Sailing the Red (a letter)

Ltr Paul 1994 blog cropWell! Here’s a window on a past life. A good friend’s father recently passed on. The father was also a friend; among his effects was a letter i sent him back in 1994, and it made its way back to me.

It’s a 9-pager, handwritten in ballpoint on scribbler pages, completed in segments while coaxing Triangle Island, my 18-foot open yawl, north through the Red Sea’s myriad hidden reefs and wild desert winds. Reading it was a trip back in time, evoking the emotions i was feeling while immersed in a dangerous solo adventure. Here are a few excerpts:

24 Mar. 1994

Dear Paul,

Coming to you from the Red Sea, west shore, at about 16½ degrees north. Triangle Island and I are amongst the islands off Massawa, Eritrea’s port city. The wind is mild, the sky full of puff-clouds, and we’re barely hanging to our desired course: north. Seems benign, yet I’m nervous as hell. Except for one low island, supposedly 5 miles ahead but still invisible, there’s nothing but open water for 150 miles ahead.

That’s 3 days at this rate, maybe 4, and that’s a lot of time for bad things to happen here in the Red Sea. Already, cowering up the coast from Bab El Mandeb (the “Gate of Tears,” don’t you love it?) I’ve had my ass kicked worse than ever before — and what I’ve had sounds like nothing compared with what some of the other yachties, who came straight up the centre, experienced.

Red Sea (Wikipedia)

I wish they wouldn’t tell me their tales of woe. I’m a born worrier, never content to let tomorrow’s problem take care of itself. That, I suppose, is one of the goals of this voyage, and the Red Sea and Mediterranean are likely to be the next semesters in this self-taught course. From here to Suez is 7 or 800 miles (I won’t have the nerve to add it all up till I get closer) of sailing dead to windward — a heartbreaking amount to contemplate all at once, given my 10-to 20-mile-a-day average rate to date. I’ve heard tell of only one other boat that has made it ‘without using her engine much.’ (You will recall that Triangle Island has no engine, only oars.) The last (& only) Drascombe Lugger to try it piled up on the east shore near Jeddah, where the lone sailor was promptly imprisoned. There’s a significant possibility — I’m guessing 20-30% — that I’ll be doing the same in the next two months. Hence the nerves.

Despite them, I’m trying to keep on with my writing. There’s every excuse to just sit back and sail and watch and brood, unfortunately. But I am getting stuff done — laboriously, with copybook and ballpoint. (Another 5-minute break, to inspect the horizon. But this one was worth it — my island, a sliver of sand, is barely there off the starboard bow.)

I’m almost hoping for a week-long stinker of a blow, so I can hang to the hook in a nice crowded anchorage somewhere and borrow someone’s typewriter, or better yet, computer. (There are reportedly almost 200 yachts heading north along with me, and I’ve had a couple of offers already).

At any rate, I need something directed to do with myself out here when the sailing is routine, which it mostly is after all this time. Still demanding, but no longer novel.

Which brings me to another point, namely: lunch; And a decision: do I pull in at this island for a probably poor night’s sleep, or quit forestalling the inevitable and just press on for the distance?

Traingle Island Kahului 1992--sm
Triangle Island off Kahului, Hawaii, 1992

LATER — Hum. First I was convinced it was an uncharted islet. Then I thought I found it. Then I figured it was the other island I’d thought it was. Now it’s disappeared astern, and I’ll never know for sure. The only handhold I’ve got to swing on is my dead reckoning, so I might as well trust it — but with suspicion. Press on!

Ah yes, my point, which I think was this: Out here, unencumbered by the fluff of civilization, my direction is very clear to me. … Being a gold-plated, do-as-you’re-told-like-a-good-doggie, eager-to-please suck from grade one on, I am programmed to respond to what I think people expect of me. Result, for decades: dissatisfaction, often misery. Occasional explosion, e.g. walking out on 3 or 4 jobs, relationships, et cetera. I am slowly learning to please myself — or, even more basic, to recognize what it is that I want, in the face of external demands (real or imagined). One of the reasons I’m out here alone, I now see, is to live for an extended period listening only to myself — to learn to recognize my own meek inner voice.

That voice tells me not to become beholden. I don’t advocate this for all or even any others, but I believe my own destiny lies in remaining a free agent in my life — what I call ‘adventure,’ though others refer to it as ‘an immature flight from responsibility.’ I no longer care. That’s a lie.


And I dream. I can see myself becoming — to a small extent, I am already becoming — something of a beacon for the working man, an example of how to duck the chains of social responsibility, a voice saying work is cruel and unnecessary. A living example of adventure, towards which every man has, I believe, a built-in urge, which is more & more being stymied by the situations we live in.

I dream (and this, remember, is from 40 miles out in the Red Sea, with not a single realistic point of reference in sight) of living in every area of Canada, and stitching it together with my words. Of hitting the streets for a year, a sort of Orwellian Down & Out in Toronto and Vancouver; of sailing into the eye of a hurricane; of learning French properly, once & for all, in Quebec. Ah, shoot, I’ve got an endless list. And writing could be a part of them all.


Triangle Island Sudan 1994
At anchor in Khor Narawat harbour, Sudan

1 APRIL — You’d need a ball peen hammer to dent the tension out here. I struck north from the islands, got within 5 miles of Taclai Harbour, was beaten back 60 miles by high wind to one of the islands. Waited, struck north again. A day & a half’s sailing got me to Taclai ‘Harbour,’ which is marked on the chart but apparently no longer exists. So I anchored, tenuously exposed just off the bald reef last night, and am pushing north again. But there’s 50 miles to go before the next proper sanctuary — and every possibility that I’ll be beaten back again.

What a bitch this stretch of coast is. No protection, no landmarks, fever wind — please, please let me get round the corner!

I mention this as local colour, as an example of the conditions I’m trying to write under. This morning’s oeuvre (in the afternoon, when the wind picks up, spray makes writing impossible) is the bicycle-commute piece. It’s supposed to be pretty tense, and hopefully I can transfer some of my peur de vivre, but for the most part the circumstances and the solitude are distracting, like having kids playing with guns in the next room. And to think I am doing this by choice!

I’ll mail this when I next reach civilization, probably Port Sudan. Till next time,

Author: Greg Blee

Poster to my own blog, and others.

2 thoughts on “Sailing the Red (a letter)”

  1. What an intriguing — and foreign to me — fellow this was written by. A worrier? A suck? Where was the Mr Blee I know now, who seems no longer to “believe [his] own destiny lies in remaining a free agent”? Who, despite the many misgivings he has about Tofino, chooses to remain here, and to become beholden to this town, making a commitment that few people ever do.

    I like to picture you sailing, sailing, being master and commander, living the boy’s dream. And I think you’re very lucky to have found these pages, not only because they evoke memories for you, but also because they’re so damned well-written that surely you must be thinking there is book here somewhere. Men need these kinds of books, I think. To know that the adventurer spirit, the finding yourself man, can and does still exist.

    So, please, give us more. And in doing so, give yourself more, too. I think you will end up liking this guy a lot.

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