A journey to the Middle East, passing through the Suez Canal

by Ollie

19 November 2013, somewhere in the Persian Gulf

Malta turned out to be a very welcome break from all the rolling and pitching during the journey. We stopped there for two and a half days.

Although we didn’t really have a lot of time for sight seeing, we were busy enough with getting stores and fuel on board and making some small repairs and preparing the ship for installing the anti-piracy measures, it was great to feel solid land under the hooves again.

In the evenings at least we had some time to go ashore and check out some of the local bars and restaurants and enjoy the local beer.
The local people didn’t seem very chatty, maybe they’ve gotten a bit sick of tourists, who knows. Or they sussed out we were sailors and have been told from a young age to ‘stay well clear of that maritime scum’. I’d say that’s the more likely scenario, I hadn’t shaved for 2 weeks after all.

Valletta is a beautiful historic old town. Lovely sandstone buildings, fortresses and quaint little churches within the old city walls. Combined with gentle sea breezes and balmy temperatures we were very much enjoying this last bit of Europe on our voyage.

From Valletta it was about 4 days sailing to Port Said, that’s where the entrance of the Suez Canal is on the Mediterranean side. From Malta we would sail alongside Artemis. Those 4 days were blissfully uneventful, smooth seas and great weather. During the day we would be joined by the dolphins again and during the night fluorescent algae in the water would light up our way, with the stars shining bright over our heads.

When we arrived at Port Said we had to drop anchor and wait for a convoy to be formed, single ships aren’t allowed to transit the canal.The canal is quite narrow which makes it impossible for convoys to pass each other, another reason why we had to wait a good bit. The northbound convoy had to leave the canal first before our convoy could enter.

While we were waiting we had to fill in a massive pile of forms for all kinds of authorities demanding information from us about the ship and crew and ‘What the feck is your business in the beautiful Arab Republic of Egypt anyway??’ You would think they’d be happy to know we were trying to get out of it as fast as possible, but somehow the Egyptians we had to deal with didn’t strike me as very happy, well most of them anyway.

The chief officer was on watch when the convoy finally started sailing around midnight, so he had the pleasure of getting acquainted with the pilot and his entourage first. Not only did we get a pilot on board, we also had to accommodate an electrician, who came on board to install a special Suez Canal search light, which was never actually installed because we already have two perfectly working searchlights of the exact same type on board. Your man stayed on board for the duration of the canal transit anyway. Halfway along the canal another electrician was brought on board to see whether the non-installed searchlight was working properly. This man, for obvious reasons, only stayed for two minutes.

We also received two lines-men on board, who stayed for the duration of the canal transit. They brought with them a little dingy which was put on our deck. If, in case of an emergency, we had to go alongside somewhere, these lads would use their dingy to bring our mooring ropes to a bollard. This would make sense if we were sailing a big container ship or a bulk carrier, but for a small and highly manoeuvrable tugboat that seems a bit over the top. The dingy, or their services for that matter, were not used during the transit. Those are the rules of the Suez Canal though.

We had already been sailing for a few hours when I woke up to get ready for my watch. When I stepped out of my cabin it was like stepping into a souvenir shop. The floor of the hallway was covered in trinkets, which were put there by the electrician and the lines-men. They were trying to sell the stuff and make a few extra bob. None of the crew were interested in buying any however, because what they had to offer was rubbish basically. They also weren’t trying very hard to sell their stuff. The lot of them were sound asleep in the messroom.

When I got to the bridge I introduced myself to the pilot. Now, a pilot is an important person when you arrive at an unknown port, or in this case the Suez Canal. This person will have extensive knowledge of the local area and is able to communicate in his or her own language with shore stations and other vessels. That way they are able to advise the captain on the safest way to navigate.

On the Suez Canal though, the pilot’s will is law basically. If you decide to ignore their ‘advice’ they will just let the ship wait on the anchorage, and in the shipping business time = money, so you don’t really want that to happen. Of course if an accident happens, the pilot, who after all is only an adviser, will be the first person to get off the ship and deny anything ever happened. Whereas the captain is fully responsible and therefore totally f____d.

So now you can appreciate that, when I came on watch to find the visibility reduced to about 2 meters by fog and the canal covered in little fishing boats, I was getting a little bit nervous. A few hours after sunrise though, the sun burnt off the mist and the density of fishing boats was getting less. I could relax again.

After eight hours of sailing the pilot was relieved by a fresh colleague of his. The pilot boat came alongside to bring the new pilot and pick up the other man. Before he left though, I signed a paper for him and shook his hand after which he smiled and asked me “So captain, do you have a present for me?”

Now, before we reached the canal I had been told by several people that if you want to make the canal transit as smooth as possible you have to pay the pilots off with cigarettes because they love to smoke, so in Malta we had some cigarettes delivered with the provisions for this purpose.

I handed your man a carton of Marlboro and his smile instantly vanished.
“Captain, this is a very bad present.”
Excuse me??
“Why do you give me only one carton, can you not give me two?”
I explained to him that he seemed a decent man, which is why I personally bought this present for him. Why was he insulting me by rejecting it? After this his smile returned.
“Thank you very much captain, goodbye.”

This ritual was to repeat itself two more times, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to bullshit my way out of it so lightly on those occasions. It cost a good deal more cigarettes and a pile of food to get rid of the other two pilots. If you don’t give them what they want they will do everything to delay the transit of the ship again. Of course the company paid for all of this, but it shouldn’t have to. I can understand if it were average poor Egyptians trying to get as much out of it as possible, but these men have very well paid jobs. Yet still it’s not enough.

I heard from my colleagues on the Artemis that one of the pilots picked up a camera that one of the crew members had left unattended for a while, put the strap around his neck and casually tried walking off the bridge with it. Unbelievable, absolutely no shame. Fortunately the lads were able to stop him before he got off the bridge.

After two thirds of the transit, the lines-men and the electrician overstayed their welcome in our messroom when they tried to steal food. They were asked, not too politely, to move their arses and trinkets out to deck where they spent the remainder of the transit.

The actual canal is rather boring and featureless. Before we arrived there I had pictured it a lot more interesting, exotic even, but it really is just a ditch in the desert. If you’re a big fan of sand you’ll have a great time sailing on the canal though.

On the western side of the canal there are a few towns. Here and there mosques and palm trees are lining the bank and a lot of military are guarding the canal on that side. On the eastern side of the canal there is nothing but open desert. The reason for this is some agreement made between the Egyptians, the Israelis and the Americans in the seventies. 

The last pilot we had on board explained this to us and then happily demanded his present which needed to consist of at least 2 cartons of cigarettes and a shopping bag full of food from our store. The lines-men demanded their cigarettes. The crew of the pilot boat demanded theirs. Finally the crew in the control tower didn’t want to be left out either. The Suez Canal people are an annoying bunch indeed.

When we finally passed Suez and left the canal we had gained an experience, but lost an illusion, a big pile of food and about ten cartons of Marlboro. Hence the mariners nickname for the canal, ‘the Marlboro canal’.

We made the transit without a scratch though and we were now in the Red Sea, ready for the next stage in the journey: 

The pirate infested waters off the Horn of Africa.

1 comment:

  1. goed op zijn nummer gezet die inhalige pilot ,had niet meer bijgekomen van het lachen als ik er bij geweest was