May 16-21, 2007
Pacific Bliss Transits the Suez Canal
by Lois Joy
Wednesday, May 16: Overnight to Port Suez. At 0800, the dock boys show up as promised to release our lines from the mooring ball at Abu Tig Marina. We wave good-by to friends and we are underway again, winding through the entry channel reefs. It is wonderful to be at sea again. Our friends Michele and Joe of MiGitana (www.migitana.com) are on board Pacific Bliss. After one month in Egypt, we are all ready for a new country, a new adventure.
We ease into a pleasant day, motoring along on rippled seas, past sandy reefs already thick with dive boats. Before long, our view changes to oil wells and drilling platforms. We are into the oil-rich Gulf of Suez. After lunch, we are heading north, along the western side of the shipping channel, searching for a likely spot to cross over. Three tankers pass by and then Gunter finds a good opening and goes for it, both engines roaring. We cross at right angles in a five-knot westerly. It takes us only 45 minutes to reach the far right (starboard) side of the traffic heading north to the Suez Canal. Small yachts are advised to stay to the far right, but inside of the shipping lanes, since there are low-lying oil wells quite close to the outside. As darkness falls, we are still motoring along in a 6-knot breeze. The view is stunning as oil wells and freighters pass in front of the sun in silhouette.
Gulf of Suez
The night watches are busy. Numerous tankers and container ships pass us on our port as we watch for the flames and lights of oilfields to our starboard. It gets a little tricky when the ships have passed us and we have to differentiate their white stern lights forward of our bow from the white lights of the oil drilling rigs. Just today, we read in a Seven Seas publication about a cruiser ripping off part of his hull hitting an unlit oil well right here in the Gulf of Suez. Into our seventh year of cruising, there are still new challenges to overcome!
Thursday, May 17: Arriving in Port Suez. Off watch, I wake from a dead sleep to go to our head in the forward part of the hull. I can barely manage to sit down. Pacific Bliss is jumping like a mad colt. Something has changed. Afterwards, I go to the nav station where Gunter is on the dogleg watch, 12-3 AM.
“20 knots true, and more than that apparent,” he grimaces. “On the nose, of course. Ugly. But no ships right now, thank God. And we seem to be past the oil wells.”
I take a look outside, and return quickly to the salon, shivering. “Do you want me to stay up with you for awhile?”
“No. That’s not necessary. Get some sleep.”
I sleep fitfully for the rest of Gunter’s watch and Joe’s 3-6 AM watch. The Red Sea had again lived up to its reputation—flaky and totally unpredictable. I can’t wait to leave it. By early morning—my watch—the wind drops to 12-16 knots and by mid-morning it is down to 6 knots. At 1030, Abdul from Felix Maritime Agency calls our cell phone and gives us a waypoint. It is already on our plotted course, but it is nice to have verification. At 1330, we receive a second call with another waypoint, the entrance to Port Suez. By 1500, we are following the final instructions via VHF Channel 78. A red dinghy meets us at our designated mooring ball. Our agent, Magde, and his boat boy help us attach our bow and stern to mooring buoys that are already attached to other vessels. They come on board to fill out the paperwork for transiting the canal. I repeat the entire process of paperwork, even though I had already faxed it all to them in advance from the marina at Abu Tig.
After the arrival paperwork with Magde is completed, we discuss the schedule for our transit. “Monday,” he says, “because the banks are not open on Friday or Saturday.” I protest vehemently. “I faxed the paperwork in advance because the owner of Felix had already negotiated a Saturday transit.”
“OK. Banks close at 3 P.M. Better hurry up. He sends Kofca back in his dinghy with the paperwork. Kofca calls back. Magde looks up from his cell phone, “Transit OK. Saturday.” We are all smiles. We did not want to spend another day moored here in the heat, swatting the omnipresent Egyptian flies.
Gunter attempts to get a rough idea of the costs for the transit. The agent fee is set at $80. “What might be the SCA fee for our boat?” he asks. They figure the width and the length times 2 to get the volume. “Given your volume,” says Magde, “almost $1000 U.S. total.” Gunter is shocked. “Well, they will deduct the engine room,” says our agent. “How big is that?”
“We have two.”
“Just a minute,” I interrupted. “The big deduction should be the big empty space between the hulls.”
“That’s right,” says Gunter. He draws a diagram for Magde. “This is a stern view.”
“Oh, then it will be much less. You’ll know tomorrow when the admeasurer arrives.”
After he leaves we toast to our arrival: “To the END of the Red Sea. Yeah!” This Sea has been one very tough leg of our circumnavigation. Plus, we are eager be out of Egypt with all its bureaucracy
Our boat boy, actually a 28-year-old Egyptian named Kofca, brings us a dinner from a nearby restaurant of warm pita bread, kofta (lamb-and-beef sausages), and lamb chops. Very nice, since we don’t have the energy to cook on board.
Friday, May 18: Suez Yacht Club
29º56.79 N, 32º34.42 E.
“By the time I get to Suez, she’ll be wakin…” Gunter sings. It is only 0700, but he wants me up. I had already heard a faint, “Lois, sunrise” through my sleepy fog, but I wasn’t ready to rise then. An elderly, weather-beaten man with a silver beard arrives at the swim ladder in his little white rowboat and sells us a bag of baguettes for $1 US. A good accompaniment for my morning coffee. Gradually, I feel my energy returning. But poor Pacific Bliss has really been through the mill! Her topsides smell of diesel and all her crevices are crammed with Red Sea sand. Yesterday, Kofca said that we could take on water and wash her down at the service dock before we transit the canal. But cruiser rumor has it that she will get dirtier still transiting the canal. One cruiser reported a sand storm in the canal that left 16 kilograms of sand in their cockpit, (although how they managed to weigh it is a mystery to me).
A HANJIN container ship passes by the little mosque at the entrance and slowly progresses toward the canal. We would see dozens more. “There is no mistaking the route to the canal,” I comment to Gunter as we idle at the cockpit table, having a second cup of coffee. There is only one other sailing yacht moored here, a French catamaran waiting for parts. The rest are powerboats. “Three more sailboats will come today,” says our breadman, who promises to return with bananas, onions, and tomatoes—and even a newspaper. We will spend the day here waiting, since we don’t want to miss the admeasurer.
Per the Red Sea Pilot, the measurement of yachts here is more of an art than a science. There are two parts to the transit fee: a) the SCA (Suez Canal Authority) Tonnage fee, b) the agent’s fee and the usual range of customs, immigration, and ports dues. The SCA fee based on tonnage means the bigger the boat, the bigger the dues. But the formula says that for boats of the same length, those with a beamier and deeper draft pay more. The rules require physical measurement by a certified SCA measurer. It’s all based on the Suez Canal Gross Tonnage (SCGT) formula that was established back in 1888 by the Constantinople International Tonnage Convention. Yep. And it works the same way for yachts as it does for ships. The formula measures internal volume and has nothing at all to do with displacement. Deductions of up to 10% of SCGT are made for crew spaces, engine rooms, etc. The formula is always a point of contention for yachties because it’s a lot more than the GRT (gross tons) on the ship’s papers. Yachts have fin keels that the drafters of Constantinople Convention knew nothing about. How would the SCA relate to a catamaran? we worried. For sure, we had to make sure that the measurer would not include all that empty space between the hulls.
The breadman arrives again. Gunter is in the engine room. I meet the vendor at the swim steps. He takes my hands in his, kisses them, obviously enjoying himself. I purchase the tomatoes, onions and bananas for 10 Egyptian pounds and order potatoes, oranges and carrots at his insistence. He wants smokes. “We don’t smoke,” I answer.
“ Spirits?”“Only beer. I can give you one as a tip when you come back.” He smiles and kisses me on both cheeks.
Soon he returns and we repeat the process. Another Egyptian 10-pound bill leaves my hand.
Joe and Michele breakfast and then we all commence boat chores despite our pledge to take it easy. Joe and Gunter grease a winch that our previous crew had evidently missed; Michele and I use the sea water pump to hose off the worst of the diesel spills and red sea sand. I tackle some bugs that somehow came on board at Abu Tig, cleaning out the pantry until I find the culprit—a bag of wild rice.
After showers on board and a pensioner’s nap, we proceed into sundowners, listening to Jimmy Buffet from the iPOD run through the speakers. Life isn’t all that bad at a Port Suez mooring! We grill California-style hamburgers for dinner, making use of our fresh tomatoes and onions. The full-length Friday prayers have been broadcast at noon from two mosques not all that far apart. One mosque—with a newer style minaret—sits on the corner near the entrance to the canal; an older one is located within the town of Port Suez. The competing mosques produce a grating mishmash of sounds. We barely fit in our nap before the first muezzin call of the evening begins at 1630. It is followed by yet another at sundown. There are five calls per day, but with the two of them slightly apart, there are ten.
Saturday, May 19: The Waiting Game. We sleep in until 0800, then segue into a leisurely breakfast of melon filled with yogurt and a dash of honey. The breadman shows up with two Egyptian newspapers in English—a daily and a weekly. Kofca passes on rumors that a warship is coming through and that we will not be transiting the canal today. The red dinghy of Felix Management is going from yacht to yacht. Caribbean Soul, another catamaran, arrived last night and Faith arrived early this morning. Around mid-morning, Magde boards Pacific Bliss. “Unless you have some special pull with your president, George Bush,” he says, “you won’t be going through today. A U.S. and British warship are coming through this afternoon.” It this just an excuse to process the newly arrived boats along with us, to form a convenient convoy, we wonder.
Kofca takes us to shore in his little red boat, where we check our emails in the Felix office. It is too hot to walk around the town. Upon returning, I take a photo of the little balcony over the water that is called the Suez Yacht Club. I am reminded of how I had been looking forward—during our Voyage One—to arrive at the Panama International Yacht Club (see story Pacific Bliss Transits The Big Ditch) and what a disappointment that had been, anchoring in a hell-hole called “the Flats.” By now, I’ve learned to have no expectations when it comes to “Yacht Clubs.” At any rate, transiting the Suez would be a piece of cake compared to the Panama; there are no locks, thus no need for line-handlers and a pilot comes on board to steer through a plain, straight cut through desert terrain.
By 1630, we are back on Pacific Bliss, but no warships come past. The competing mosques are blaring again. The harbormaster comes on board to check for safety equipment—fire extinguishers (when last certified), life preservers, throw-away cushions, etc. Strangely, he does not ask for baksheesh and declines the soft drink offered. Two Maersk Line container ships pass by, followed by a huge oil tanker. A southeast wind of 16 knots blows the diesel fumes our way. Where was that south wind when we needed it? We would have given a good portion of our ships stores to have a south wind blowing us up the Red Sea!
Sunday, May 20: Is Today the Day? At 0730, Gunter shakes me gently. “A warship is coming through.” Poised for action, I jump out of my bunk. Today might just be the day! An inconspicuous gray hulk passes silently by, without a flag. It doesn’t look like a coalition ship, much too plain and small. But hope springs eternal… Perhaps it was the ship they were talking about, perhaps the story of the coalition ships was just a ruse, but as long as we are going today, we don’t care.
The breadman comes with our daily supply of long, thin pita-like flatbread and two dailies, The Egyptian Gazette and the Saudi Gazette. I devour the editorials along with my coffee and bread. I find it interesting to read the Arab viewpoint on world events. Somewhere, usually toward the end of an editorial, the writer will bring up that whatever the problem is, it is the fault of the United States and Israel—an obligatory comment to please the editors? Here’s an example of this: The head says: 2006 the worst for Arab Press Freedom—Report. By Saad Mahmoud, Staff Reporter:
“Violations of press freedom in Egypt were up in 2006—a year considered the
worst for press freedom in the Arab world, according to the second annual report
that was published here yesterday by the Federation of Arab Journalists (FAJ) in
Cairo. Egypt ranked 12th out of 19 Arab countries covered by the report. The FAJ
report blames the U.S. and Israeli occupation for many violations of press freedom
in the Arab world and for the deaths of Arab journalists in 2006…In 17 of the 19 countries covered by the report, restrictions on the freedom of Arab journalists include laws allowing imprisonment. The curbs include also blocking information, fines, summons by security forces, and dismissal.” Egyptian Gazette, May 18
The kidnap of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston in Gaza was given as an example of violation of journalists rights. Exactly how this might be the fault of the U.S. and Israel is unclear, but by now we are familiar with “Arab Logic.” It reminds us of the “debates” with our guide during the Nile River Cruise. I marvel at how many Arabs are able to hold two opposing viewpoints at the same time and steadfastly believe in both. And so the time passes, as we continue to wait.
Finally, at 1200 there is some action. Magde comes by with our clearance papers. We pay our fees—a total of $428 U.S. including the $80 agent fee. “I understand that you offered the admeasurer $20 US to lower the tonnage,” he says, nodding approvingly toward Gunter for learning to play the game. “The admeasurer gave you a low tonnage of 38.”
Kofca comes by for his final tip. A pilot comes aboard the London-based luxury yacht and they release their lines from our shared stern mooring buoy. They leave, followed by Faith, Pathfinder (a small monohull) and Caribbean Soul, who has Prince of the Red Sea as their agent. We are next. Our pilot, Sayed, is delivered on board. I’ve already given him his first Pepsi. We release our lines. We are underway—along with a zillion flies we’ve picked up as the sun beats down. The flies dash around frantically. Michele and Gunter take up fly swatter duty, hoping to reduce the population as we motor through the canal. But the more they kill, the more seem to appear—armies of them. After all, this may be the Suez Canal, but we are still in Africa.
By 1300, our pilot is off duty, and Joe and Gunter take the helm. The temperature has risen to 40º C (about 100 º F); as the sun blazes down with less than 7 knots from the north. I heat up the leftover lamb chops, kebabs, and flatbread from last night’s dinner (again delivered from the Restaurant).
“Egyptian?” asks Sayed. It is the first and only smile I see from this man. He is obviously pleased. Later, I prepare sandwiches for the rest of the crew; then we take turns going below to rest. But the flies do not rest. They continue to aggravate us until finally, at 1700, the wind increases to 15-18 knots from the north and drives most of them away. Now, the canal becomes choppy, with whitecaps, and the air turns chilly. We pass through Great Bitter Lake (see map). With buoys every 1000 feet or so, there is no danger of losing one’s way. The shoreline recedes again to the same sandy banks interspersed with guard stations. The Egyptian soldiers stand there in full army fatigues and high boots under the hot sun and blowing sand, waving as we pass. Every so often, there is a tent for shelter. One cannot miss the fortifications. Pontoons with engines have been placed every so often. These engines can be used to push the pontoons into place for an easy crossing of the canal.
The four of us discuss the history of the Canal. During the 1973 Yom Kipper War, Egypt made a surprise attack on the Israelis.With the canal shut down since the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israelis crossed the Canal via pontoons, came up behind the Egyptian line, and cut off their provisioning and armaments supply.
“The combined Israeli, British, and French forces were ready to overtake Cairo when the U.S. intervened,” said Joe.
“That’s why Ali, in our Nile River Cruise debates, said that he liked three American presidents. I remember that conversation,” said Gunter. “He liked Eisenhower, because he stopped the Israelis, Brits and French from defeating Egypt and taking over the Canal; he liked Carter because of the Camp David accords, in which Israel gave back the Sinai and Egypt agreed to recognize Israel. That peace treaty still exists. And he liked Clinton because at least he tried to re-ignite the peace process.”
“I remember reading about these wars in a book we bought after our visit to Israel during the mid-nineties,” I said. “The Arab-Israeli Wars, by Herzog. We brought it back with us.” Now that we are seeing this area of the world first-hand, I vow to re-read it after we return home.
The wind increases to 20-25 knots from the north; the weather turns ugly. We are happy that we do not have far to go. Sayed is mostly at the helm now, taking the brunt of the wind. We begin to meet ships going the other way. I call for the Ismailia Yacht Club on Channel 8, as directed in the Red Sea Pilot. They don’t answer. Helmut on Snowgoose finally answers me. “They won’t answer, or do much of anything. How many are you.?”
“I’ll get into my dinghy and help you all. We’ll tie up each in turn, bow to the buoy and stern to the dock.” I give him the names of the other yachts and the order we are in.
We arrive at 1900, the sun low on the horizon. As we close toward the harbor, the tall buildings of the town protect us as the wind decreases to an acceptable 9 knots. That level of windage we can handle during the med-mooring process. Richard of Moonshadow is on the dock to help us tie up. Soon we have our boarding gangplank out of the locker and assembled. Gunter is giving Sayed his final baksheesh, a U.S. $20 bill, as recommended by Felix. I had already given Sayed water, two Pepsis, a nice lunch, a piece of cake, a Pacific Bliss cap, and a pack of cigarettes. When he was off-watch—every other hour—he tended to roam around the salon to see what more he could ask for. His eyes lit on a set of stoneware coffee mugs painted with lighthouses and ships. He had the nerve to ask for those. “NO, absolutely NOT,” I answered him. “These are a gift from Gunter’s deceased mother.”
He backed off. But one-half hour before our arrival here, he approached Gunter: “Now it is time to talk about presents…”
“No.” Gunter cut him off. “Only when we arrive and your job is done.” He wanted to cut the negotiation time short.
After Gunter hands him the $20, Sayed starts on me again. He points to the bag of pretzels and snacks in the gallery. “This bag, for me.”
“No. These are snacks for us.”
“No. I only have one more. For the pilot tomorrow. We do not smoke.”
Then he pulls a U.S. $1 out of his pocket. “Change”
“You want change for a $1 bill”
“No, you have more dollars like this?”
“Enough. Time to leave.” I almost shove him down the gangplank. The interaction leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It is time for me to leave. Egypt, that is.
Greg, skipper of Faith, comes up the gangplank. His once-husky frame is gaunt and drawn after his bout with malaria and pneumonia contracted in Eritrea. Soon his wife Laurie joins us. We gloss over our combined misadventures, as cruisers tend to do, and play up what’s coming next…Israel…the Sea of Galilee…my dream of being baptized in the Jordan River. “That’s the painting we have in our salon, of Jesus calming the sea. We must go there,” says Laurie.
Later, the entire group of cruisers convenes around two plastic tables along the quay, having brought our own libations. Everyone talks a mile a minute, over and under each other, participating in multiple conversations. We order pizzas, then enjoy hot showers, part of the “club” facilities. We never do find out when our next day’s pilot will come on board. By midnight, we are fast asleep.
Monday, May 21: Completing the Canal. At 0530, there is a knock on the hull. “Captain Pacific Bliss! Your pilot is here.” Gunter throws on his shirt and a pair of shorts.
I rush to the cockpit as well. From the windows in the hull, it is still dark. But topsides, the dawn is breaking. Gunter is already checking the engines. He turns toward me. “We leave in half an hour.”
I heat the water for our drip-style press. Michele makes the coffee while I go downstairs to comb my hair and apply lotion to my face. She hands out a ½ mug of coffee to each of us, including our pilot. The coffee is espresso-strong—a downright caffeine infusion. We are excited, despite the early hour. We are finally leaving Egypt!
By 0600, we have quietly dropped the dock lines, Gunter has skillfully maneuvered past the buoys, and we are underway to Port Said and the Med. Our new pilot, Mohammed Ali, (yes, that is his name), seems to have a better disposition than our last one. He smiles and sweetly thanks me for the bottle of cold water as he takes over the helm. He doesn’t say much and dutifully stays at the helm the entire time. We meet tankers and container ships heading south; there is plenty of room, although the canal is technically a one-way. We do not see any other small yachts. For miles, we continue to see nothing but fortified sand dunes along both sides of the canal. But as we approach Port Said, the scene changes to palm trees and electrical poles leading to villages and suburbs nestled behind the dunes. By 1215, we are already in Port Said, greeted by the skyscrapers of a modern city. A multitude of buoys mark the separation scheme.
“We don’t want to dock,” Gunter tells Mohammed, “since we have already checked out of Egypt. Can you have your pilot boat pick you up here in the channel?”
It turns out not to be a problem. Gunter has again delayed the baksheesh issue until close to leaving. I’ve given our pilot the usual lunch, drinks, and snacks, and also a Pacific Bliss cap. A short time before the pilot boat appears, he asks me shyly, “Have you thought about my present?”
“Yes. Gunter will give it to you when you leave.” The pilot boat approaches; Gunter hands him a $20 US bill; I hand Ali a pack of cigarettes. He begins to take his cap off to give it back to me. “No, that’s yours.” He smiles one last time and is off the boat.
It has been a smooth morning, except for a fishing line that caught on our bow. Mohammed handled the issue adroitly, asked for a hook, and picked up the line before it tangled in our propellers.
By 1245, we are in the Med, the sea where it all began. There are high fives all around. Good-by, African flies and Egyptian baksheesh! We will truly celebrate in Israel (see Marinas of the Eastern Med for a continuation of this story).