This is Part 2 of the story of our dives on the wreck of the Egyptian ferryboat, the Salem Express. In the previous post, we mentioned that the Salem Express sank outside the port of Safaga in December of 1991. We got to dive on it in July of 1992, not quite seven months after it sank. It was the 'freshest' wreck we'd ever seen underwater.
We didn't plan to dive on that wreck, but by a peculiar turn of events, that's where we ended up. We had set out on what should have been a week-long expedition to The Brothers Islands, 67 km off the coast of Egypt. On the third day of the trip we encountered some very rough weather, and that triggered a cascade of events that cut short our time at The Brothers, but ended up affording us the chance to dive on the Salem Express.
At that time, very few safari boats (as they are called in Egypt) made the long trip to the remote Brothers Islands, and those that did go there tended to be booked more than a year in advance. We had been trying to find space on one for several years, with no luck.
When we finally did get to go it was on quite short notice. A friend in Egypt told us that a dive club there had chartered a boat for a trip to The Brothers, and that he heard they had two empty spaces. The departure date was barely two weeks away, but we contacted the group that had chartered the boat, and asked if we could join them. They agreed. It was a scramble to arrange time off from work, and get ourselves and all of our gear to Egypt in time to join the expedition, but fueled by excitement, we made it.
Our delight at the chance to go to The Brothers was tempered when we first boarded the vessel that would take us there. In polite terms, it was a tub! Its steel hull and decks were covered with peeling white paint and quite a lot of rust. The cabins were minuscule and musty, with soggy mattresses on the bunks, and no bedsheets or pillows. There was just one lavatory on the vessel, but I won't describe what it looked like -- or how it smelled.
Given the state of the accommodations belowdecks, everyone on board -- crew and passengers alike -- ended up sleeping on the open upper decks each night. Had we known ahead of time, we all could have brought sleeping bags. Instead we used beach towels as blankets, and dive vests as pillows, and slept lined up in a row on the floor of the sun deck.
The one good feature of this operation was the boat's cook, who was superb. He produced wonderful, hearty food, and plenty of it. He even cooked homemade soup for us each day. The good food helped to make up for the lack of other amenities.
The other 10 divers on this trip were all members of a club, so they knew one another. They were a friendly bunch -- an assortment of British, Swedish, Swiss and American ex-pats living in Egypt. Four were dive instructors, and two more were dive guides who worked in Sharm el Sheikh (on a sort of busman's holiday). In sum, all were very experienced divers, and all 'old hands' at Red Sea diving, although save for one, none had ever been to The Brothers.
Off we went, heading south along the Egyptian Red Sea coast for the first day, stopping at three reefs along the way for dives. Some time after dinner we got underway for the overnight cruise to The Brothers. Our boat had no navigation equipment save for a compass and the experience of the skipper. From a certain point along the coast, he set his heading due east, and steered on a straight course through the night. Just before dawn we spotted the beam from the lighthouse on Big Brother island. We had made it! (The first photo, above, shows our skipper at the helm as we approached Big Brother.)
On the evening of our second day at the tiny remote islands, we were tied up at the rickety wooden dock near the lighthouse on Big Brother -- that's it in the photo at right. Out of nowhere, it seemed, the wind came up and the sea frothed around us. We all took shelter in the vessel's dining room, hoping the squall would soon pass. It didn't.
We were pounded by the fierce weather all night long, and the boat alternated between clanging against the dock and then straining at its mooring lines as it was tossed in the opposing direction by rolling seas. Eventually a mooring line snapped, and a moment later the second one broke as well. The crew started the engines in a panic, and in an instant we shoved off and the skipper edged the boat offshore, away from the dock. We spent what was left of the night bobbing in heavy seas, well enough offshore to avoid being swept onto the shallow reefs that surrounded the islands.
When morning came the skipper told us the worst news: He had no spare mooring lines. We would have to leave and head back to the coast of Egypt. Once there he could send a deck hand ashore in a dinghy to fetch new lines, but by then it would be too late to come all the way back to The Brothers. We would be making no more dives there this trip.
The divers were incredulous and angry. We all felt like we had been duped, and there was much arguing and loud talk of mutiny. But the skipper was adamant: We had to head back to the coast for safety, and since it was an eight hour trip even in good weather, we had to get underway immediately so we could reach a harbor on the coast before nightfall.
The voyage back to the coast was brutal. We began the trip in the dining room, but the smell of diesel fumes there made everyone feel ill. So, despite the weather, we all moved to the open sun deck, clinging to anything stationary so we wouldn't be tossed overboard by the violent motion of the boat as it plowed through heavy seas. It was a miserable scene.
At one point our dear cook appeared and told us it was far too rough to cook, but that he had fixed us a cold lunch! His offering was a colorful array of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers nicely arranged on a plastic cafeteria-style tray. In the center of the tray was a heap of canned tuna. He set down the tray on the floor of the sun deck, and those of us who were not already too seasick to eat skittered over to it. The boat was pitching so much that we had to move toward it on our hands and knees, like a bunch of scavenger crabs converging on a carcass.
It was a turning point, that lunch. With our bellies full, the mood lifted, and then so did the weather. The sun came out, the size of the swells diminished, and our skipper came to the sullen divers on the sun deck with a new proposal. He said he understood how disappointed we were, but that he had an idea for something that might be a good alternative adventure for us. He told us he knew exactly where the wreck of the Salem Express was, and he offered to take us there to dive on it, even though it was technically illegal to do so at that time.
We could hardly believe it. We all knew of the wreck, but in 1992 it was still a forbidden dive: the wreck was still too fresh. We conferred quickly amongst ourselves and decided that, legal or not, it was too enticing an opportunity to pass up. We told the skipper to take us to our consolation prize.
Next -- our first dive on the Salem Express.
Here are the links to all five parts of this story:
Part 1: What a wreck!
Part 2: A dream trip, a storm, a mutiny, and a consolation prize
Part 3: Ninja divers: First dive on the Salem Express
Part 4: Inside the wreck of the Salem Express
Part 5: The Salem Express wreck -- A human tragedy