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Feel Free Transits The Suez Canal

By Feel Free - Published October 04, 2010 - Viewed 1528 times

 

By Tom Morkin

Liz relayed our sail through the Red Sea so now it’s my turn to fill you in on our transit through the Suez Canal.

The Suez Canal is straight as a dart on the chart but its history is long and winding. Way back in the 12th Century BC, Ramses II was the first to try to link the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The link got as far as the Bitter Lakes 600 years later thanks to Darius Hystaspes of Persia. Ptolemy II furthered it to the S end of the lakes in 274 BC. Cleopatra tried but failed to gain access to the Red Sea, so the Romans took over to make improvements but with little success. Then in the 1st Century, a canal finally reached Klusma, now known as Suez

Canal history
All of the early canals began in the Nile delta and cut overland to what is now Ismailia, ½ way along the present day canal. “Until the 19th century this early canal was alternately dredged, neglected or deliberately damaged by opposing potentates.” (Red Sea Pilot, Stephen Davies and Elaine Morgan)

A new and more direct route across the isthmus of Suez was proposed after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. In 1854, 2 cross country routes were in full swing- one crossed Egypt by river and land caravan from Alexandria to Quseir, the other went from Alexandria all the way to Suez, when the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps was authorized by the Egyptian ruler Said Pasha to begin excavations. The British and French Governments formed the Suez Canal Company and began construction work in 1859. The 160 km (about 90 nautical mile) long canal was completed just 10 years later.

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was responsible for bailing out the nearly bankrupt Pasha, buying his shares and giving Britain 75 % of the holdings. This paid off handsomely as by 1920, the profits on the original capital outlay multiplied eightfold. The Constantinople Convention of 1888 permitted freedom of transit of all vessels, in peace and war, through the canal, and established the tonnage rule upon which present day transit fees are based. Things went fairly smoothly until 1956 when the Egyptian government decided to nationalize the canal, causing the Suez Crisis and closure for almost a year. A further closure of nearly 8 years resulted during the Arab-Israeli conflict between 1967 and 1973, causing serious financial consequences. Since then, the canal has been widened and deepened and is a vital source of revenue for Egypt.  

 

 

 

 

 How do you describe the state of northbound cruisers as they arrive in the famous Port of Suez? In one word: euphoria.

 

You’ve made it through the Red Sea and you’re less than 100 miles away from the Mediterranean.Hallelujah! Life couldn’t be better. That is, for a very short while only, as you begin the Suez Canal Tango with the Suez Canal Authority.

We naively thought that an organization like the Suez Canal Authority which controls such a large percentage of the world’s commerce, would be professional in its dealings with its international clientele. Wow, were we dreaming.


You’ve made it through the Red Sea and you’re less than 100 miles away from the Mediterranean. Hallelujah! Life couldn’t be better. That is, for a very short while only, as you begin the Suez Canal Tango with the Suez Canal Authority.

 



The town of Port Suez was a nice surprise- it’s not a tourist town, and the people seem genuinely happy to see you. Everything was cheap, produce excellent, markets marvelous. An old gentleman came around to all the boats on the moorings, selling bread and produce. There was lots of trash about but the atmosphere was pleasant and made up for the grubbiness.

Agents

Transiting the Canal can be an ordeal. The situation for yachts was this: you had a choice of 2 agents- Prince of the Red Sea, and Felix Maritime Agency.
Simply put, “Egypt being Egypt, using an agent avoids an obscurantist, obstructive, bureaucratic nightmare even Kafka couldn’t have invented.” (Red Sea Pilot)

These agents provide a number of services:

- checking you into Port Suez if you are northbound (or Port Said if you are southbound)

- arranging for a measurer to measure the interior volume of the boat to establish your canal transiting fee

- arranging for your 2 (obligatory) pilots- one for Port Suez to Ismailia (44 nautical miles) and another for Ismailia to Port Said (46 miles)

- providing you with Port Clearance

Theoretically, one can do it without an agent but the mountain of paperwork required and approvals needed, not to mention the obstructions one would encounter by the vested interest groups means a week or more would be required to make it happen. Bottom line- everyone has an agent. In our case, it was Felix Maritime Agency. Said, the representative, was all smiles as he helped us tie up to our mooring. But we had been in Egypt long enough to recognize the charming smile and the haggling that needed to be done. Another quote from the Red Sea Pilot tells it all: “Shameless dishonesty, a sublime ignorance of or indifference to factual truth, a winning charm of manner and willingness to bluster, bully and delay infinitely are endemic in Egyptian business life.” After a little negotiating, we had Said’s agency fee reduced from $80 to $60 US and a promise was made that he would “make us happy”. He took our original Ship’s Registration paper, plus 1 crew list, stuck them down his T-shirt and was off- said he’d return them in 1 hour but didn’t. We called him next morning on VHF.

“Said, will you be coming soon with our Registration papers?”

“I think you made a mistake. I don't have your paper.”

After a few worrying minutes, he realized he did have our original.

“Don't worry Tom, you'll have your papers soon.”

We did, but only just before departure. Lesson learned: release copies only!

 

Tonnage fees

Like most cruisers, we used the protocol found in the Red Sea Pilot to measure our boat in advance of the arrival of the official SCA measurer. By our calculation, the canal tonnage figure for FEEL FREE, our Spencer 51, was around 20 tons and at US $8 per ton, we expected to pay $160. The measurer arrived later that day, obviously a very busy guy with limited time and limited English, and combined with our limited Egyptian and his disinclination to do the measurement calculations in our presence, an unpleasant atmosphere ensued. The calculations would be done in his office and we would find out our tonnage an hour before departure the next morning. Period. But “how can we contest your measurement if it doesn’t jive with ours” was everyone’s concern, a valid one given the large number of off the wall measurement figures many past cruisers had reported.

Sure enough, one hour before departure, our agent Said arrived presenting us with a bill for $396 US of which $264 was for our 33 tons. 33 tons?!

“May I see how that number was arrived at?”

“Oh, no.”

“ Surely I can see how the calculation was made?”

“No.”

“Where’s the paperwork?”

“No paperwork.”

“Where’s the receipt?”

“No receipt.” (Just a number pulled out of the sky?)

“Please make up a receipt for us.”

“Do you have a pen and paper?” (Argh!)

As badly as we wanted to contest the measurement, it would mean losing that day’s transit or so we were told. Only later did we learn that another cruiser did contest his measurement on the spot and miraculously, $100 was shaved off his measurement fee, without another measurement taken, and was able to transit that same day. One could not help but wonder if the whole measuring procedure is a sham. There appear to be no records or receipts. It appears that boats and crews are sized up and a number is pulled from a hat, high enough that some people can make some extra dirty money, but not so high that the disgruntled, impatient yachts who have already been in Egypt long enough to be ripped off countless times, just want to pay up and get out of Egypt and into the Med where transactions are more transparent. The final cost of the Suez Canal transit was not a lot in the scheme of things, and only a fraction of a Panama Canal transit, even easier and less hazardous, but so very hard on one's nerves.

 

Canal Transit/Pilots



 
Transit of the canal normally takes 2 days of motoring the 90 nautical miles (“officially” sailing is not permitted) so your engine has to be reliable. Provided you have no mechanical breakdowns, the trip is pretty straightforward. There are no locks, unlike the Panama Canal, so line handlers are not required.

 

We paid the bill and awaited our first pilot. 12 sailboats left Port Suez that day. FEEL FREE was the last one to be given a pilot and permission to go.

 

We had been told that we would be leaving between 1100 and 1200, after all the northbound large ships had passed. Finally, our pilot, Ashour, a square faced, genial, polite and well dressed man was dropped off and we were out of there at 1245- quite late to do 44 miles but what can you do? Luckily, we had a 1-2 kn current with us most of the day.

Ashour, a tugboat Captain by profession, had been a pilot for 17 years and knew the Canal well. He steered the boat although a couple of times seemed oblivious to channel markers, chatted on the radio, and performed a prayer ritual in the stern, facing Mecca, a couple of times. He kept saying “can you go faster?” All the pilots say this, we learned, some quite insistently.

 

 

There were lots of military with guns on shore, and many small sailing craft (feluca), with fishermen, but mostly the day was uneventful, the scenery unremarkable. Approaching Ismailia, our Egyptian gentleman announced “Welcome to Ismailia. You have my present now?” Keep in mind that asking for baksheesh is perfectly normal, almost an institution, in Egypt, and we were used to it. The Red Sea Pilot recommends that you hand the pilot his “tip” (baksheesh) as he is stepping off the boat, to avoid an argument, which we did- $10 US plus some cigarettes. He seemed happy and said thank you as he departed FEEL FREE.

There was a low in the Med shortly after our arrival in Ismailia which meant weather not conducive to moving in the Canal, but good for inland travel, to see the wonders of Cairo and Alexandria, so we took advantage of that, leaving FEEL FREE in the secure marina. One big bonus of spending time in Ismailia was the price of diesel- roughly.52 c US/gallon. Compare that to about $9/gallon in Turkey and it’s easy to see why everyone topped up. After about a week of sightseeing and re-provisioning, it was time to do the second portion of the canal.

 

This time there were 6 boats departing and the 6 pilots arrived at 1130 so it was another late start to a long day.

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Our pilot, Fathy, a chubby, cordial young man, arrived and we were off. He said “Why so late? I was waiting at home since 6 o’clock.” We wondered the same thing.

We also were ready to go at 6, the time we had been given for departure. It was a beautiful day and Fathy was diligent and keen to steer the boat the entire way while we read. He said- “Just go to sleep.” He was a full time pilot and we were quite confident of his abilities and knowledge of the Canal.

 

What a luxury to be in a beautiful Marina, not to worry about the weather or the next destination as the wind howled in the rigging, to use copious amounts of fresh water, luxuriate in There was a low in the Med shortly after our arrival in Ismailia which meant weather not conducive to moving in the Canal, but good for inland travel, to see the wonders of Cairo and Alexandria, so we took advantage of that, leaving FEEL FREE in the secure marina. One big bonus of spending time in Ismailia was the price of diesel- roughly.52 c US/gallon. Compare that to about $9/gallon in Turkey and it’s easy to see why everyone topped up. After about a week of sightseeing and re-provisioning, it was time to do the second portion of the canal.

This time there were 6 boats departing and the 6 pilots arrived at 1130 so it was another late start to a long day.

 

 

We also were ready to go at 6, the time we had been given for departure. It was a beautiful day and Fathy was diligent and keen to steer the boat the entire way while we read. He said- “Just go to sleep.” He was a full time pilot and we were quite confident of his abilities and knowledge of the Canal.

There was plenty of big ship traffic all day long.

Fathy accepted a coffee and a soda but refused all food, saying &l dquo;I am fat, I must be strong.” We enjoyed some friendly chats with him and I thought it’d be good to give him his “present” early, thinking he’d be happy with it (the last of our Egyptian money, which was about $12 US, plus a visor, a baseball cap, a Canadian pin and a pack of cigarettes) so presented it to him about an hour before arrival. Fathy immediately picked out the money, counted it, and said “It’s only $6". I said, “No, it’s $12.” He said “It’s not enough. I have 3 children. I want $20 US.” For the rest of the trip Fathy was silent and sulky. Other pilots we were told, were gracious- didn’t even look into the money envelope, said thank you. Others refused to leave until given $20. When the pilot boat came by to pick Fathy up at Port Said, the 3 guys immediately made gestures that they wanted cigarettes so we gave him 3 packs to give them.

It was now after 1830, and we figured we could slip into the small but smelly Port Fouad Yacht Club for a good night’s rest and leave at first light, so dropped the hook and put the dinghy in the water to secure stern lines to shore. While enjoying dinner down below, we were startled with a bellowing, “FEEL FREE, FEEL FREE!” It was a guy from the Marina demanding in a gruff and authoritarian manner to show him passports, ships papers and crew list right now. He meant business so the dinghy was instantly put back in the water and I was away, but returned in a flash, having told the fellow thanks but no thanks to paying US $75 for Port fees and $15 to spend the night there. It was getting dark and there was a lot of freighter traffic. The evening wasn’t going to go as planned after all.

With about 9 miles to go to the open Mediterranean Sea, it would be a couple of hours before we could relax and begin the night watches for our passage to Israel. Over many years of cruising, we have visited 45 countries in all and have fond memories of each one of them, so it’s sad to say that this time, it was only with a great sense of relief that Egypt was put in FEEL FREE’s wake.





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