Musandam, lying south of the Straits of Hormuz in the Sultanate of Oman, is known affectionately as the Arabian Fjords. There, steep glacial mountains plunge into crystal-clear water hundreds of feet deep, and numerous long, broad channels push some 10 miles inland from the Arabian Gulf. It’s a remote area, accessible only by boat, with the few visible signs of human habitation clinging to narrow foreshores.
It was therefore with some excitement that my wife, Judi, the co-owner of my boat, Asli Plail, and I planned a spring cruise on Rahala (Arabic for Voyager), our Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 36i. As we obtained the necessary sailing permit from the Omani embassy in our home port of Dubai, we planned our departure for the third week of March, when we anticipated pleasant temperate spring weather before the summer heat set in. Little did we know that our timetable would coincide with a low-pressure system moving down the Arabian Gulf from the cooler, winter climates of Syria and Iraq.
After a pleasant two-day sail to get to Musandam, we enjoyed three days of watching dolphins, cruising the channels and relaxing. On our final night before heading for home, we anchored toward the end of the wide Kawr Nafizi channel opposite one of the larger shoreline villages and just a few miles from the Arabian Gulf. This would give us an easy exit the next morning.
Rather than anchoring in the middle of the channel, exposed to the elements and in the way of traffic, I picked a spot with some limited shelter not far from a small rocky outcrop and dropped our Danforth anchor and all 80ft of chain and around 20ft of rope over the side, giving us a scope of a little over 5:1.
We had been keeping an eye on the forecast, and it seemed we would have a couple of days to make the two-day sail south to Dubai before the weather deteriorated. The general forecast for the next two days was relatively calm, with 6-10 knot winds. We planned an early start the next morning, but in the meantime looked forward to enjoying our last night and the rugged scenery around us.
While relaxing at anchor, we chatted with a couple of villagers who came alongside in their fishing skiffs. Later, we savored our supper in the cockpit watching as darkness closed in and the stars grew brighter, tying our bimini back to better enjoy the night sky.
The first sign of anything untoward happening came a little after 2000 when lightning began to flash over the mountains and out to sea. Had we known the area better, we would have recognized this as a warning.
At around 2045 the wind started to pick up, and we quickly started to clear away the remnants of dinner. Before the job could be completed, however, a blast of hurricane-force wind hurtled down the channel, hitting us from astern. Accelerated and rotated by the mountains alongside the channel, the katabatic wind screamed like a banshee.
Tethered by her anchor, Rahala held her position for a few seconds. But then, without warning, she heeled to starboard at a frightening angle and whipped around on the complete length of the anchor rode. Such was the speed that Judi had to cling to the backstay and bimini frame to avoid being flung out of the boat. Later she would describe the experience as being like that of a fairground ride. So powerful was the gale that the life ring on the stern was sucked off its bracket and up into the air before Judi could get her arm through it and manhandle it back on board. Down in the galley, Asli had also been caught off guard by the violent heeling and thrown onto the cabin sole.
As all this was going on I jumped down the companionway and turned on the engine in the hope that I could get us out of trouble. Within the few seconds this took, the boat had swung well over 180 degrees and was heeled at an angle where I had to climb up the side of the companionway steps to get back to the cockpit.
Strained by the tremendous wind and weight of the boat, the anchor rode was now stretched to its maximum. Luckily, the anchor held fast, and facing into the wind but still heeled over, the boat swung to a halt in the sandy shallows at the end of the channel, where we ran out of water. Eventually, we came to rest almost facing the direction from which we had come, lying on our starboard side with the sea lapping about a foot below the toerail. As it was, the anchor and shallows had stopped us about 60ft from the rocky walls at the head of the channel.
With the keel digging into the sandy shallows and the anchor rode straining, we weren’t going to go anywhere fast, so we had time to assess our situation and everyone started making useful suggestions. As we were shorthanded and one of us wasn’t a strong swimmer, a call to the Oman coast guard seemed appropriate. Asli made the call as we thought whoever was on watch there might respond more urgently to a female voice.
The telephone number for the Omani coast guard command center was clearly provided on the front of our sailing permit, and to our relief, the call was answered quickly. The responding officer spoke perfect English and was calm and professional. We provided our local position and GPS coordinates and were promised a response soon.
In case our situation worsened and we had to abandon Rahala, we launched our dinghy from the bow and tethered it to the stern. I knew we were not at high tide, which would be to our benefit, but I wasn’t sure of the state of the tide.
Anticipating an insurance claim, I took a few photographs of our instruments to record our position and situation. We also performed a thorough inspection of the boat inside and out and were happy to see that everything appeared to be intact and that the bilges were dry.
After the initial katabatic blast, the wind quickly subsided to little more than 10 knots. However, I was sure it was going to return. With the promised response from the coast guard, reduced wind and calmer crew, we made ourselves busy attempting to refloat the boat by swinging precariously on the boom and hanging over the lifelines, without success.
As the tide started to rise and the boat began to come upright, we even had time to finally wash the dishes from dinner. Around 2230 searchlights started to play high on the sides of the mountain on the far side of the bay, above Nafizi village. Launches from the Royal Oman Navy and coast guard soon came alongside, much to our relief.
The officer in charge quickly assessed our situation and came to the conclusion that we were not in immediate danger. He then explained that he had some other more pressing emergencies to attend to and that high tide would be at midnight, at which time they would return.
After that, we spent another hour or so trying to refloat Rahala, until around midnight, when another Royal Oman coast guard launch arrived under the command of a skipper who introduced himself as Hassan. Only slightly heeled at this point, we tied onto the coast guard boat and before we knew it, we realized Rahala and the launch were bobbing at the same rate. We were free!
It was now approaching 0200, and we were delighted to host the coast guard crew for tea and chocolate biscuits on board Rahala. With their help, we moved the boat to deeper water, where we reset our anchor.
A couple of hours after that, there was another blast of katabatic wind. This time, however, we were fully prepared and had been sharing anchor watch. Still, as the wind howled down the channel, we knew none of us would get any more sleep that night. As the water level dropped, the wind strained the chain and rope again, pushing us toward the shallows. We, therefore, decided to seek respite in the wider, main Musandam channel and motored some eight miles back to the farthest, inland end where we had safely spent the last three days. For the third time that night we anchored and tried to get some rest.
Soon afterward, yet another coast guard launch pulled alongside and asked us to make our way to Khasab Harbour, the small sea port at the entrance of Musandam, as the predicted storm meant it would be too rough to attempt our passage to Dubai for another 24 hours.
A few days after that we hauled Rahala in Dubai in order to have an expert survey performed. There was no damage aside from a little missing bottom paint.
A katabatic wind, from the Greek word katabasis, meaning “descending,” is the technical name for a drainage wind, a wind that carries high-density air from a higher elevation down over a geographic feature such as hills or mountains. Katabatic winds build speed and can reach hurricane force as they rush down elevated slopes. In the case of Musandam, they are further condensed and accelerated as they blow down funnel-shaped channels, enclosed on three sides by steep-sided mountains. Because of their unannounced approach and their intensity, katabatic winds can easily catch out crews of anchored boats.
What we learned
• Keep your communication tools—phones, handheld VHF radios—fully charged at all times
•Keep contact details for key sailing authorities handy for the areas you are sailing
• Keep the relevant tide tables to hand during any passage, and study them so you know the state of tide at all times
If you’re anchoring in areas prone to strong or katabatic winds, leave a wide swing zone so you won’t be driven into shallow water
• Make sure you heed weather forecasts and warnings
• And,—easier said than done, stay calm.
Barry Gray moved to Dubai with his family in 1981.He, his wife, Judi, and Asli sail their Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 36 out of the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club