Thursday, August 11, 2011

Desert Sailing: Across Saudi Arabia by truck (May 2011

This blog details our wanderings to Jordan north up the Gulf of Aqaba and, what may be of interest to some readers, the trucking of Chinook across Saudi Arabia to the UAE as an alternative to the Red Sea route to Asia.

APRIL 16, 2011: Resuming our journey up the Gulf of Aqaba from the previous blog post, the next six days were spent on a mooring ball off the Club Med at Marsa Hamira. Dive boats and tripper boats came and went - usually between the hours of ten and two. We shared a mooring with one particular tripper boat several times and they gave us a lunch of fish, salad, fries and coke!

On the 22nd April we sailed back to Taba Heights to fill with water and check out of Egypt. Customs and immigration procedures were quick and courteous the next morning and we had Jordan in sight 15 miles to the north.

Drama with the Israeli Navy kept us on our toes - and wishing our navigation charts were more detailed. We crossed a mere half-nautical mile into their waters and in a flash the vhf radio cackled a firm request, a warning backed up within five minutes with a swift navy gunboat, bristling with armed personnel. Turning south to exit, then east and north again we called the Jordan authorities for instructions.

Checking in with customs and immigration was quick and efficient, although the coast guard inspection the next day (along with the $100 fee) was lengthy and meticulous. We were one fire extinguisher short of passing and would not be allowed to leave unless we purchased another and updated our flares.Brian had not yet obtained his operator's card (licence to sail), but as we were not sailing away, the coast guard could not prevent us from leaving by land... 

JORDAN:  Jordan is landlocked apart from a small coastal strip adjoining Saudi Arabia and Israel. With little scope for sailing, all the boats in the Royal Yacht Club were power apart from a derelict French sailing yacht and the youth learn to sail program dinghies. Several day trippers operated from the marina. The club, in the large personage of Capt. Mahmoud is small, friendly, has a pool and restaurant and is a short walk from Aqaba's city centre. Berthing costs are very reasonable. A much-used boulevard along the sea front adjoins the marina - good for our biking and jogging as well as strolling activities. A small market area is nearby also with fresh produce, meat and fish and two large modern supermarkets are a taxi or bike ride away. Jordan is more westernized than most middle-eastern countries, and its tourist destinations make it an easy country to be in. English is spoken everywhere. It seemed that the downturn in tourism to middle eastern countries had also affected Jordan as it was not overly busy with tourists during our stay.

Our planned inland trips were to the capital, Amman, Petra's Valley of the Kings and the Dead Sea. Travel by bus is inexpensive and cheaper hotels can be found easily. The Valley of the Kings is awesome - we spent two days wandering around there.

It was a taxi ride from Amman to the Dead Sea and we found, as millions of others have, it is impossible to sink. Happily we floated for a short while in the hot sun, then visited the beautiful new ecological museum on the hills overlooking the sea. Interesting point: the Dead Sea water level is lowering by one metre annually. Plans to "save" it from evaporating completely include pipelining water from the Red Sea across the Sinai.

THE TRUCKING OF CHINOOK:  After wintering in Egypt, we had fully in tended to continue our trip south down the Red Sea, around the Horn of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India and South East Asia in February of 2011. However, the dramatic increase in the number of "incidences" in the Gulf of Aden made us seriously reconsider. Five small sailing yachts were captured by Somali pirates and the sad killing of the American crew of Quest swayed us. But we did not want to go back to tne Mediterranean and retrace our wake across the Atlantic to Canada. We would rather continue our east-bound “almost-circumnavigation“.

The high cost of shipping by ocean freighter was, for us, prohibited. We received quotations of $20 000 USD to $35 000 from five shipping companies - the lowest not even including a support cradle, loading/unloading and insurance.

It was “Fang”, a Japanese cruiser moored next to us in Hurghada Marina over the winter months, who planted the seed in our thoughts for trucking, as they had looked into this option - although later discarding it. It would involve hiring a trucking company to freight our yacht across Saudi Arabia from Aqaba, Jordan, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a distance of about 1500 kilometres. We had our previous yacht trucked in Canada - a short distance by an experienced and specialized trucking company and trucking yachts is common in North America. As we found out, not so in the Middle East.

After many internet searches and many long phone calls we found NABRESCO in Jordan, a company that looked promising. Raed Naber, the operations manager and 32 year-old grandson of the company's founder, was confident he could do the job. NABRESCO hauls heavy equipment around the middle east and had transported two power yachts before, but never a keeled sailing yacht. We could not find a company in the middle east which had.

NABRESCO's first-quoted price at first sounded excellent - a mere fraction of tne cost of ocean freighting. However, a support cradle had to be fabricated, the loading and unloading (and mast unstepping /stepping), customs and border fees, agents fees (an Arabic-speaking agent who handled such transactions on behalf of NABRESCO), insurance, our flights and hotels (as we could not accompany Chinook) and yes, some baksheesh, all began to escalate the costs.

Everything included, our costs finalized at around $11 000 USD. We could have cut $1000 or more off the final bill, but lessons are always learned the first time around.

As we had planned to do some inland touring in Jordan (the Red Sea and Petra) we went to the capital, Amman, to meet with Raed at NABRESCO to discuss the operation, and in particular the building of the support cradle on the flat bed trailer. We were highly impressed with the trucking company and the meeting we had with Raed and another manager gave us the confidence to go ahead with our plans.

The Royal Jordanian Yacht Club organized the mast unstepping with a local crane firm. This was done a week ahead of the trucking date (and in-water) to give us time to strip the mast of its rigging etc. We very closely supervised as the company had never unstepped a mast before.

Removing Chinook's cruising equipment was a formidable task. The solar panels, radar, wind-vane steering, barbeque, bimini and dodger structure, wind generator, anchors, booms, outboard engine, all had to be taken off and stored inside. We knew intrusive inspections would be made in Saudi Arabia and the UAE for alcohol, cigarettes, firearms, drugs, and pictures of women "unsuitably" clothed (that is, showing any skin at all), and had to arrange as best we could for customs officials’ access to the many storage nooks and crannies - and the bilges. A photo of the inside would never do justice to the amount of "stuff" stacked up on the settees and floor.

As Chinook was being lifted onto the flat bed it was found that the yacht club's travel lift could not lift her high enough, so NABRESCO called in a local crane company they knew to complete that job - cheaper than the yacht club (whom we had to pay anyway). The truck left after dark following 12-hours of loading and securing. The customs exit procedures had been done the previous day, thankfully, as that took several hours with the agent down at the shipping offices.

Two days later we flew to Dubai and spent time in hotels and sightseeing while waiting for herself to arrive. We went up the world's highest building and wandered dazed in the world's largest shopping mall in an unreal city. Dubai is pure glitz with little substance apart from the oil it is built on. Oil to run the electric generators which run the water distilling plants and air conditioners and concrete mixers. Sand is free. It was the beginning of the hot, hot, hot season and the high humidity. We purchased an air-conditioner for the boat but it had trouble keeping up, so we went back to a hotel.

Chinook would take a week to get to the UAE and another 3 days to clear customs due to the inexperience and inefficiency of the agent who made some costly avoidable errors. We posted a bond of the value of the import duty of Chinook - redeemable on exiting the country within 45 days. The plan then was altered slightly to sail to Oman and then back to a smaller northern Emirate, Ras Al Kaimah, where the tax time-restriction did not apply. During the inspection in Saudi Arabia, the hull was scanned and when the encapsulated steel counterweight in the keel was revealed, questions were raised and answers sought by drilling holes! $100 baksheesh helped the explanation that nothing was hidden (and averted the hole drilling) - all made by long-distance phone calls between the driver, NABRESCO and Brian.

When Chinook was finally released to us in Dubai, the mast was stepped and splashed at the Yachtmaster Boat Yard which is professionally run by Australian David Nunn. Located at the entrance to the Dubai Creek Marina, we visited that Marina and met, by chance, Sir Peter Blake's cousin's son, Phil, a pleasant Kiwi and the operations manager.

Clearing Chinook's insides as much as to allow us to motor, we took her eight miles to the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club where we were invited as guests and could put Chinook back together again. In the heat and humidity! Club commodore Keith Mutch was very accommodating and we felt very much at home. Puns not really intended. The members were very friendly, interested in what we were doing, and we spent many happy hours during happy hours.

As an aside, a few days before we were due to leave Jordan, we received an email from Phil, an Emirates airline pilot, saying he had found our blogs and was interested in purchasing a sailing yacht of our design - or similar. "And where was Chinook now? Where will you go after the Med? " We replied, "Funny you should ask. On her way to Dubai!" Which generated many more emails, a friendship and the berth at the DOSC. Very coincidental and indicative of the kinds of out-of-the-blue happenings which make this way of life so interesting.

As mentioned above, to recover our bond, Brian sailed Chinook (singlehandedly) to the Omani port of Khasab in the Musandam Peninsula . Deborah could not go due to passport issues. A passort visa and cruising permit had to be arranged ahead of time (in Dubai). It was a four-day trip of 160 n.miles and is usually sailed with light northerlies. The spinnaker was used for several hours giving Chinook a racing speed of seven knots before it was found just too exciting. Checking in and out of Oman was done with the help of friendly local police driving Brian to the offices in town, three kilometers distant from the port. It was difficult to explain why he wanted to check in and then leave right away. “You come with an empty ship and you leave with no cargo?” was the question from the portmaster.

The trip back to Ras Al Kaimah in the stronger-than-forecast head winds was not so easy. Motoring into choppy seas was tiresome and finding a protected anchorage to spend the night was difficult along that coast. The check-in to RAK was easy and fast. Then the final 25 miles to the Royal Yacht Club of RAK was made before sunset. . Debby had a nearby hotel arranged and it was the sleep of the dead for one tired sailor that night.

The friendly Royal Yacht Club is a good place to leave a boat for a longer period of time, as we must do. However, the berthing fees are the most expensive we have encountered since we left Canada for a long-term stay - with the exception of Seville (where we stayed only two months). We only had a few days to prepare Chinook for closing up, but managed to scramble and leave with the plane tickets we had changed once already.

The whole "process" of trucking was all-consuming: planning, emailing and phoning, dealing with officials, as well as being physically demanding along with some anxiety. We almost packed it in at one point, and talked about selling Chinook again. In the end however, all thoroughly worthwhile and rewarding in ways we would not have thought about. We are able to continue our journey avoiding "Pirate Alley" and in October will return to "herself", wait for the southwest monsoon to cease, the northwest lighter and fairer winds to begin and sail the coast of India to S.E. Asia.  More about that in the next blog.