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Sail away
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 02 - 2006

Rasha Sadek gains insight into the adventurous lives of sailors as she welcomes Vasco da Gama Rally yachts mooring at Marsa Alam's Port Ghalib
"We arrive in 10 minutes... over."
"Port Ghalib is ready to receive you... over and out."
Only seven minutes later, another voice says:
"Captain Sherif, we're entering the marina now... over."
This radio-emitted conversation is but a part of Sherif Fawzi's daily life. I gazed through the endless blue of this stretch of the Red Sea at Marsa Alam, and I noticed a white dot across the horizon, which, as it came closer and closer, turned out to be a yacht. Soon afterwards another dot appeared some kilometres behind. The winds were fairly strong. Within minutes the yachts sailing in from Qusseir would start arriving at their destination -- Port Ghalib.
Once an officer in the navy, and then a professional in the petroleum sector, Fawzi has been in charge of the Port Ghalib marina ever since it was opened up for public use. Port Ghalib, an international harbour for leisure and business vessels, is Egypt's only privately-owned marina on the southern Red Sea coast licensed by the government as an official port of entry. The marina can accommodate up to 500 yachts in its five- metre deep waters, but there are plans to double this capacity in 2007.
Fawzi dreams of turning Port Ghalib into one of the world's top ports. "Some 150,000 yachts cruise the Mediterranean Sea, of which Egypt gets only 400," he says, as we await the world-famous Vasco da Gama yachts' arrival from atop the watchtower. "We should have at least 50 marinas. But this marina is our baby. We're nurturing it in all possible ways. One day, soon enough, we'll be very proud."
And ever since day one, in order to make life easier on yachtsmen, certain procedures have been taken to facilitate international arrivals. Yacht owners only need to complete a Berthing Application Form along with a customs declaration. The marina management will then process these with the authorities on behalf of the yachtsmen. Upon entry, fees are only payable once. Yachtsmen can visit any other Egyptian port or marina during their period of stay merely by producing their receipt. Meanwhile, the marina's management team is currently finalising a special agreement with the ministries of tourism, transportation and environment that will allow international yachts that have checked through Port Ghalib to visit the nearby marine parks free of charge. In addition, a number of facilities are provided at the berths, including fresh water, electricity supplies, communications, solid waste disposal, laundry service, diesel and petrol fuel supply operated by Caltex, a transportation service and medical attendance.
THE SPIRIT OF SAILING: We run down the 68-stair watchtower past the long Port Ghalib to catch the arrival of the first yacht, which hails from the Netherlands. The second yacht, Mistral, follows in no time carrying on board Vasco da Gama rally organiser Lodewijk Brust and his Dutch partner Gertruud, along with their dog Lloyd, sporting the official shirt of the rally. As an animal lover, my attention immediately went to the sailor dog. "He hasn't been on land for four days now, so he's extra-energetic," Brust giggles as he approaches me. A man who's been sailing the world for almost 40 years, and who is now approaching his 70th birthday, Brust's face reveals one thing for sure: an infinite affection for the universe and a complete openness to every human being and new land.
"Sailing is about freedom. That's what it is. Boredom is when you're sitting at home and everybody is running around you, hassled by stress, while no one really has any time for you. Pollution, crowds... The list goes on. But sailing is life," Brust says. For Gertruud, his partner, "sailing is a challenge. Your yacht is your home and you travel around the world while being home." With these words one can start to comprehend the minds of sailors who leave everything behind and embark on a mobile-home journey. And with these words too, I was curious to pay their home a visit. So, boarding their yacht, now docked in the lagoon in front of the Millennium Coral Beach Diving Hotel, Brust gave me a grand tour. Despite the fact that their yacht was of the smaller of the 22 boats joining the rally, I was more than surprised to find out that it accommodates a fairly spacious living room with a dining table centred amidst three sofas along with a navigation corner and a big TV set. In addition, there were three bedrooms that can accommodate up to seven persons, two bathrooms and a kitchen equipped with a refrigerator, an oven and a breadmaker. So it really was, after all, home.
The Vasco da Gama rally started off in October 2005 at Finike Setur marina in Turkey. Participants then set off to sail through the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean to India. They are expected to arrive in Goa in April this year. The rally covers a route that stretches over 4,266 nautical miles and passes nine countries: Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Oman and India. Egypt is the only country which participants pass twice. From Turkey, the boats headed to Port Said, Ismailia, Port Suez and Sharm El-Sheikh to inaugurate the 30,000 square metre marina Talabay in Jordan and moor in Eilat for 16 days. "When we stopped there I flew to the Netherlands to visit my 90-year-old sick mother," Gertruud says. Now they're back in Egypt stopping at Hurghada, Safaga, Qusseir and Port Ghalib (only 76 kilometres from Qusseir), then straight down to Suaking in Sudan. Upon reaching Goa after six months of sailing, those who want to continue to Cochin, where a boatshow will be held, will have to wait for five more months due to the monsoon season. Then some boats will go off to Thailand, while others will go further to Australia or the Maldives.
Most of the 44 sailors taking part are over 50 years of age and are taking part in this particular cruise to mark their retirement from the seas. Jolanda Geerdink and John Hoedemakers are the youngest of sailors. Aged 38 and 34 respectively, the two have contributed to organising the rally along with Brust. One might expect people of their age range to be working away, pursuing "normal" occupations. But, as Hoedemakers said with sincere passion in his voice, "sailing is seeing real life, real people. What they call home is, for me, living on the edge, and that's the way I want my life to be." Geerdink can't agree more with her sweetheart, though she doesn't seem to mind going back to the Netherlands, so long as it's just for a short while. "We'll sail for two or three years before we find ourselves a new job and save for another trip," she said.
But it was Brust who mapped out the route. "I wanted to include the Middle East because most people around the world don't know the truth. I wanted to let them know that it's safe to be here," he said. Hoedemakers picked up the thread and added: "this is not a war zone. We're here and we love it." So as it turned out, this is more than a rally -- it's a message of peace. According to a message posted by the organisers on their website, "the surroundings of the Red Sea are of astounding beauty. Most people never explore it though, due to a various number of reasons... We help people travel this area safely and discover the lands." Meanwhile, participants are keen to render the rally an experience, not a cut-throat competition. "This is a rally," Brust said, "not a race. There isn't a sense of competition among us sailors. We're like a family, and we communicate every day by radio to check up on each other." And a large, multi-national family it is, with 12 Dutch boats, four French, and one each from the UK, the US, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia and South Africa.
A question that popped into my head was, just what do these people do to kill time while out at sea? "Aside from radio communication -- either with other boats or ports we're going to visit -- which consumes a big part of the day," Brust explained, "I tend to my boat, finish official papers for other boats, update the Vasco da Gama website, or make sure the trip remains on schedule. You know what? I don't even have time to read a book." This applies to the three organisers of the rally. For Hoedemakers, on the other hand, when he is tempted by the prospect of returning to shore, he "tends to other sailors' problems, solve them and feel great about myself again."
Most of the participants are travelling in couples, except for two who chose to make it on their own. Providing company, two dogs and three cats were among the crew. Hoedemakers told me a most moving story about a couple who were continually arguing while out at sea, until they picked up a stray cat at Sharm El-Sheikh. Then, surprisingly, the arguments stopped. It was clear that the cat did wonders for this couple, unknowingly acting as their marriage counsellor.
At Port Ghalib, the sailors were received at the Millennium Coral Beach Diving Hotel for a night of free drinks. The next morning a most interesting meeting was held by the women of the rally at the hotel bar, during which they discussed their most difficult moments. They all seemed to agree that bad weather conditions or being lost at sea were nerve-shattering moments. What about the husbands? "That's even worse. You can't slam the door in his face and go shopping," joked a 47-year-old woman. Others, however, disagreed. "You can't get on the boat unless you respect and trust your husband. In fact I know a lot of women who came to love and respect their husbands even more after going sailing with them," one said. And the weak moments? "When the children or parents are sick," she added. They all nodded in agreement. As for the best part of the journey, seeing dolphins swimming by the yachts was, for all of them, a sheer delight.
Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal, in 1469. As a young man, he learned astronomy and navigation. In 1492, he became a naval officer. Five years later, Portuguese King Manual I asked Vasco's father to find a sea route to India by sailing around Africa. The man died before the route was complete. Vasco took upon himself the task of finishing off what his father had started. He commanded four ships and had a total crew of about 170 men. Vasco sailed from Lisbon and around the Cape of Good Hope about three and a half months later. He then headed north and stopped at trading centres that are now Mozambique and Mombassa and Malindi in Kenya. Arab traders in Mozambique and Mombassa hated the Portuguese and tried to seize their ships, but the people of Malindi were friendlier and arranged to guide the fleet to India. On 20 May 1498, Vasco reached Calcutta, India. Four months later, he sailed home. Many of his sailors died from a number of different diseases, and only 55 survived. Vasco arrived in Lisbon in September 1499. The king awarded him the title of Admiral of the Sea of India. He died in 1524.
A DREAM IN THE MAKING: All in all, Port Ghalib constituted a delightful stop for the Vasco da Gama rally sailors. But it's more than that. Behind, there's a huge project aiming at turning Marsa Alam, and Port Ghalib, into the new resort capital of the Red Sea, where once there was nothing but an empty coastline. The visionaries of Port Ghalib speak of South Africa's Sun City, Disney World and the Atlantis in the Bahamas as the elder sister cities of Port Ghalib. "They all had what Marsa Alam has," says James Pringle, senior councellor for the Kuwait-based MA Kharafi Group -- owners of over $2 billion investment projects in Egypt spanning over the past 50 years -- and chief executive director for the group's activities at Port Ghalib.
Plans for change started off when, in 1997, the Egyptian government offered an initiative to open a build, operate and transfer (BOT) airport in Marsa Alam for foreign investment. The Kharafi Group purchased the 18 kilometres of virgin coastline in Marsa Alam (total area of 26 million square metres) for LE280 million (LE11.2 per metre). It intends on investing $1.2 billion on developing Port Ghalib. It will operate the airport for 40 years.
The $55 million airport was constructed as the first successful BOT model in the world with a vast greenyard, only to be followed by Athens airport. Designed by Netherlands Airports and functioning under the operational management of Aéroports de Paris, it finally opened to the public in November 2001. The terminal building covers an area of 6,000 square metres, upgradeable to 25,000 square metres. It currently has a capacity of 600 passengers per hour and an apron for five aircraft. The airport's upcoming expansion plan will take the ultimate capacity to 2,500 passengers per hour with an apron for 20 aircraft.
Developers saw in Marsa Alam "an area of tremendous potential", according to Pringle. And so it was their vision "to create a world-class integrated resort community, recognised globally as a model for environmental conservation, cultural preservation, design creativity and beauty, and diversity of experiences and facilities... a community where life is colourful, exciting and varied yet balanced with the serenity and peace that come from being in harmony with nature... A development that excites, pleases and rewards the developer, investor and holidaymaker alike."
The heart of Port Ghalib is the marina designed by Sogreah consultants and managed by UK-based Camper and Nicholson, with the airport only a five-minute drive away, and a Corniche to host European-flavoured markets, restaurants, cafés, bars, entertainment venues and discotheques. The Corniche will also house 480 condo units with areas ranging 70-160 square metres and a souq resembling that of Khan Al-Khalili in Cairo. The Kharafi plans to expand the marina by the double in 2007 and build a 17-feddan lagoon decorated with waterfalls at a cost of $22 million. And since the Kharafi people are so keen on preserving nature and, more specifically, the spectacular corals that line up almost the entire shore of Marsa Alam, they have decided to build the world's second largest salt water pool over an area of 14,000 square metres, bringing the beach to holidaymakers.
For the time being, of the 23 hotels to be built in Port Ghalib, only one has been completed -- the Millennium Coral Beach Diving Hotel, run by UK Millennium Hotels and Resorts. The four-star hotel is comprised of 200 spacious rooms overlooking the Port Ghalib marina.
DIVING, DIVING, DIVING: If anything Marsa Alam is famous for now, it's the magnificent world-class diving sites. While diving in this area, Jacques Cousteau once said, "the Red Sea is a corridor of marvels -- the happiest hours of my diving experience have been spent there." The Elphinstone reef is the mythical diving site south of Marsa Alam. The coral walls plunge deep. The northern plateau is home to schooling hammerheads with frequent sightings of oceanic grey white-tip sharks. And there's also the Sataya reef: a huge barrier of vibrant corals schooling dolphins, hammerheads, large tuna fish and jacks. Located only a few hundred metres off shore, south of Marsa Alam, is the ever famous Samadi Reef. Nicknamed the Dolphins House, it's home to a pod of over 100 spinner dolphins. And there's more, only you'll have to visit Marsa Alam yourself in order to find out...
GETTING THERE: The Marsa Alam International Airport is located about 65km north of the small town of Marsa Alam and about a five-minute drive from Port Ghalib. To directly fly to Marsa Alam, which is 750km south of Cairo and approximately 300km north of Sudan, you can book a charter -- operated by Petroleum Air Services -- for LE900, via Express Travel (+202 624 2760). Charters leave from Cairo on Mondays and Thursdays and take just over two hours. You can, however, book your flight with EgyptAir (+202 635 0260), land in Hurghada, and rent a bus or a car to Marsa Alam -- a 235km drive.
Driving to Marsa Alam from Cairo is also possible. Take the southern highway from Cairo to Hurghada, then continue onwards. On the way, you'll pass the resort towns of Soma, Makadi, Safaga and Qusseir. There are also several Upper Egypt buses that leave Cairo daily from the downtown Turgoman and Heliopolis Almaza bus stations. The bus trip will fairly take 12 hours.

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