Saturday, November 04, 2006

#71 The Suez Canal

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.
3815f Power lines crossing Suez
10:54 – We’re guessing these green boxes are bridge sections positioned to be easily dumped into the canal and connected to form a pontoon bridge. But that’s only a guess. We see similar installations all day long.
3817fSuez  pontoon bridges
11:10 – On the East bank, an endless line of tank trucks wait their turn to board a ferry to the West bank. Same story on the West bank. The ferry times its departure based on our speed so it can skirt our ship aft mid-canal and completely clear the waterway just before the next ship in our convoy arrives.
3827f Suez tank truck ferry
11:18 – We’re passing a West bank checkpoint with a flashing electronic signboard displaying the canal time and status. We see similar installations all day long. Safety Officer Per is back on deck, camera in hand, distributing Suez Canal information sheets with all the facts and figures.

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?
3836f Suez unknown structure
12:39 – For Mary and all the other Captain Roman fans out there…here he gives a sexy wave to fishermen in a rowboat. Look closely. I think I caught Captain Roman wearing white nail polish. Weak sauce.
3848f Captain Roman waving on Suez
12:45 – I go to lunch and miss a bunch of desert and sand and stuff, but dessert is good.

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.
3851f Suez military outpost
15:33 – For 30 minutes, we can pick out a large structure ahead near the canal on a port side hill. Upon closer inspection, the monument with twin tapered stone columns is labeled “1914 Defense DV Canal DE Svez 1918”. It shares its lofty perch with military vehicles laden with complex antennas and missiles. Through binoculars, we see evidence of damage where random chunks of the monument are missing at the base and along the shafts of both columns.
3859f Suez monument
15:56 – At Ismailia where the Suez joins with a canal spur to the West at Lake Timsah, the floral signs are welcoming. The same can not be said of the golden-pointed bayonet and gun barrel monument in the distance.
3860f Suez bayonet monument
16:26 – A railway parallels much of the length of the canal, but 20 km north of Ismailia the tracks cross the Suez via the El Ferdan Railway Bridge. It spans about 340 meters making it the longest swing span bridge in the world. A mirror-image of this east bank structure sits on the west side, and both pivot over their central axes to span the canal. This structure completed in 2001 replaced one destroyed in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967.
3874f Suez rail bridge
16:35 - We’re losing our light, picturesquely.
3865f Suez sunset
16:51 – We’re deer in the headlights of the southbound convoy anchored in the Al Ballah Canal at dusk waiting for us to pass.
3877f Al Ballah Suez
17:37 – It’s dark as we pass under the Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge at El Qantara. With 70 meters of clearance above the canal, the MV Explorer’s mast passes safely under, and we hear the echo of our exhaust reverberate from the underside of the bridge.
3886f Egypt Japan friendship bridge Suez
18:00 – The crew prepares a special outdoor dinner on deck 7 aft with salmon, steak, sausage, baked potatoes, salads, vegetables, and more desserts than I can count.

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,


  1. Great post! Love the details and minute by almost minute account. LOVE the Captain Roman mention/pic and if he wants to wear nail polish...well that's OK with me. He's the captain and he still looks great in a uniform.
    I'm sensing some pent-up hostility/jealousy here. I'll be happy to join you at your next port and take him off Mary's hands/mind... :)

  2. What's with all the "weak sauce"? Did I miss something? It's funny... whatever it is.

    That Captain Roman remark... that was TOO funny!

  3. P.S. At least Captain Roman's nail polish will match the uniform, right? There's a silver lining! ;-)