The nitty gritty is that it is, indeed, gritty. As in "grit your teeth" gritty. Deserts, I know now from horrifying personal experience, are made up of small bits of sand, both fine and coarse. Even a gentle breeze hazes the air with the fine particles and once the wind is up (it's always up here in Sudan) the coarse particles take wing as well.
On a clear day, you can see for meters. I recently was within three miles of an uncharted oil rig and could not see it through the murk. Then suddenly it appeared towering above me – as if I was sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Let's say you're anchored in Tortola, Antigua or Bequia and want to fully appreciate what I'm saying. Just anchor really close to the beach and set up a powerful snow blower to blow sand on your vessel's foredeck. (Yes, you have to keep your hatches open or you'll die of heat stroke.)
In addition, grab a shovel and toss a few spadefuls of sand onto each solar cell. (You don't have to do anything to your wind generator – the finest sand will immediately start getting into its bearings and will ruin them within days.)
Since you won't be able to electrically power your vessel with wind or sun, you'll have to crank up your diesel engine. Before you do so, toss a bucket or two of additional sand on your beloved auxiliary. Listen to the horrible 'grating' sound your starter motor makes – and, worse, observe how your fan belt keeps the sand suspended in the air … to wear out your alternator, pump seals, crankshaft bearings, etc.
Yes, this is sand-as-in-sandpaper – which is what mankind has used for centuries to wear away stuff.
Every line on your boat – your entire running rigging – will be thoroughly impregnated with sand. When you use any piece of cordage, it will become tubular sandpaper and wear away anything it touches. In addition, it will merrily "fling" sand into your blocks, tracks, cam cleats and mast & sheet winches. (Yes, I keep regreasing my winches – but there is so much sand residue in the bearings that it is like smearing thin asphalt on them.)
Everything you buy will come with an extra free helping of sand. We even drink our water with gritted teeth to strain out the larger granules. Bread is another daily conveyor belt of sand into our body. (Good news: health freaks don't need to eat any oat bran – not with all that sand scouring your lower intestines!)
We have a Monitor windvane, which steers us strictly by the wind without any additional electrical or mechanical power. It is (or was) an amazing device which reacts (or did) to the faintest breeze. Now it's delicate bearings are caked with sand.
This sand is insidious. It is evil. And it is everywhere.
First, the fine sand sands the Monitor's plastic bearings bigger – which allows the rougher, coarser sand to get in … which then imbeds itself into the relatively soft walls of the plastic bearing … and, hence, sands the hardened stainless steel bits as well.
Both bearings and shafts wear out in different ways.
I got 70,000 ocean miles on my last Monitor rebuild – and about seven miles into the Red Sea … needed another one.
As important as my vessel is – it isn't my entire life. I have other interests, too. Sex for instance. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: sex and sand are not a good combo. Moisture is a like a sand-magnet. The very air is laden with sand. Woe is us!
Sand is accumulating around our mouth, our nostrils … and even worse places.
… having a spouse tell you she is "completely worn out" is no laughing matter.
The carburetor of our 2 hp outboard also truly is "over-achieving" when it comes to sand collection. Some of the sand comes, of course, from the unwanted "sand-additive" that is included with every gallon of gasoline we purchase in Africa and Arabia but most of it is just sucked into the unfiltered air intake where each sharp-edged grain has a great time scoring the cylinder walls. (I figure we're losing about a pound of compression each time we run the damn thing.)
As sailors we've had to completely retrain ourselves. Don't even think about looking aloft to see if your halyard is clear – it will rain sand into your eyes until they bleed. Ditto, sail trim. Our mainsail has become one big, flapping sand trap – we would never think to look directly at it. (I'm not sure how other yachties cope: we attempt sail trim while looking downward through a cracked make-up mirror – but this has, alas, resulted in some spectacular gybes.)
Our roller furlers look like sand-sprinklers when we unroll our headsails and we don't use our whisker pole much anymore because a sand dune is forming on its upper crust.
The marine head isn't immune: sand filters down from its hatch into the bowl and after it scrapes through us humans too.
How much sand is there surrounding the Red Sea? I don't know. An accurate count is hard to come by. But it is fair to say: lots.
We have been in anchorages where the air – especially around beaches – glows orange from all the suspended sand (which refuses to stay suspended once it spies your boat).
Recently I got so frustrated with the sand that I just flopped back in my cockpit and wept. Bad move. The suddenly-compressed cockpit cushions exploded sand in all directions and the moisture in my eyes must have been positively-charged. My cornea may be scared forever. (Sobbing is worse – the sand gets in your mouth.)
Is there an 'upside' to any of this? I'm not sure. I guess my boat is getting lighter as it wears away itself and my bank account. And it sure is fun to watch a desert nomad frolic on the beach for the first time. (They go temporarily insane in a most delightful way.)
Traveling inland can be a trip. We were in one dusty, nearly deserted Sudan desert town at a cafÃ© drinking coffee – and told the desert dude who'd just parked his camel out front we had a daughter. Proud parents that we are, we showed him a picture of her. Our daughter Roma was standing on the beach of St. John, USVI. His jaw dropped and he began sputtering " … is that … ? Is that … ?" At first, I thought his shock was because he was a Muslim and she was in a skimpy bathing suit – and he was religiously offended. But he hadn't even noticed her exposed flesh … he was so amazed at the sight of all that lovely water.
Not only is the sand wearing my boat away – it is hell on my body as well. I usually get my feet wet going ashore (the locals use the shoreline as a convenient garbage dump) and then stuff them, completely sand-coated, into my shoes – which soon makes walking blisteringly painful.
Plus, now that I'm going bald I'm combing my precious hairs more often – which, in this case, is really just raking the sand off the top of my head. (Thanks gosh my bushy, barbed-wire eyebrows can now hold about a pound of sand each.)
And our western clothes aren't designed for it. I put my shore pass (they take your passports here in Port Suakin) into my empty shirt pocket – and a walk through town caught enough sand to almost wear away its photo ID.
The next time you see a picture of a Sudanese fella dressed in a long white flowing dress and turban – remember he's ten times smart than I for having the proper attire for the job.
Needless to say, the Sudanese aren't terribly sympathetic to my pathetic whining. Recently I was ashore buying yet-another dust broom for my wife and one sand-hugger got annoyed. I told my wife about it later. "… he got aggressive?" she asked.
"Well, no," I had to admit. "He just got … let's say … abrasive!"
What does it take to be a Red Sea sailor these days – besides a thick skin and a sense of humor?
"… true grit!" cackles my darling wife – as the sand collects between her sweating cleavage, and her dark Italian hair halos orange.
Cap'n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card and is the author of "Chasing the Horizon" by American Paradise Publishing, "Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies," "The Collected Fat" and his newest, "All at Sea Yarns." The Goodlanders have sincerely and solemnly promised to never, ever transit the Red Sea again. "The Cape of Good Hope is duck-soup compared to this sand-choked misery," Fatty moans. For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com.