Returning to sea for the first time in nearly a decade brought back memories of the wildest three weeks of my life — when we sailed Mir down the Red Sea in July 2010 during her maiden voyage from Malta to Singapore and were faced with suffocating heat, sun-blotting dust, grumpy sharks, and the very real threat of pirates; all on a boat with no mainsail, no radar, and no business undertaking such a lofty expedition.
The Red Sea runs like a long blue finger separating Africa from the Middle East. A fleshless finger, bony and thin; or perhaps the shed exoskeleton of some desert insect, its northern antennae made of two gulfs: the Aqaba and the Suez. The six countries that border it are some of the hottest in the world — Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Djibouti — the names alone carry with them images of yellow sand quivering beneath the glare of a white sun. But I can assure you, the sun was not white, and the sand was not yellow.
In July 2010 a haboob was blowing east off the Sahara; a dust storm of atmospheric proportion. It covered us in a red dust as fine as flour. The entire ship was coated in it, turning our off-white sails a firebrick red. The dust filled our galley drawers, covered the compass on the helm stand, and left a thin red film on the bilge water. Our bodies were covered with it as well; our hair was red, our sweat ran red, the red dust was between our teeth and in the corners of our eyes. The sky became a hazy apocalypse and the sun glowed a photochemical orange, so dimmed by the particulates in the air that we could stare right at it.
With the haboob came a heat like I had never felt before. There was no escaping it. The dust was like a great sooty quilt trapping all the heat of the day, even at night. On that maiden voyage, Mir’s deck still had soft spots like a newborn’s cranium, and leaked so badly that every time a wave crashed over the bow the inside of our cabins became steamy with moisture and mold crept up the walls in black archipelagos. Most of us opted to sleep outside, so each night the bow was crammed with the tossing, turning, mostly-naked bodies of anyone who wasn’t on watch at the time. Each morning we would all wring puddles of sweat from our bed sheets.
We didn’t get far down the Red Sea before the heat rash set in. We all had it. Mine was covering my chest and neck and orbiting my waistline like I’d been wearing a belt made of centipedes. But nowhere was it worse than on my right leg where it left the tail of an asteroid streaking down the back of my knee and wrapping around my calf; a long sweep of red dots trailing what eventually became a sort of boil on my ankle — a pus-filled lump the size of a U.S. quarter — that now, eight years later, is still a shiny purple scar.
I know I said there was no escaping the heat, but we did have one occasional salvation: the payment we were all promised by the captain for helping to transport this old ship from Europe to Asia was the incredible scuba diving in the Red Sea. Every few days we hove-to and split the crew in half to take turns diving. The Red Sea is a mecca for coral reefs, and as magnificent as these reefs are, I spent many of our dives doing something other than exploring them — I’d go have a seat on the seafloor, and try to cool off.
Once in the water, I would sink sink sink into the deep blue as quickly as possible. It would happen at a depth of around sixty feet; a vague feeling of coolness would swirl around my body. At seventy-five feet, my rash would stop itching. I always tried to get to at least ninety before finding a place to rest on the sandy bottom.
Sitting still and cross-legged on the floor of the Red Sea somewhere between Sudan and Saudi Arabia, a young man spends his hard-earned pay with each deliberate breath drawn through the regulator held loosely between his teeth. Looking through the clear window of his mask he sees nothing but a world of blue, and he lets his vision go soft as he thinks about adventure of an older sort, glad that he has found just that in this modern world where Amazon means online shopping before it does malaria, and poison-tipped arrows in a fanatic, uncrossable rainforest.
With each inhale, the pink bellows of his lungs fill with air, causing him to rise an inch or two off the bottom, and with each exhale he settles back down again, his weight causing little pearls of white sand to dance away across the textured seafloor.
Without the exertion of swimming, the young man can make his air supply last an hour and twenty minutes — sometimes longer — and by the end of it he looks down at his tanned arms in the ghostly light of ninety feet below the surface of a sea that is itself below the hazy light of an apocalyptic sky, and he sees the most welcome sight: an army of goosebumps standing at attention, forcing him to actually want to return to his life above; forcing him to stand up on his flippered feet and kick off, ascending back towards that benevolent, warm sun, and all of those beautiful, rashy people.
When our dives were more intrepid than simply sitting on the bottom of the sea, we organized ourselves into diving pairs for safety. My dive partner was Clarence, our chief engineer, and the rule was: you never leave your dive partner, no matter what.
Thing is, Clarence sucks up a tank of air like a hyperventilating hippopotamus. Before every dive, I’d hold him by the shoulders and give him a little pep talk: “Remember man, breathe slowly, don’t swim too hard, and just relaaaax.” But it was always the same story — while everyone else would typically get an hour-plus out of an air tank, Clarence would grab me by one of my fins around 35 or 40 minutes into a dive and run his fingers across his throat, signaling to me that he had once again snarfled up his entire tank, and like it or not, I’d have to accompany him back to the world of the gill-less. On one particular dive, this pattern got the two of us into a bit of trouble.
Angarosh means “Mother of Sharks” in Arabic. It’s a speck of an island about twenty miles off the coast of Sudan; a small circle of sand poking out of the water barely large enough to gather a bit of guano. From the deck of a ship, Angarosh doesn’t look like anything worth stopping for, but below the surface the island wears a thick mane of fringing coral reef, and as its name suggests, it is a famous gathering place for sharks.
When we arrived to Angarosh it was late afternoon; somewhere behind the mix of dust and clouds was a low hanging sun that was turning the sky a hazy copper hue. We knew we had to hurry if we were going to have time for two dives before sunset, and because the reef around the island is so shallow we had to lower the sails and hove-to about a half a mile away from Angarosh and deploy our dinghy to get us to the reef.
Half the crew loaded into the dinghy, while the other half stayed behind to man the drifting ship. Clarence and I were in the second group. When the first group returned from their dive an hour later it was clear from their lit-up eyes that the Mother of Sharks had not disappointed. Knowing we were short on daylight, the four of us in the second group quickly loaded ourselves and our gear into the dinghy. Clarence and I were one dive pair, and Michel and Fred were the other, while Captain Laser brought us over to the northern edge of the reef.
The plan was to circumnavigate Angarosh while Laser waited for us in the same spot where he would drop us off — just as the previous group had done with no issue. As Clarence and I sat on the edge of the dinghy I gave him the same mindful breathing pep talk that I always did. He nodded to me, looking rightfully annoyed, before slipping his mask over his eyes and falling backwards into the water with a splash. I followed, seeing a blur of metallic sunset above me before being engulfed in turquoise bubbles.
As the bubbles cleared I found myself floating along the coral-covered slopes of an underwater butte rising out of the depths. I spun around to face the open water behind me and saw the sharp silhouettes of numerous reef sharks suspended in the ghostly light.
The four of us circled up about twenty feet down and each gave an a-okay signal with our hands before descending deeper to begin our exploration of Angarosh, with Michel and his red flippers leading the way. I felt like I was flying as I skimmed along the cliff walls of coral with bright fish scattering all around me. Occasionally I’d swim upside-down to watch the bubbles I was exhaling rise up like translucent jellyfish towards the undulating ceiling of the sea, some seventy or so feet above me.
We were making good progress around the island. Every time I’d lock eyes with any of the other three we would both smile and give the a-okay signal, our eyes wide in acknowledgement that this was a truly special place to be finding ourselves. To our left were shelves and mounds and cliff walls of bright, branching coral; to our right was endless, silent blue — always with several sharks blending into the waterscape.
One of my favorite parts about scuba diving is being able to “fall” upside down along underwater cliff faces, so when we reached a particularly steep drop-off of the submarine mountain I decided to do just that; I flipped myself upside-down and let all the air out of my BCD and began my descent. I was facing the cliff wall, my stomach skimming close to the walls of rock and coral, when suddenly something tugged on my flipper. Startled, I flipped my body right-side up again, and there, just inches from my face was Clarence, wide-eyed behind his mask, running his fingers across his throat.
“You’re kidding me,” I thought.
He held his air gauge up to my mask, and sadly, he wasn’t kidding; he was already in the red. I looked at my own air gauge and saw that I still had over half a tank. I quickly swam ahead to get Michel’s attention, because he was the leader of this dive. I tugged on one of his flippers, and when he turned around I signaled to him that Clarence was almost out of air. Michel just stared at me, expressionless. I could almost see the thoughts turning through his mind — the calculations of risk versus reward. Michel was put on this planet to be underwater; he’s a fanatic diver, an addict, an unreasoning devotee once he’s below the surface. After a few moments of staring blankly at me he had come to his decision — he simply held his hands out to his sides, palms up, and shrugged his shoulders, then turned around and kept right on swimming with Fred tailing close behind him.
I swam back to Clarence, and we began our ascent back to the surface, taking a few decompression breaks along the way. When we popped our heads above the water we saw that we were exactly on the opposite side of Angarosh from where we had been dropped off.
“Sorry,” Clarence said, looking sheepish.
“It’s not your fault, man,” I replied, as we tread water and took stock of our situation. We had two choices: swim back in the direction we had come from, or continue our circumnavigation of the island. Our fins scraped against the shallow reef, so we swam toward deeper water and decided it best to continue swimming in the direction we had already been going, hopeful that when Michel and Fred got back to the dinghy, they would first come looking for us in that direction.
We started swimming, our dive gear suddenly so much extra clunk to carry along with us in the swell. The sky was no longer copper plated but had gone a deep slate — nighttime was approaching, whether we were ready for it or not. Because I still had so much air in my tank I would occasionally go a few feet under the surface and swim along where it was easier to maneuver, and it was during one of those times that I saw the shark; it was twenty feet away and looking straight at me. I watched it closely, not feeling afraid, only curious — but that soon changed. With a few quick wags off its body the shark darted straight at me, swimming within an arm’s length before swooping away, circling, then darting at me again. After the shark buzzed me a second time, I quickly kicked back up to the surface.
“There’s a shark,” I said to Clarence, breathlessly. “It’s right below us.”
Clarence looked at me with a vacant expression, nodded his head, but did not peak below the water to verify if what I was telling him was true.
“I’ll…I’ll just keep an eye on it,” I said, sticking my face back under the water. The shark kept aggressively charging and retreating toward our legs. It was a silky shark, about six feet long, with a mean look in its dead, sharky eyes. It was no man-eater, but it was plenty intimidating all the same, like getting cornered by a mean junkyard dog in a place called “Mother of All Junkyard Dogs.” It could very well take a ragged chunk out of one of our thighs or torsos or arms, and if it did bite one of us, the moment that sweet iron tinge of blood swirled through the water and attracted all the other nearby sharks, we could very well find ourselves on the wrong end of a feeding frenzy. At least that’s what my imagination was telling me.
As we swam away from the reef and reached the southeastern side of Angarosh the current grabbed us. We were getting yanked southwards away from the island and both of our boats, though I hardly noticed with all my attention devoted to Old Junkyard who was still trying to decide if my calf or Clarence’s looked meatier. The only thing below us now besides the silvery shark was flickering blue water. As we drifted further from Angarosh, the shark took one last charge and then retreated back towards the reef — first becoming a shadow, then nothing at all.
In open water now, the swell picked up. When we were on top of a wave we could see Mir off in the distance, and the dinghy a little closer, but only for a moment, and then we’d be down in the sightless trough again. I took off both of my highlighter-yellow flippers and waved them in the air. Clarence and I yelled “HELP!” in unison as loud as we could.
We stopped shouting and started swimming hard back towards the island, but we were no match for the current. We just drifted further and further into the blue oblivion of the Red Sea. It didn’t take long before we tired and stopped swimming. As we floated we could watch Mir getting smaller and smaller each time we rose up on a swell and caught a brief glimpse of her.
Neither of us were talking, but I could tell by the look on Clarence’s face that he was having the same morbid thoughts that I was, feeling perfectly helpless in an alien world that we had no business being in; a world where we could never survive without our floating island of teak and turnbuckle that was now almost entirely out of sight in the dusky light. It felt like we were shrinking — two specks in a universe of blue that stretched on forever in all directions.
I felt tied to every sailor in history who had ever fallen overboard. Every sailor who had had to reckon with their situation while they still had the strength. Each one of them must have felt certain that it was only a temporary misunderstanding between them and the world. That this would all be resolved shortly. Certainly this isn’t how it ends — this tediously built life. It couldn’t all just be snuffed out over a little misstep over the side of a ship; or from the unexpected swing of a boom; or a wave crashing over the bow; certainly not because of a voluntary scuba dive to see some coral in the Red Sea. Of course this can’t be it. Of course not. But at some point, the sick reality of their predicament must have landed on each of them like a flock of iron vultures, one by one swooping down and perching on their tiring bodies, slowly pushing them below the surface of the water as they fought the cold, the fatigue, the incredible weight of forever.
The only thing visible to us now were the tops of Mir’s masts, and that was only when we were up on a wave. Darkness was settling over the Red Sea like light drizzle over a bed of coals. I spun my head and looked at Clarence silently bobbing along beside me.
“What are we gonna do?” I shrieked.
While a dark wave of panic crested over me, Clarence became infuriatingly calm — he just kept treading water with his face staring intently in the direction of our ship, while I spun in circles looking all around me for God knows what, including plunging my face underwater every few seconds to be sure the shark hadn’t gone and gotten all its buddies. Clarence just kept facing north, staring serenely toward our only hope, while I splashed and flailed and tried to look anywhere but at my own mortality which was flaring up all around me like an infected wound. My mom was right, this trip was too dangerous. And now I had to die because of it.
Clarence wouldn’t look at me; he just kept staring northwards. I stared at him, disgusted by his emotionless response to our impending deaths. Then I looked at what he was looking at; at what he was conjuring. It was as if he were spooling in an invisible kite string — suddenly more than Mir’s masts were visible — there, the dark blue of her hull. There, the wooden bowsprit that I had varnished so many times in Malta. There, a small crowd of people standing and pointing in our direction.
Nik, the youngest of our crew, had been scanning the sea with binoculars when he spotted us. He wasn’t looking for us when he was scanning, he didn’t even know we were missing, he just happened to be scanning the sea. He saved our lives, though I can’t help but think that it was Clarence who had somehow willed Nik to pick up those binoculars in the first place.
Mir pulled up alongside us, and we passed our dive gear up to the friendly hands reaching down from the deck. We climbed up the loose wooden ladder that clacked against the side of the ship, each rung bringing us closer to a place where we actually belonged; a place where we could live. The iron vultures swooped low one last time before flying off, disappointed, as we climbed out of our watery tomb.
III. Sha’ab Rumi
Somewhere below us, below all this water, was a piece of history. Somewhere below us, invisible from the deck of the ship, was a piece of Jacques Cousteau’s legacy. Somewhere below these endless fields of blue, were the remains of an underwater village: Continental Shelf Station II.
In 1963, Jacques Cousteau and his team aboard the famed Calypso placed two research stations on the bottom of the Red Sea at a site called Sha’ab Rumi, some 25 miles northeast of Port Sudan. Cousteau wanted himself and his fellow “oceanauts” to be able to remain underwater for longer stretches of time without needing to fret over decompression sickness, so he sunk the two separate underwater living quarters of Conshelf II at depths of ten and thirty meters.
Since leaving Malta a month and a half earlier, we had all been anticipating the day we’d get to dive Sha’ab Rumi and search for the remains of Conshelf II, and now, according to our GPS, we were there. All we had was a latitude and longitude as our guide, and when the screen read the magic numbers we hove-to and looked around and saw nothing but blue surrounding us, with a bit of white water to our west where waves were breaking over a shallow reef. We donned our scuba gear — something Cousteau had helped to invent decades earlier — and jumped off the side of the ship.
As we descended into the clear water it was obvious right away why Cousteau had chosen Sha’ab Rumi for his submarine village; the reef was delirious with fish life and rose up from the seafloor in what resembled slot canyons of coral. The site rests directly on the edge of the African continental shelf which drops off precipitously to the east into deep blue water. As I swam through the narrow passages between the reef formations, fish of every color pulsed around me like burst confetti. I was so enamored by the beauty of the reef that I forgot what it was we had come here to see, when suddenly I swam into a flat opening between the coral walls, and there, resting on the sandy seafloor were the remains of Conshelf II.
It looked like a forgotten UFO that had landed on this spot decades earlier — a large metal saucer with circular portholes resting delicately on three long legs. The entire structure had been completely reclaimed as substrate by soft corals and sea fans and algae, and was furry with life. As I approached the bulbous structure I felt like I was swimming through the colorful pages of a 1950s science-fiction comic book.
I later learned that what we were looking at was the submarine hangar where Cousteau and his crew would park their “diving saucer” when they weren’t using it. We all swam beneath the hangar where a metal ladder hung down from its bottom. One by one, we climbed up the ladder into the structure. When it was my turn I was surprised when my head peeked out of the water into a dry room — the hangar had been dropped into the sea like an inverted cup and forty-seven years later it still held its air. The entrance into the hangar was in the center of the floor of the small circular room. The room was bare, save for a single stainless-steel table where I imagined Cousteau stooped over, his pointy elbows resting on the table’s surface as his leathery hands fussed over a set of wrenches to tighten some this or that on his diving saucer, craving a cigarette.
Six of us crowded into that small room and began shouting over each other with excitement before Laser had the presence of mind to point out that we might be breathing noxious air, prompting each of us to hold our regulators open with our thumbs to loudly hiss oxygen from our tanks into the hangar. I wanted to stay in Cousteau’s underwater chamber for as long as possible, but after only a few minutes we all agreed it was best to get out of there before we ended up a pile of unconscious bodies, poisoned by odorless gasses ninety feet below the surface of the sea.
After climbing down the ladder back into a world of water, we explored the surrounding areas of Conshelf II and saw the dilapidated remains of other old metal structures from Cousteau’s village. Clarence and I swam up to the edge of the shelf, and looked out at the deep cerulean water beyond. I went to Clarence to check his oxygen gauge and saw that he was close to the red line. I looked him in the eye and first pointed to myself, and then pointed down the underwater cliff wall where the shelf dropped off, then I pointed to him and held up a single finger to indicate for him to wait a moment. Clarence nodded in understanding, and I flipped upside-down and fell along the shelf of the African continent into a place of grey, deadened light.
I had never been deeper than 100 feet on a dive before. As I dropped, I watched my depth gauge tick off 110…120…130. At 140 feet I stopped and flipped back over to face the steep shelf. There, nestled into a nook of rocks sitting perfectly still was a massive grouper fish holding its mouth wide open. It must have been six feet long and was as fat as a dugong. I looked at it, and it at me. I thought about where the two of us were on this vast watery planet and smiled at the improbability of this meeting, yet here we both were. I saluted the grouper, then pumped some air into my BCD and began my ascent back up the curvature of Africa.
Clarence was practicing headstands in the sand when I reached the top of the wall where I had last seen him. He flipped back over and I gave him a thumbs up, and together we slowly rose toward the dusty light.
IV. Zubayr Archipelago
When we left Malta we knew we were doing something dangerous. Just undertaking this voyage at all on such a rickety boat was a risk, but there was something especially perilous awaiting us halfway between Malta and Singapore: Pirate Alley.
Somali pirate activity was peaking during the summer of 2010, and nowhere was it worse than in the Gulf Aden — the portion of the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia where we would sail directly into after leaving the Red Sea behind us. The piracy had become an international problem, and though the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea are an important shipping route, the pirates weren’t looking for cargo, they were looking for hostages. We were the perfect target — nine people from Europe and the U.S. on a ramshackle ship with no weapons.
As we approached the Gulf of Aden we started getting a little nervous. Recent reports told of pirates moving north into the Red Sea for the first time, so we knew we had officially entered the fringes of the danger zone. We were about a hundred nautical miles from Bab-el-Mandeb, the narrow strait that separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, when we heard a distress signal on our VHF radio.
“Help us, help us!” a man’s voice crackled through the thick static in what sounded like a Greek accent. “We’re being boarded…Pirates…We’re being boarded…surrounded…”
Another voice responded, asking their location.
The Greek man began to shout out coordinates, and then fell silent. We never heard from him again, and never learned what happened.
We were scared. We decided to head east toward the coast of Yemen to chill out for a day or two before continuing through the most harrowing stretch of the voyage. We came upon a group of jagged, volcanic islands called the Zubayr Archipelago and dropped anchor. The islands were uninhabited, some were coal-black with no plants growing on them, while others — presumably the older islands — were rusty in color with little specks of greenery here and there. The air was still red with dust, and the heat hadn’t eased up for a moment since we had entered the Red Sea three weeks earlier.
The day we arrived to the archipelago I went for a dive and sat cross-legged on the bottom of the sea in the hopes of both cooling off from the heat, and cooling down my mind that was full of thoughts of becoming a hostage in a small town in Somalia. That night I slept fitfully on deck.
The next morning I woke at dawn to the sound of voices. I jumped up, startled, and looked around for the source. The light was grey and muted from the dust in the air; the sun was still out of sight to the east. I walked around the navigation deck and there I saw a small boat being tied off to our starboard stern quarter. The boat was full of men. I was terrified, but found myself walking straight towards them anyway.
My fears quickly subsided as I approached them; the boat was a small Yemeni fishing vessel, and the four men standing in it were all beaming smiles at me as I walked towards them. The youngest of them was probably about fourteen, while the oldest was grey-haired and weathered, and the other two middle-aged. Their wooden boat was knocking against the steel of our hull, so I grabbed a buoy to place between our two clattering vessels. I had no idea what they wanted, as I spoke no Arabic and they no English, but it was clear that these men meant me no harm, and it also was clear that they were a family — their resemblance to one another was uncanny.
After our brief language-less greeting, the eldest among them pointed at his head and made a grimacing face, which I took to mean he had a headache. I indicated for him to wait a moment in the same simple sign language that Clarence and I use while diving, and went and fetched our medicine kit. I found a bottle of Panadol and returned to the old fisherman and shook two pills into his open palm. Then, pointing towards the sun that was just about to crest to the east, I indicated for him to take the two pills now. I then pointed towards the sun again and drew my finger to high noon, and pointed to the two pills in his hand again. Next, I brought my finger all the way to the western horizon where the sun would be setting in twelve hours and pointed to the two pills once more. He smiled emphatically, understanding my meaning, and I gave him the rest of the bottle. He then opened up a cooler in the center of their boat and brought out a large mackerel, presenting it to me with outstretched arms.
The other members of my crew woke up one by one and joined us, which is when the fun really began. Michel was wearing a bright green Balinese shirt which one of the fishermen was obviously admiring, so Michel took it off and handed it to him. With a huge smile, the man accepted, and then promptly tore off his grey t-shirt and gave it to Michel.
The Yemeni fishermen made flatbread on a small stove in their boat and handed the flaky, steaming pieces to each of us. I went belowdecks and got a large bag of rice and a bag of sugar, the latter of which caused the youngest of their crew to hoot with excitement when I gave it to them. For the next few hours we all gathered between our two boats cooking bread and fish and trying to outdo one another with gifts. Not a word was spoken between us. I pointed to the old man’s head and he smiled and gave me a thumbs up that the Panadol was helping. When they finally untied their boat and started their outboard motor we all waved and hollered to each other until they were well out of sight.
Our faith in humanity restored, we decided to weigh anchor that day and brave the next stretch of our voyage. The moment we passed through the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and left the Red Sea to our stern, the temperature in the air instantly dropped twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Though we were supposed to be frightened, we all cheered and hollered as we began the next leg of our voyage through Pirate Alley and on into the Arabian Sea, where for the next few nights the bioluminescence was so brilliant it felt like we were sailing through liquid moonlight instead of water. But that’s a story for another time.