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Voyage of Traveler / Blog » 2009 »

Voyage of Traveler / Blog

April 24, 2009

Postcard from the Red Sea

Filed under: Year 2: July08-June09 French Polynesia to Greece, Red Sea — mrlawlerjr @ 12:22 pm

Hi, Everyone, View Barbara’s Photo Album of this area on
Our passage from Aden, Yemen up the Red Sea so far has been an interesting one.  We made it easily through the Bab El Mandeb (Arabic for Gate of Tears, so called due to high winds and strong currents, and lots of ship wrecks), which marks the southerly entrance to the Red Sea.  We luckily had winds of 25 to 30 behind us and a favorable current of 3 knots.  There were lots of ships steaming through the narrow channel for us to dodge, but we had good visibility during the day and our radar works well at night.

Pirates or Military?  We sailed over to west side of the Bab El Mandeb to the island of Doumera, Djibouti, near the Eritrea border, to get out of the wind for a couple of hours and have lunch.  But as we approached that island we were chased down by a 20 ft. speed boat with three men.  I could see in the binnoculars that two were wearing foul weather gear (the seas were rough) and the third one had an AK-47.  We were under sail doing about 7 to 8 knots, and they were doing about 20 knots, so there was no way for us to out run them.  When then pulled up on our port side, all three were yelling at us in Arabic and waving their arms wildly.  There are occasional reports of pirates in this area, sometimes posing as military.  Their boat was not painted or otherwise marked as a navy or coast guard boat, so we were unsure at first if they were pirates or military.  But it turned out they were in the Djibouti navy and that we were apparently in a restricted area (uncharted–maybe some kind of recent military problem?)  The borders between African countries are always a little tense, with lots of military.  We got the message and jibed away from the island, and within 20 minutes we were in Eritrean waters, sailing away from Djibouti, and the navy boat left us alone.

Red Sea Skiff

The next day we were approached again by a speed boat, this time with five men that looked like fishermen.  But were they pirates posing as fishermen in order to get close to us–as has happened with other yachts in this area?  They came up along side of us, held up their catch to see if we wanted to buy fish from them (we shook our heads no), but then they asked for water and cigarettes, which we threw to them.  We bought a couple of cartons of Marlboros to use as small gifts (”bakeesh” in Arabic) for Customs officials and situations like this.

After sailing through the night, we anchored in Massawa, Eritrea to get a little rest.  It is a very poor country with the second lowest GNP in the world. About 20 years ago in a long civil war with Ethiopia, it broke away and became its own country.  But it still does not have enough money to clean up the dozens of war-damaged buildings that were either bombed out or shot up with machine guns.  Fuel is still rationed and so scarce we were unable to buy diesel here. Ethiopia doesn’t even have a fishing fleet because they don’t have fuel for the boats. We decided to move on.

Saukan, Sudan

Our next country, Sudan, was not much better. It too is very poor.  We anchored at the ancient city of Suakin, which lays in ruins.  We’ve sent some of our photos, and you can Google “Old Suakin” for more photos.  Suakin is like a living (barely) ghost town with no power, water or sewer, and about 2,000 people squatting in the ruins. For water, they have donkey pulled water wagons working their way through the ruins, stopping to ladle out a few liters of water to their customers.  We had to take on water here because we had salt water in our water tanks and had to dump all of our water–so that was an interesting experience.


We took a one hour bus ride north to Port Sudan to use the Internet.  The bus cost only $1, and there were 26 people in a bus designed to hold a maximum of 20 people, with no air conditioning. I brought my iPod and Bose headphones, and cranked up the Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil.”  We are staying in the worse hotel I have every stayed in in my life.  And it is not cheap.  $85 per night.  But it has the Internet, and that is how we are able to send you this Postcard with photos.




Tomorrow we sail north for Egypt.  God willing.

Michael and Barbara

April 22, 2009

Traveler Postcard from Sudan

Filed under: Year 2: July08-June09 French Polynesia to Greece, Red Sea — mrlawlerjr @ 2:34 am

Hi, Everyone,

We are in Suakin, Sudan at 19 06.5 N, 037 20.2 E anchored off the Old Suakin ruins. We have a local cell phone, so those of you with Skype can call us and it is a free call for both of us.  The time change is 11 hours earlier here than Pacific Coast Time (maybe 12 with Daylight Savings Time?)  Our number is 00249-908064445. We’d love to here from you.

Suakin was one of the busiest ports on the Red Sea for hundreds of years, and was still used in the slave trade up until the end of World War II. But all the commercial shipping moved north 35 miles to Port Sudan about a hundred years ago and this once vibrant port became a ghost town and is now in ruins.

Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Their president has a warrant out for his arrest issued by the International Court for war crimes, and there is a trade embargo with the US and many other nations for the genocide in Darfur in the western side of Sudan, Africa’s largest country in size.

More on our passage, with photos, soon.

Michael and Barbara

April 13, 2009

Another Traveler Postcard From Aden, Yemen

Filed under: Year 2: July08-June09 French Polynesia to Greece, Indian Ocean — mrlawlerjr @ 8:02 pm

View Barbara’s Photo Album of this area on

Hi, Everyone,
I never would have thought we would still be stuck here in Aden, Yemen.  We arrived on March 24 and now it is April 13, the day after Easter.  We had planned a quick stop for only two or three days to buy food and fuel.  But we are still here, having fixed the water pump and now waiting for our new starter motor.  The mechanic said it cleared customs in Sana’a (the capital) yesterday morning and was trucked down to Aden (a six hour drive) yesterday afternoon and evening, and he will install it this morning, “God willing.” Once the engine is running, we will motor over to the fuel dock, then we are outta here, headed up the Red Sea.

More Pirate News. I’m sure you all are following the big news story about the pirated Maersk Alabama and the brave captain who gave himself up to the pirates as a hostage to save his crew and ship. He and the pirates are still drifting around in the lifeboat, out of fuel, while the USS Bainbridge circles around them. The pirates are demanding a $2 million ransom while the FBI negotiates his release.  We all hope for a quick, peaceful and safe (at least for the US captain and FBI/military) resolution to the ordeal. What you may not have heard is that the number of pirate attacks is at an all time high, averaging a little over one a day now, and extending from Kenya out to the Seychelles, the east coast of Somalia out hundreds of miles, the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen, and also well up into the southern half of the Red Sea.  We are very much relieved to have made it through the Gulf of Aden without incident, but we are not out of harms way yet.  Plus we read reports of pirate attacks in the Med, the Caribbean, and both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Central America. Piracy is truly a world wide problem. Yesterday, I saw in Google News that those Newport Beach pirates, who posed at a yacht buyer and dumped the owners’ bodies overboard tied to an anchor, were just convicted and sentenced to death. At times, it is even in our own back yard.

Largest Mosque in Yemen

The Side Trip to Sana’a. Since we had several days to kill waiting for the starter motor to arrive from Japan, we decided to fly (45 minutes, $110 round trip) to the ancient capital of Yemen to do some site seeing and visit the US Embassy.  We stayed in Old Sana’a (Google it for photos) for two nights in a castle-like 15 room hotel that was hundreds of years old.  It was a six story walk-up with steep stone steps (no elevators, and our room was on the fourth floor).  We arrived at 10 pm during a power outage (nearly a daily occurrence) so there were candles lighting the stairway as we climbed up to our room. The doors were ancient, with a huge skeleton key that turned an old lock to open our room.  The thick, wooden doors are all very old and very short, only about 50 to 55 inches high. Most of the buildings in Old Sana’a, which is a World Heritage Site, are 1200 to 1400 years old, and most of them are out of stone and bricks made with mud and straw.  The streets are very narrow and winding, making it very easy to get lost. The windows in all the buildings are arched with colored glass, and at night their beauty is astounding.

Michael at the donkey auction

The Donkey Auction. In our first morning, spent walking around and exploring, we came across a crowded marketplace with a donkey auction going on.  There were dozens of donkeys, men in their traditional dress, the bidding was lively and the scene was a colorful spectacle. Women walked by on their way to market, all dressed in black burkas. Nearly all the men are dressed with a large dagger they wear prominently tucked inside the front, held by a huge belt. The dagger is a symbol of their honor and virility (sp) and the larger the dagger. . . bb here, once Michael found that out, he had to trade his small dagger in for a larger one!! (-:


bb_yemin_dress_shop.JPG  bb_yemin_ml_sana_gate.JPG

Barbara’s Princess Jasmine Dress. Later in our walkabout in the old marketplace, we came upon a dress shop, and I spotted a full length lavender beaded dress that looked like a cross between an Opera Ball gown and a costume from a Disney production of Aladdin, in three pieces: a long skirt, the top and a veil.  None of the shop keepers spoke English, but another lady shopping with her husband (she was in a black burka and you could only see her eyes) volunteered to help.  Her English was very good and she used to work for Yemenia Airlines, but her husband spoke only Arabic. We exchanged cell phone numbers with the couple who helped us at the dress shop and promised to call to get together the next day. The dress was actually just fabric and had to be sewn into a dress at another shop, which we managed to get done in less than 24 hours. The tailor’s shop was tiny, with no dressing room, but Barbara needed to try it on to make sure it fit well, so the three tailors had to leave their shop and I helped Barbara zip up the dress.  It needed a few more minor stitches here and there, which they did quickly while we waited, with a growing crowd of villagers watching every move and trying to get our attention to practice their English: “Good morning” (even though it was well into the afternoon), “Where are you from?” “Oh, America.  Obama good.  Welcome to Yemen!”

Everywhere we go, the local Yemenis are very warm and friendly toward us.  They seem surprised when we tell them we are from America–there are so few tourists from any country here and American tourists are extremely rare.  With many people we meet or say hi to on the street, we get the feeling that we may be the first Americans they have seen. The children are especially amazed to see a woman unveiled with not even her head covered!

The US Embassy.  We needed to get extra pages added to our passports because they are full with stamps, and for traveling Americans that must be done at a US Embassy. Because the Embassy in Sana’a was bombed a few months ago, with a few killed (Yemeni people, not Americans) and many injured, security was incredibly tight, with vehicle barricades, soldiers with machine guns everywhere, and several checkpoints. I was dressed in a typical Yemeni outfit that I bought as a souvenir, which went over well. The Embassy is huge, with many buildings spread out to the point where a bus is used to get people around.  There must have been over 1,000 employees, with about 20% of them in security.  Almost without exception, an advanced appointment is required, but we managed to be the exception and, after waiting nearly two hours and filling out forms, including a list of countries visited and that we plan on visiting (it’s over 60 countries), we got 20 pages added to our passports.


Women in Yemen.  Life is tough for the women in this country.  Although things are improving, change comes very slowly.  Nearly all of the women wear black burkas, and many wear gloves, covering every square inch of their body and leaving only a narrow slit for their eyes. Up until a few years ago, women were not allowed to drive (we still did not see even one women driving), vote, own real property or inherit.  At a father’s death, all of his property is passed to his sons only, with nothing inherited by the daughters. An international women’s rights organization recently ranked the 130 countries of the world as to the quality of life and other women’s rights issues, and Yemen came in last place.
bb_yemin_ml_sana_gate.JPG  bb_yemin_ml_tea_hotel_window.JPG
Locusts Swarming.  We have not seen any yet, the Yemen Observer newspaper is reporting swarms of locusts over much of the agricultural land in this country, with densities estimated at 100 locusts per square meter.

Land Mines.  Good thing we are not shepherds wandering the countryside here. Yemen is loaded with land mines, the local paper reported.  Hundreds of thousands of them, scattered along back roads and the outskirts of 592 villages, spread over 923 million square meters, the product of multiple civil wars. In a nationwide effort to clear land mines, in just a few months 165,000 were found and deactivated. Over the past few years, 4,500 victims–many of them shepherds–have died or been severely injured (not counting all the sheep) from land mines here.

Qat.  At the US Embassy, in the room where Yemenis wait to get their visas to visit the US, there is a large poster warning that qat is illegal in the US and cannot be imported, even in small quantities.  It describes qat as an addictive psycho-tropic drug. Qat is a tobacco-like leafy shrub, and about 80% of the men and 25% of the women chew qat, usually daily.  They get a big wad of it going over several hours, growing to the size of a golf ball, and keep it off to the side of their mouth causing their cheek to bulge out. Shop keepers, taxi drivers, even gun-carrying police officers on duty–it seems everyone not only does qat but gets whacked out on it. The Yemeni believe one of its many qualities is it acts as an aphrodisiac.  It is sold openly in the marketplaces, right next to the fruits and vegetables.  It is the major crop, by far, with nearly 80% of the agricultural land here in Yemen now devoted to cultivating qat.  Barbara and I both tried some and got a little buzz going, but we didn’t like it and it just upset our stomachs.

Shisha Pipe.  Another Yemeni tradition is to smoke a water pipe called a shisha. That is not too surprising. But what is surprising is what is smoked in the pipe.  It’s not hashish, pot or even tobacco.  It is fruit, in a rock hard, crystalized form, with the favorites being apple and grapefruit. It is usually smoked after dinner, and a shisha is offered at the finer restaurants. Barbara and I tried some, took a few hits, and liked it, sort of.  Maybe we just liked trying something so different in such a different culture.

We spent our last afternoon in Sana’a with that couple (names not included for their privacy, Barbara is insisting . . .) we met in the dress shop the day before. We went to lunch together, which was interesting because, after a privacy screen was placed around our table to keep other guests and even the waiter out, our friend dropped her veil.  Obviously she needed to do that in order to eat, but it is a very strange custom, and for the first time we saw the face of the person we have been talking with and trying to get to know for the past few hours.  Throughout the Muslim world, and particularly in this country, we were told that it is a huge taboo for a single woman to be with a single man so, when we first met this couple at the dress shop, Barbara introduced me as her husband. After spending a few hours with this couple, first over lunch then touring the town, next chewing qat and finally smoking a shisha together, our female friend asked us to tell her about my marriage proposal to Barbara, as our first date in Hawaii had been so amazing. Barbara came clean and told her that we weren’t really married.  I thought they would be insulted that we were not honest with them and offended that we were pretending to be husband and wife. They were not shocked as actually they have a few skeletons in the closet themselves. Barbara just deleted the details as she had promised them nothing private about them would go on the internet since they are a private people/country as a whole.

Got to go.  The mechanic should be here any minute.  God willing.

Michael and Barbara

April 4, 2009

Traveler’s Post Card From Aden, Yemen

Filed under: Year 2: July08-June09 French Polynesia to Greece, Indian Ocean — mrlawlerjr @ 4:22 pm

April 4, 2009
Aden, Yemen

The Good News is we safely ran the gauntlet and sailed right through the Somali-pirate infested waters of the Gulf of Aden without incident, thanks to the multi-national Coalition Forces and their high-profile security patrols, although during the same week two ships and two yachts in the area were not so lucky.  It took four days to make the 620 mile passage, and we saw over a hundred ships. Some were lit up like the Christmas Boat Parade, with fire hoses spraying over the sides to act as a deterrent to pirates trying to board. For our own defense, we trailed 100 feet of 1/8 inch nylon line thinking that if we were attacked by pirates they would approach us from our stern and I could maneuver Traveler so that they would foul their prop on the trailing line and become disabled.  We also reported our position twice a day to the Coalition Forces via email, and spoke with three ships via VHF radio on Ch 16.  A highlight was getting buzzed by a military plane on Day Three.

The Bad News is that we, once again, are having engine problems.  On March 24, as we approached Aden Harbor, we had trouble starting the engine, just as we did before as we approached Oman.  I eventually got it started, but burned up the starter motor in the process. In our previous port of Salalah, Oman we had the Yanmar mechanic check out our starting problem.  He mis-diagnosed it as a bad battery, and so we bought and installed a new battery that, it turns out, we did not need.  After we had the anchor down in Aden, we realized it was the starter motor, not the battery.  But I also discovered a much more serious problem when I checked the oil and found the level on the dip stick to be nearly an inch higher than it should be, indicating there was water mixed in with the engine oil.  The oil was a milky grey color and there were water drops from steam and grey, oily putty on the inside of the oil fill cap. Even those of you with little mechanical experience would quickly see this is not a good thing.  Thankfully, there is a Yanmar dealer with a mechanic here in Aden, because this should be covered under our two-year warranty. The mechanic has already (although it took five days to do all the work) re-installed the repaired water pump and cleaned out the engine.  Turns out a internal seal (a $15 part) in the pump failed allowing sea water to mix with the engine’s oil.  It appears there was no damage done to the cylinders or other parts of the engine from this water, but we had to change the oil five times to get it all out.  Five days after that work was finished, we are still waiting for a new starter motor.  Also, while we were here, the Honda generator started acting up and would not put out AC at the correct frequency (hertz).  But as soon as I got the marine electrician on board, the sometimes-now-a-problem generator corrected itself and is working well, for now.  We hope to be cruising up the Red Sea to Egypt and the Suez Canal soon and, hopefully, with a reliable, strong engine and generator.  There are almost always 20 knots of headwinds with waves in the northerly half of the Red Sea, so we have to have the engine working well.

The day after we arrived here in Aden, our guest crew Brandon flew home to Canada, and six days later my son, Brian, flew home to Newport Beach. Both joined us in Singapore in early January, three months ago.  They had an awesome experience, and got to see Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Oman and Yemen with us. Traveler is much quieter, and seems bigger, without them.  While we very much enjoyed their company and now miss having them around, we are also glad to have the boat back to ourselves.

Yemen is not a safe place, and we are anxious to move on.  In reading the local paper, the Yemen Observer (, we learned:
1. Twenty terrorists were arrested in a major offensive by Yemeni security forces.  “The Jihadists were involved in a number of vicious acts, including the murder of citizens because they were drinking alcohol, homosexuals or failed to pray at the appropriate time.”
2.  The former head of al-Qaeda for Yemen and Saudi Arabia is in police custody and giving up information, including that the Iranian government is, and has been for many years, financing and in many cases directing al-Qaeda operations in Yemen. It is unclear if this includes the bombing of the USS Cole nine years ago.  The Cole was on a mooring to take on fuel directly next to where Traveler is anchored now.
3. Yemen extradited five terrorists to its northerly neighbor, Saudi Arabia, including one on the List of 85 Most Wanted Terrorists in the world.
4.  Of the 241 terrorists held in Guantanamo, 100 are from Yemen, making it the country with the most number of terrorists held in custody by the US, by far.
5.  The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda and the Saudi branch of al-Qaeda just merged and renamed themselves the Jihadist Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, under the leadership of amir al-Wahashi, with the approval and blessing of al-Zawahiri, the number two man in al-Qaeda behind Osama Bin Laden.  By the way, Bin Laden’s ancestral home is in Yemen, and it is no secret he is personally dedicated to keeping the US out of Yemen and other countries in the Middle East.  The Jihadist Qaeda announced as their goal to disrupt and destroy foreign interests in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen, including assassinations.
6.  There are 154 members of al-Qaeda identified as high risk terrorist in Yemen and their names and photos are being widely circulated, with police checkpoints everywhere to try to capture them.
7.  The US State Department issued a new travel warning on March 26 (two days after we arrived here) warning US citizens about the high-level threats in Yemen resulting from terrorist activities. The Department urges that all Americans defer travel to Yemen. This replaces the earlier warning issued on September 17, 2008 following the bombing attack on the US Embassy in Yemen in which several people were killed and many more seriously wounded.  Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for that terrorist attack.
8.  From where we are at anchor, we heard gunshots in the nearby city last night, just as we were trying to get to sleep, and again another gunshot this morning.
9.  A few days ago, Brian and I were in our dinghy going from Traveler to the shore and, I guess, we swung a little too close to the nearby Yemen Coast Guard patrol boat–just 100 yards away from us.  A uniformed coast guardsman on one of the boats gave us the finger, with both hands, and waved for us to go away.
10.  The day before we arrived, a 26 foot boat arrived with 104 Somali refugees crammed in it.  They had been at sea for a couple of weeks, and the last several of those days without food and water.  As they approached the dock, just 75 yards from where we are anchored, they all rushed to the starboard side to jump off the boat. With all that weight on the rail, the boat capsized, sank, and four people drowned.  The next day the boat was raised and it is still tied to the wharf, where we have inspected it.  It is amazing that so many people were crammed into such a small boat, and they were all out in the ocean for so many days.  There are a lot of desperate people in this part of the world.

What a place to be stuck with engine problems.

In spite of all the risks, Barbara and I walked through town the other evening, shopped at some stores and ate at a locals restaurant.  We were greeted warmly by many, of not most, of the locals.  We felt like celebrities, as not many Americans show up here anymore.  We have had some nice moments here, but we are so ready to move on.  Yemen used to be a British colony, but the Brits pulled out in the 60s, and it has been both declining economically and decaying physically ever since.

A British-flagged Tayana 58 that we visited with in both the Maldives and Oman anchored next to us.  As the sun set, Barbara and I dressed in our pirate costumes, raised the pirate flag on Traveler, and boarded their boat, demanding only that they have a drink with us and celebrate sailing through the Gulf of Aden safely, and just making it through another day in Yemen.  Arrrrgh!

Michael and Barbara
Livin’ the Dream? …not!

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