Here’s my running recount of our voyage through the Suez Canal:
05:50 – My alarm buzzes. I shut it off in our shade-darkened cabin and snooze for an extra 10 minutes.
06:05 – I’m on the 7th deck forward, the sun is shining in my eyes, and people are convinced I’ve just missed the best sunrise of the entire voyage by about 10 minutes. Weak sauce. We were scheduled to enter the southern end of the Suez Canal at 06:00, but we’re sitting dead in the water at the same spot we anchored last night. More weak sauce.
08:25 – Per (say ‘Pair’) Abbe, the MV Explorer’s Swedish safety officer arrives 7 forward and tells me we’ve been reassigned to the 10:00 Suez ship caravan and won’t be going anywhere until then. Cameras in hands, we chat as he explains in halting English that passing through the Suez is a badge of honor for a seaman and this will be his first time through. I sense he’s as excited as me about the day ahead. Back when the canal opened in 1869, the opera Aida was written just for the occasion.
08:30 – I sprint back to room 5046 for some snuggle time with Mary and find her leaving for breakfast. Weak sauce.
09:55 – Captain Roman fires up the main engines and the MV Explorer falls in line with our ship convoy to enter the mouth of the Suez Canal. The canal has no locks since there is no change in elevation along its 87.5 nautical mile route between the Red Sea and Mediterranean.
10:05 – The southern end of the canal is green and lush on the west bank with palm trees and resorts while the east bank is desert sand from water’s edge to the horizon. Looking ahead, I see at least 4 ships in our convoy headed north. The Suez main channel is not wide enough to allow large ships to pass in both directions. So convoys headed south pull aside and anchor at Al Ballah Canal and Great Bitter Lake where they await northbound convoys to pass before resuming their southbound journey. The logistics of this waterway dance are the subject of academic research papers intent on maximizing canal throughput.
10:48 – We pass under the only power lines we’ll see crossing the canal in its entire length. The lines were built in 1998 and are carried above the canal by twin steel towers over 220 meters tall. Three horizontal arms carry the power lines, and a fourth arm below serves as a safety net to catch a fallen line to avoid blocking the canal. Each day Egypt collects around $3 million US dollars in canal tolls. Blocking the canal with fallen wires = bad. The MV Explorer’s toll for our 11-hour voyage is over $160,000 USD.
11:49 – It’s new. It’s in the desert in the middle of nowhere. It looks like a stage overlooking a huge asphalt parking lot. What is it?
13:55 – All day we passed forsaken military outposts likely manned by the lowest of the low ranking Egyptian military draftees. Their entertainment is giving shrill whistles and gesturing to passing ships. We respond with our best whistles, and they respond in kind until out of earshot. Sometimes they wave. Sometimes they stand rock still, quiet, holding rifles. This goes on all day and continues with a spooky resonance in the evening when the whistles come from dark invisible whistlers.
18:05 - As the lights of the bridge at El Qantara fade into the distance, I see Per, camera in hand, looking back down the length of the canal, smiling.
As we wrote on September 7, sailors who pass through the Suez Canal are awarded the Safari to Suez. Now I know passengers who pass through the Suez Canal are rewarded with an experience of the few and sights seldom seen.
Yours in smiling through the Suez Canal,