Life is full of Surprises.  A delivery job has popped up, delivering a ship from Bahrain to Trieste in Italy.

As I am in the area, its an easy hop from Dammam in Saudi to Bahrain, I have accepted the job and have changed my plans for return to New Zealand.

The drive across the causeway from Saudi Arabia was a first for me.  Some years back I drove from Bahrain to Saudi across the causeway, but I have never done the reverse trip.

Heading onto the Causeway. Photo Ray Penson. Sailing Yacht Truce
Heading onto the Causeway. Photo Ray Penson. Sailing Yacht Truce

 The border crossing is an artificial island in the centre of the causeway.  Entry formalities into Bahrain are simple, the friendly immigration official issued me a visa for two weeks and welcomed me into Bahrain.

Approaching the Saudi Boarder Crossing. Photo Ray Penson. Sailing Yacht Truce
Approaching the Saudi Boarder Crossing. Photo Ray Penson. Sailing Yacht Truce

I first stopped in Bahrain as a cadet when flying out to Singapore to join a ship.  The airport was not much more than a hut at that time.  But one thing I remember is that there was a fish tank (couldn’t call it an aquarium) in the waiting area.  It was the first time I had seen tropical fish in a tank – a goldfish was exotic in England at the time.

In 1974 I visited Bahrain again and lived there occasionally when working offshore Saudi Arabia.  At that time Bahrain was the jewel in the Gulf, an informal place you could relax with friendly people.  We used to have a wonderful time, eating, drinking, swimming and parties, a great social life among the expat community.

Now I am struggling to find old landmarks and recognise the place.  The pace of development, building and roading has masked the Bahrain of old.  But, from what I have seen so far, the relaxed and informal atmosphere remains, all the people I have met seem happy and friendly.

I am now perched up fifteen floors in a new hotel overlooking the American naval Base and Harbour.  Although I can’t see much detail as there is a lot of sand in the air making it hazy.

View from Hotel Bahrain.Photo Ray Penson. Sailing Yacht Truce
View from Hotel Bahrain.Photo Ray Penson. Sailing Yacht Truce

Soon I will be preparing for a new voyage ahead.  Once again through pirate waters, then up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal.  The weather for the trip should be good and the Mediterranean warm and calm at this time of year.  The rest of the crew should arrive in a day or two – I wonder who they are?


Cruising down the Red Sea, beautiful weather and a gentle following wind.  Such a relaxing ride after the bumpy Mediterranean and chaos of the Suez Canal.  Time to catch breath and take advantage of the weather which is set for a couple of days more

Route, Suez to India Ray Penson
Route, Suez to India

The crew are also happy to have good weather and are setting about preparing the ship for the upcoming transit of the piracy area.  Razor wire is being strung along the ships side and measures are taken to prevent any unwanted persons gaining entry to the ship.  Anti-piracy and security drills are carried out and systems tested.  Most of the crew have been through this procedure before many times – a sad element of modern seafaring.

Towards the bottom of the Red Sea we have a rendezvous to collect a couple more security guards and weapons before heading through the Bab el Mandab (Gateway of Tears), the narrow strait between Yemen and Djibouti that leads to the Gulf of Aden.  Due to the current conflict in Yemen Bab el Mandeb is now considered a high-risk area.  I planned to transit this area in daylight, but adverse winds and head seas slowed us, we passed by during darkness instead.  Pirates in their small boats can’t operate during bad weather so a night-time transit didn’t have much risk involved.  Warships, helicopters and military activity aplenty in this area.  In the past I have spent time in Yemen, both on the coast and in Sana, it’s a strikingly beautiful country.  It’s very wrong that a few people’s greed and thirst for power is causing so much suffering to the already poor people.

Picking up Security Personnel and weapons. Photo by Ray Penson (1)

As we headed out into the Gulf of Aden the wind backed around to the West and headed us again, slowing our progress.  The headwind and head seas continued all the way to Ras al Hadd in Oman.  The windy weather reduced the chance of any pirate attack, but we maintained all anti-piracy measures in place with double lookouts.  In the history of recent piracy in this area no attack against a merchant vessel has been successful when armed security has been on board and no boarding’s have been recorded on any ships that can travel at 18 knots or over.

We continued up the coast of Oman, past Salalah where as a young man I had delivered stores onto the beach for the British Army as local bandits shot ineffectually at us from high ground.  Salalah is now a big town with an airport and large container port.  Past Masirah Island where we used to drop supplies for a small Royal Air Force contingent who were based there.  I remember the anchorage at Masirah for the fantastic fishing, the poop deck of our ship resembled a trawler, we quickly filled the freezers with fresh fish.

Once around Ras al Hadd the wind reduced and calmer weather remained with us all the way to India.  It was interesting for me to go around Ras al Hadd, but disappointing that we couldn’t get close to see the coast in detail.  The traffic separation scheme around Ras al Hadd now takes the northbound ships out over twelve miles distant – too far to see anything interesting.

Around 1997 Ngozi and I toured Oman by 4WD, we visited Ras al Hadd on our way to a turtle beach to the south, where we camped.  During the night we were able to watch the turtles coming ashore and lay their eggs – and by day see the spectacle of hundreds of hatchlings struggling to get to the sea as birds picked off the many unfortunate ones.  A memorable experience and we have many fond memories of Oman and the friendly people we met there.

Our voyage continued past Muscat and up to a rendezvous off Fujairah in the UAE where we dropped off our security guards and their equipment.  Then it was the final leg to India with just the eight ships crew on board.  During the next days we celebrated Christmas and made sure the ship was shining like a new pin for the new owners.  Pre-arrival India there was also a mountain of paperwork to complete – multiple forms, frequently requiring duplicate information.  The obsession in India for needless and mindless paperwork is world leading.

 The arrival in India went well and we were securely berthed by mid-morning, engines shut down and formalities underway.  Once the formalities were complete it was time for a beer – but – Gujarat state is dry, I had to wait a further two days until Delhi Airport  to taste the amber nectar.  Everybody on board was happy to have finished the job, 3,600 miles from Suez, and to get home before the New Year.

Safely alongside - Job Finished. Photo by Ray Penson
Safely alongside – Job Finished. Photo by Ray Penson


The trip from Rotterdam down the English Channel was quite nostalgic – we passed the old familiar headlands of North and South Foreland, Dungeness and Beachy Head.  Pre GPS, these were significant navigational marks, committed to memory – now they are just names on the chart for the majority of large commercial ships.

The weather was typical winter channel weather, grey overcast, cold and a decent sea running.  There is no heating on the ship as its destined to operate in a warm climate, watches on the bridge are chilly affairs with only a small portable heater to supply warmth.

Delivery RouteAfter three days we are clear of the channel and heading across the Bay of Biscay.  Its still cold and the Bay is giving us a bit of rock and roll – but not too bad and I have certainly had worse crossing the Bay of Biscay.  The ship has now switched from Diesel to heavy fuel for the main engines as we are out of the European Emission control area.  With each mile I imagine the temperature will rise as we get further south, but it remains cold.

Passing down the coasts of Spain and Portugal are now longer scenic affairs.  The modern traffic routing splits the north bound and south bound ships into lanes and separation schemes.  The southbound lane is now so far offshore that land, when you can see it, is just a distant smudge on the horizon.

After a week we reach the Straits of Gibraltar early in the morning for a spectacular sunrise.  The weather is a bit warmer now and the sea has calmed down for the first time.  At Gibraltar we are sending a service technician, who has been on board for the trip down from Rotterdam, ashore.  We slow down to rendezvous with a service boat coming out from Gibraltar.  The transfer only takes a few minutes and we are back up to speed an on our way again.  I look back at Gibraltar slipping astern and wish I could go ashore for a few hours.

The Mediterranean Sea turned on a strong northerly wind.  We had a nasty bumpy ride and rolled all the way along the North African coast.  People think of the Mediterranean as being sunny and calm – in winter it can be an unpleasant place.

The evening arrival at Port Said to transit the Suez Canal was the usual chaotic event.  Lots of ships calling on the VHF radio and everyone fighting to be first.  Luckily, we didn’t have to anchor and joined the early morning convoy.  As this is the ships first Suez transit there is a mountain of paperwork to complete.  As we enter the canal the pilot boards.  Followed by the agents, boatmen and their boat, canal electrician with his light and security personnel.  We also receive additional security equipment for the piracy areas ahead, which must be loaded with the ships crane.  A period of very intense activity before we can settle down to the canal transit.

Entering Bitter Lake Photo Ray Penson Yacht Truce
Entering Bitter Lake Photo Ray Penson

At the Bitter Lakes we anchored for a few hours to allow a northbound convoy to pass.  The weather is warm at last and its flat calm.  A very welcome rest and time to catch up on sleep before we head off again.

A few hours later, in the small hours we reach the pilot station at Suez.  Here we disembark our Egyptian visitors and their equipment and pick up a security guy who will be with us as we pass the piracy area.  Finally, with a sense of relief the canal is behind us, we can head down the Red Sea with the first 3,400 miles behind us.

Our next stop will be at the bottom of the Red Sea to pick up two more security personnel and their arms.  Until then it looks like we will have good weather for a few days with following winds for a change.  So nice to be warm again and switch the portable heaters off.