29 January 2009


The best way to familiarize one’s self with a foreign environment is without question enveloped in the concept called “Total Immersion.” There are some exceptions – swimming comes to mind – but all in all just jumping in yield the best results. This is seen in learning a new language, developing a new skill, or familiarizing yourself with a new culture. The learning curve may be steep, but the rewards are more fruitful. With this in mind, I decided to investigate a phenomenon found almost exclusively in Yemen, namely partaking in the use of the recreational drug called Qat. (Scrabble players rejoice!) Qat is a leafy plant similar to some exotic strains of lettuce in appearance, with long, narrow purplish stems and a green leaf with a 2:1 length to width ratio. It is also chewed by 99% of Yemeni men, which considering it’s US classification as an illegal drug and it’s supposed hallucinogenic properties, the wide spread use of it can be disconcerting when your minibus driver has a cheek full and is driving rapidly around a traffic circle, horn blaring, with the sliding side door locked in the fully open position. Seeing armed guards yielding Kalishnakovs carefully selecting and peeling off the best leaves can also make one extra careful not to arouse unnecessary suspicion. But when in Yemen, do as the Yemenis do: chew qat.

I did not try this new leafy drug alone, I had the company of one Joe, a 7 year Iraq War vet (Purple Heart), who is a serious backpacker and traveler, and the first white guy my age that I have met since the good old U.S of A. We minibussed it over to Krater (a suburb of Aden named because it sits in a volcanic crater, obviously) and began our hunt for this mysterious drug. It was actually easier than would be thought, given the complete legality of it in this country, and a helpful guy from the souq walked us to the town square that functions as the main supply artery in this part of town. One whole end of the square was lined with tables, each manned by two or three gentlemen and covered in small bundles carefully wrapped up in towels. We approached a table in the middle, chosen only because this is the table to which we were led, and began our enquiries. A small mental image will help set the scene here: two white guys buying Yemeni street drugs in broad daylight; two white guys who don’t speak a lick of Arabic (except for some numbers on Joe’s part); the only two white guys within a 500 mile radius – a bit of a stretch, but just picture it. All eyes are on us as we fumble around with words and gestures and get quoted a price for what looks to be an average bundle: 2000 riyals = $10.00. No way, we turn away. “Sadik (friend) sadik wait, 1500 riyals!” No. Next stall. New bundles unwrapped, all eyes still upon us. “1800 riyals.” Next table. “1000 riyals.” Next table. “1200 riyals.” This was getting annoying, but finally we spied a likely loyal customer paying 400 for a bundle. Jackpot. We stood by, making it clear that we were closely following the transaction, asked a bundle from beneath the same towel, and gave the guy 400 riyals. Bargaining done and product received, we were given a standing ovation complete with hoots and whistles from the entire vending community. We snuck away, satisfied with our bargaining (Joe deserves most, if not all of, the credit for this) to now try and figure out what the hell one does with a bundle of qat.

Keen observational techniques told us that one does not eat the stems, and from the bulges in one cheek of everyone around, we knew that we needed to act chipmunk like, and having scurried into a street-side coffee shop, we began plucking leaves and placing them into our mouths. Chewing made sense, as it would release the internal juices, but chewing resulted in hundred of tiny leaf chunks getting caught in and on your teeth, sliding backwards towards your throat in a gag-inducing manner, and making the whole wad generally hard to contain. We noticed that people were folding the leaves a few times, biting down, and moving the leaf into the appropriate position. We followed suit but kept the chewed wad inside our mouths, and soon developed a characteristic cheek tumor-looking thing. We were unsure of whether anything was happening or not, but trying to have a conversation while chewing the cud (bovinically speaking) gives the impression that something in the speech department is lacking. We sat at our coffee table, pondering the effects and drawing the attention of every single man, woman and child that happened to be walking by. (Most of the men, who are the majority of qat chewers, smiled while pointing to their cheeks and asked “Is good?”) Qat eaters are not hard to find: if you cannot get a good look at their face, or have only a view of their profile, the pink bag sticking obtrusively from a pocket is a telltale sign. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we were getting local respect for trying to “fit in.”

Turns out that only a small percentage of the leaves are good to eat. The upper or young leaves, are the fresh offshoots containing the good stuff, while the lower leaves are not only not potent, but are typically covered in pesticide. Now would be a good time for a digression, as the use of pesticide on recreational drugs is a simply astounding phenomenon. Some Yemeni men, the addicted subsection of the populace, spend up to 30% of their income on qat and can spend roughly four hours a day doing nothing but chewing the cud. There may or may not be criminal organizations that relegate the growing and distribution of qat, and it has been estimated that 75% of fertile land is used to grow qat – instead of food, or at least the wildly popular and profitable Yemeni coffee, renowned as some of the worlds best. Anyways, it remains that the qat crop is so important that pesticides need to be used to keep harvests bountiful, thus making some of the plant parts toxic. (This is not the part that is considered the drug.) We were soon told of this fact, and a kind Yemeni, young, carefully picked through our bag and got rid of everything that wasn’t good to eat. By this time were part of a group of young Yemenis who were accompanying an older couple from Eritrea/Italy, and they happily told us all about the drug, it’s uses, side effects (intentional and not), the social ramifications, etc. It was a good group of people to have around when trying new mind altering substances, especially as being part of a group helped prevent kids from coming up to us and pointing and laughing. Eventually we learned not to swallow they leaves, to spit the some of the juice, how to fold the leaves properly and so on. We sat around in total for three or four hours, tried some delicious Yemeni drinks, and had absolutely no idea what this stuff was supposed to do or why we even persisted in trying to get anything out of it. In the end, we decided that the stuff was useless, had no effect, and left – but not before making plans with our new friends for tomorrow. (They spoke great English.)

Moral of the story? Don’t do drugs if you don’t know how to do them properly. But I gotta go, I’m jonesin’.

24 January 2009

Agnostic Warship

We had a smooth and problem free sail from Al Mukalla to Aden, with stern winds from 10-20 knots and low seas. The only hitch was that we were going a little to fast, and so resorted to the time tested ‘drift with no sails up method’ for the last night, to avoid a nighttime entry. Granted, we had a series of problems leaving Mukalla, but replacing fuel pumps and jury rigging anchor windlasses is really no sweat. No, the real issue was getting into Aden itself.

Aden is located inside an approximately 4 by 6 nm bay, with an entrance gated with jagged, towering peaks. However, the size of the bay allows the wind to build up inside, and consequently we had one of the most hair raising port entrances that I have experienced, an entrance that a normal boat could have done easily. See, Eldemer has a nice flat front to the cockpit area, about 8 feet high and 16 feet across, which, aerodynamically speaking, is a sail. To add to the complications, the twin electrical engines provide an output of less that 6 hp, so motoring is held to a maximum of about 3 knots in flat water, with no current or wind. What happens when one adds current and wind? Trouble. The head winds ranged from 10-20 knots, and the current was at most 1 knot, but we played a near-disaster like game of pinball, in which we were the ball and everything else was an obstacle. We almost drifted sideways into:
a) A fishing boat being questioned by the Yemeni Coast Guard;
b) More than one channel marker;
c) A large buoy meant for oil tankers; and
d) Another boat at anchor.
It took us more than an hour to make the final approach, and many times our speed over ground read 0.00, that is before one of our exciting sideways jaunts. See the below link to a photo album with a picture of our course.

It is hoped that the repairs necessary for the damage done when the daggerboards broke can be done here, so I may be here a while. Fortunately, the area looks interesting, and I am hoping to make some on the cheap trips to San’aa, the capital, and Taliz, some other place.

On a more positive note, we had no interactions with pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and by making it here, we have essentially passed the trouble areas. The Navy guy, Abhi, forgot to check in with some department whilst in Mukalla, and so we were the effort of a search led by the Indian Navy, with the assistance of two recon planes, which did flybys and loops overhead, and were contacted and kept in touch with both Indian and French warships. The shipping was quite busy, which led to some interesting arrangements while performing our drifting exercise, but our use of AIS (Automatic Identification System) showed us everything we needed to know about the traffic, and no close calls were made at sea.

PS I wrote this earlier, but am now enjoying watching the guy running the internet cafe literally kicking kids out onto the street...all in good fun though!

http://picasaweb.google.com/alex.nagle/Yemen?feat=directlink New pictures from Yemen, and
http://picasaweb.google.com/alex.nagle/SalalahOman?feat=directlink Updated pictures from Oman.

19 January 2009

We made it halfway to Aden

Right country, wrong port. We left Salalah intending to go all the way to Aden, a leg of about 600 nautical miles. (For those knot in the know, a nautical miles is approximately 6076 feet, or 1/21600 of the circumference of the earth, measured through the poles in an arbitrary great circle.) So why did we only make it half way, and end up in the beautiful port of Al Mukalla? This is a question worth exploring, but after some preliminary comments on Al Mukalla: This is a traditional first port of call for boat transiting the Gulf of Aden heading westwards, and besides being equipped with very friendly and English speaking customs/immigration agents, is spectacularly beautiful. The town itself occupies a small strip of land, perhaps 300 yards, sandwiched between sheer cliff walls rising at least 1,000 feet – and lined on the ridge with ancient looking military outposts – and the sea, with a convenient wall to protect from waves. Not a tree or sign of shrubbery in sight from the boat, but it seems a true desert/seaside outpost, complete with an old town that conjures up images if traditional Arabic culture, which makes sense since the Arabs claim (wittingly or no) Yemen as their original stomping grounds. I intend to do some exploring while here… but how did we end up here? Oh yeah…

We left Salalah with minor difficulties until we were about 200 yards from where we were docked, when we discovered a small exhaust leak into the main cabin from the engine – we were much relieved to discover that it was not an electrical fire – which was solved by opening the cover for the engine and letting it vent. No worries, until the Lemco generator started showing a decreasing voltage and had to be replaced. (Note that the engine was fine, but extending from the engine is a drive shaft which rotates a series of magnets across a set of brushes creating electricity. This unit is called a commutator, which can be used as either an motor (when supplied with electricity causing it to rotate) or a generator (when supplied with rotational force, creating electricity, as in our case.) The replacement was pretty straight forward, and since we had put in the inferior spare and saved the better one for a backup, all worked well. Oh before this we ran over a crabbing line, which got caught in the prop and necessitated me going for a swim with a knife, luckily it was daytime and the sea was so cool and refreshing… but that can happen to anyone (who doesn’t look out for such things…not me.) While replacing the generator, the wind picked up, and after setting sails we were making 8-10 knots with the wind on the beam, which I thought was a spectacular start to a first leg. We took some waves over the bows, as can happen in 20 knots of wind and 8 foot steep seas, which due to a poor forward cabin hatch design, got my bedding wet, so I moved one bunk aft, only to hear a fantastic cracking sound as I was lying down and combating a small bout of seasickness.

By the way, seasickness is a bummer, but a good shot of adrenaline can make it go away in a flash. Point in case, the cracking turned out to be our port daggerboard breaking in half at the water line and taking part of its support with it, which can excite even the most stoic sailors. No compromising hull damage was done, but we soon afterwards developed a strange rotation point for balancing the boat…which was remedied the next day when the starboard daggerboard broke in the exact same fashion, although this time we were under calmer wind and sea conditions. No big deal, we just can’t go to windward, which is lucky because the trades in this region at this time of year are aft of us, until they aren’t, which not only already happened for the first 100nm outside of Salalah, but will happen again soon enough, in a serious way. So we decided to make for Al Mukalla, hoping that here we could fashion some sort of repairs that would enable us to use our older and shorter daggerboards, which we held onto. No luck though, the only thing that we can hope to get here is an interesting scenic view and the loss of a crew member, Paul, who has come to the justifiable conclusion that the boat is no good. Perhaps it was the daggerboards, perhaps the sail plans and sailing characteristics, the steering failures, autohelm problems, electronic issues, but I think it is because he got a small stomach issue…

Regardless nothing can be done here, so I will stay on and help Rad limp along to Aden, another 300 nm to the west, and upon arrival there we will see what is in store for the boat.

On a positive note, no pirates! Yet. Or winds greater than 25 knots...

Oh did I mention that the port holes in the forward port cabin (Abhi’s, the Indian Navy guy’s) were stove in and the cabin flooded? Because that happened, and I am now well versed in applying emergency porthole plugs, a minor piece of equipment that while often overlooked, can for damn sure come in handy.

11 January 2009

A beginning in sight

We have finally received our last crew member, Lt. Cmdr Tomy from the Indian Navy, and are departing on the morning of the 13th for a 600 nm leg through the Gulf of Aden, trying to dodge pirates, ending up in Aden, Yemen. Seeing as our original departure date was about one month ago, and I have been here for almost six weeks, I am looking forward to getting out onto the seas again, pirates or no.

Tomy seems to be a good guy, and will likely prove to be a worthy addition to the crew. He recently spent some months in Cochin, India, working as a shoreside manager for one of the Volvo Ocean Race boats. He has the shoes to prove it to, red Pumas with the race logo imprinted on the inner sole. As for his skills as a sailor, I am both hopeful and skeptical: He worked alongside some pretty impressive projects and has some dinghy experience, but he was worried about not having sailing gloves. We’ll see.

Short update, feeling uninspired and stagnant. Look for something interesting around the 20th, perhaps.