What were the pyramids like then Asked this question by colleagues every time I return from Egypt, I always have to admit that I am a diving Philistine and that I saw very little of the country except desert, harbours and isolated villages. On my last visit, though, I didnt even get to see that much! From about two hours after our plane landed until two hours before it took off, one week later, our feet did not touch Egyptian soil. I had experimented with liveaboard diving Red Sea style.
On previous holidays in the region, I had chosen shore-based safaris or daily dive boat trips. These options make the money go further ... but offer less intensive diving. On this occasion, with time away at a premium, a week on a liveaboard seemed very attractive. The boat I opted for was SY Stressbreaker, a 62ft clipper ketch that runs out of Hurghada.
As well as liking the idea of living on a sailing boat, the factor that really swayed me was that at Easter time, when I was committed to travel, the Stressbreaker was due to spend its week concentrating on diving wrecks in the Gubal Straits, interspersed with dives on reefs and coral pinnacles. The Straits lie between the various islands off Hurghada and the Sinai, forming the most southerly part of the Gulf of Suez before it joins the main body of the Red Sea. Tantalised by those wonderful photographs of entire wrecks sitting in crystal clear water, I felt it was an area I had ignored for too long. The maximum number of guest divers on the Stressbreaker is eight - fewer than for many boats. They are accommodated in four cabins. These are surprisingly comfortable, though with limited space in the cabin it obviously makes sense to travel as light as possible. When youre either underwater or on a boat for an entire holiday, how much do you need anyway I believe most skippers now refrain from asking their guests to dress for dinner!
The basic arrangements on the boat are very familiar to anyone who has taken a liveaboard holiday in British waters. However, unlike British boats that tend to come into harbour every night, the Stressbreaker merely anchors in the lee of a convenient island or reef. Without easy access to seaside chip shops and pubs, the quality of the boats communal living quarters and, even more crucially, its food assume great importance. In my experience food on a liveaboard is excellent in both quality and quantity; and this was some of the best Ive encountered at sea.
Given the fact that the Stressbreaker is a sailing boat, the topside space for general sunbathing and relaxation is impressive. This area tended to be used most for breakfast and for consuming beers at sunset, thought. Even at Easter, the midday sun gets much too fierce for pale British skins emerging from a long winter. The lounge was therefore used a great deal, and had plenty of space for camera maintenance and reloading - my main activity between dives.
The diving was superb. After a day of easy reef diving on the Hurghada side of the Straits, we began the wreck diving. Over on the far side of the straits, we headed for the now famous wreck of the Thistlegorm. Three dives on her, based round an overnight stay, gave us plenty of time to explore the holds with their cargo of lorries and motorbikes.
The nearby Sarah H sits almost bolt upright and not only does the huge stern provide excellent views but the deck, lying in only a few metres of water, has formed a coral garden packed with fish. Part of the remaining superstructure seems to constitute a fish cleaning station and we were treated to the view of a large grouper getting the full works from a busy cleaner wrasse. A quite stunning sequence of wreck dives then followed, starting with the Dunraven, which lies east of the Thistlegorm and Sarah H, still on the Sinai side of the Straits. The hull of the Dunraven, a steam and sail vessel sunk in 1876, is fairly intact but as it lies upside-down most of the contents have fallen to the sea floor leaving large cavities. These have now become home to shoals of glassfish which swirl in your lights like a wonderfully pulsating, almost ghost-like, body. The sequence continued the following day, the last of our trip, with diving that best illustrated the advantages of this type of holiday. Having re-crossed the Straits back to the Hurghada side, we anchored off the notorious Shaab Abu Nuhas reef. This reef extends into the shipping channel and is positioned at such an angle that a ship only needs to be slightly off course to sail on to it. It is a veritable ships graveyard, with at least three large wrecks lying at its base over a stretch of only a few hundred yards. One can imagine only too well a distracted or storm-battered skipper being unaware of impending doom right up to the moment that the bottom is torn out of his ship.
We dived all three wrecks that day, making each journey from our sheltered anchorage by RIB - a ride of just a few minutes on each occasion. Each wreck has its own character. The Greek cargo ship Giannis D is the youngest, sunk in 1983, and the bridge section is quite intact. Corals have started to colonise the rails, masts and derricks, and the fish life is prolific. The Carnatic was an elegant mail ship wrecked in 1869. With the decks remaining only in skeleton form, her structure is very open. Numerous angel fish weave their way between the decking ribs encrusted with colourful corals, while shoals of glassfish can be seen swirling in the stern cavity. The Chrisoula K is the largest of the three and, though seemingly home to less life than the others, she remains an impressive spectacle in such clear water.
This sort of immediate access to a variety of dive sites is really only available on a liveaboard; and with none of the constraints of a day boat - which needs to return to port at the end of each day. This means, of course, that you can stay well away from the diver congestion that is becoming an all too real problem in some areas of the Red Sea. We only saw other dive boats on the Thistlegorm and Sarah H, remaining in splendid isolation for the rest of our voyage. Shore-based safaris have their devotees, including me, because of the overall experience they offer. I have to admit, though, that the diving off Stressbreaker was the most spectacular I have encountered in the Red Sea. Better visibility is generally encountered offshore as well.
Although we never touched land, we were often near enough to the Sinai mountains to appreciate their stark beauty, particularly near dawn or sunset when they appear very reddish in colour. The procession of ships, some of them huge, passing to or from the Suez canal also made for some impressive sights.
It is the diving that stays in the memory, however. Those wrecks alive with fish and corals in such clear water persuaded me that, for an intensive diving experience, a Red Sea liveaboard is hard to beat.
- Paul Naylors week aboard Stressbreaker was booked through Oonasdivers (tel. 01323-648924). It cost£830 including flights.