a good base for a stay-cruise holiday. Past midnight, Hana slipped out into the velvet-warm night, headed for another reef in mid-Red Sea: The Brothers.
Little Brother and Big Brother are a pair of very small, steep-sided islets set within bordering reefs, the latter bearing another British-built lighthouse, a relic from 1883. Underwater, this is yet another spectacular place with a couple of wrecks where we saw plenty of large fish, including a thresher shark, white and grey tipped reef sharks, and a friendly metre-long Napoleon wrasse that would sneak up behind us, grazing the top of our heads. After another relaxed evening of dining and dancing we hauled anchor and headed north for the Straits of Gubal.
As the chain rattled out next morning, anchoring us in the shelter of the Sha’ab Ali reef in just over 30 metres of water, there was little to mark our next dive, barring half a dozen diving boats clustered together a couple of hundred metres away. This is, however, one of the world’s top 10 diving sites. In 1941, the SS Thistlegorm, a 126.5 metre steam-driven freighter, was attacked by a pair of German bombers, one of which scored a direct hit. The munitions in her aft hold exploded and she foundered with the loss of nine lives. Discovered by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in 1955, Thistlegorm was lost from memory until the rise of diving tourism, for which she is now the star of the Red Sea.
The strong current makes this a difficult dive and we descended hanging on to a guide rope to avoid being swept along the length of the ship. The foredeck and front hold were especially interesting, with the deck being filled by barnacle-encrusted railway carriages, while the hold remains jam-packed with Morris one-tonne trucks and Norton and BSA motorcycles, still identifiable through the encrustation. Not only was this the dive of a lifetime but there was plenty left to discover on future visits.
Across the Strait on the west side of the Gulf of Suez the island of Gubal provides a safe overnight anchorage as well as an easily accessible sandy beach. This was the ideal spot for a barbecue, so after giving the water toys some exercise we set up base camp ashore where, as another splendid sun set below the horizon, the chink of glasses and the aroma of grilling meat filled the air well into the night.
The next day, after a lazy breakfast on the bridge deck aft, we set out eastwards across the strait for a quick dive and some snorkelling at Sha’ab Mahmoud on the Sinai side, before heading south for Ras Mohammed at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, where our final dive of the cruise awaited on Shark and Yolanda reefs. We first dived Shark, whose proximity to Sharm el Sheikh makes this highly rated site rather popular and at times we had to dodge other dive parties. Yolanda reef, named after a cargo ship that foundered here in 1987, provided some comic relief. Her cargo had been bathroom fittings and the sea bed is littered with toilets and baths, many the right way up and positively demanding that passing divers make use of that wicked photo opportunity!
Clearing out of Egypt that evening in Sharm el Sheikh we passed through the Straits of Tiran, then on north-eastwards tracking up the Gulf of Aqaba. Ahead was the distant sight of a vast Egyptian flag fluttering above a small islet which was to be our last stopping point before finally docking across the Gulf in Jordan’s Tala Bay Marina, just south of the bustling city of Aqaba.
Close to the shore, Gezîret Fara’ûn, or Pharaoh’s Isle, is capped with a 12th century castellated fort dating back to King Solomon and the Crusaders. As we found when we climbed its ramparts, the position is still a strategic one with Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all visible.
Throughout the cruise we had been surrounded by deserts but, so far, had not yet experienced their beauty. An hour from Aqaba is the fabled Wadi Rum, a place of extraordinary beauty, where Laurence of Arabia and the Arab forces concentrated before an assault on Ottoman-held Aqaba in 1917. We had a guided tour by 4×4 and could have spent much longer in these magnificent surroundings.
Driving swiftly on, we took an excellent road to what is perhaps Jordan’s prime tourist site – Petra, an ancient Nabataean capital city dating back to the 6th century BC that was the trans-shipment centre for a vast trading network that extended throughout Asia and Europe. Carved from living rock, we entered this highly defensible town through a cleft that opens impressively into a wider canyon and spent a further fascinating couple of hours exploring the many other elaborately carved Nabataean and Greco-Roman rock tombs.
With its blend of scuba, exploration and superb weather, our cruise had been thoroughly enjoyable as well as being active, entertaining and relaxing – and this applied equally to the divers and the non-divers in our party. With its swiftly developing superyacht infrastructure, the northern Red Sea must now surely be considered very seriously as a winter playground for the Mediterranean superyacht fleet.
Hana is available for charter through your preferred retail broker.
Hana is also listed for sale on boatinternational.com