“It seemed a very long day confined to our room. Still no hot water. We couldn’t shower; it was too cold. We waited for someone to come and question us. Nobody did. Our imaginations ran riot. Why were they keeping us?”
Peter and Shirley Billing on board Clypeus, their Endurance 35, entered the Red Sea with excitement and trepidation. What would the marsas, the strong winds of the area, be like? Would they encounter dust storms, heavy shipping, pirates? They had been told to expect some of the clearest waters in the world with abundant corals, sea life, and lonely shores . . . a final taste of tropical seas before their return to the cooler waters of the north.
After fighting hot, strong headwinds off the coast of Eritrea, Clypeus and her crew anchored for some much-needed rest. “A million bright stars twinkled overhead. Hills of white sand and scrub stretched away to the south. The crescent of aquamarine bay was wonderfully quiet. Peace at last!” Shirley’s words on that quiet night stand in sharp contrast to the events of the next few weeks.
On March 19, 1996, on the 13th anniversary of their departure from St. Katharine’s dock, London, to sail around the world, Bill and Shirley were abducted from their yacht at gunpoint and taken ashore for questioning. Transported to Assab then flown under fake identities to Asmara, the Billings were subjected to 18 days of custody. Unable to leave their hotel, they relied on their yachting friends, family, and eventually the English press for their release. Although never formally accused, they understood they were considered to be spies and were being treated as such.
But Red Sea Peril is more than an account of the Billings’ capture and confinement. The tale of their ordeal is bracketed by other, happier reminiscences; from Thailand to Sri Lanka, Maldives to Oman. Wild elephants, monkeys, ancient ruins, and natives in flowing robes walk the pages of this fascinating look into the cultures of the East.
The Red Sea, the legendary “Gate of Tears,” stretches their courage and resourcefulness to unexpected limits. Red Sea Peril is a stirring account, passionate and truthful, of an experience few travelers would wish to find themselves involved in. It is certainly not the usual cruising story, and the cabin discussions it has provoked on our boat are very different from most. We enjoyed the book and don’t hesitate to recommend it to friends.
Red Sea Peril by Shirley Billing (Sheridan House, 2002; 256 pages)