Suez Canal

The day started at a leisurely pace. A cool wind blew down on us as we lay at anchor just behind another freighter. I could see part of the town beneath the sandstone cliffs. I wandered up to the bridge for a yarn with the First Officer and to take photos of the chart. Then down to B deck for scrambled eggs and crispy bacon and a relaxed chat around the breakfast table with my fellow passengers. Climbing back up the stairs we were preceded by portly Egyptian pilot who was making laborious weather of it. He was aboard to guide us from the anchorage to our place in the convoy queue and then through the Suez Canal. We felt the shuddering of the anchor being hauled aboard at the same time as we watched the neighbouring ship Hanjin stirring up yellow mud as it manoeuvred in the shallow water behind us. Every day just one convoy passes through the canal in each direction while other ships pass through in stages. I'm not sure of the exact routine and I didn't want to bother the officers with what they probably think are a whole lot of silly questions. The canal is not used at night. The Captain did say that it costs something like one-hundred and ninety-thousand dollars for a ship our size, the cost carefully calculated to make it just a little more economical to use the canal that to go the long way around the bottom of Africa. It's a nice little earner for Egypt no doubt.

I spent the entire day out on E deck walking from one side of the ship to the other, afraid to miss so much as a grain of sand. You will be able to see that I also took some photos from the wheelhouse roof but it was too exposed for me to stay up there for long and also I preferred the lower elevation for photography. By evening I was absolutely knackered but so grateful for the experience.

Photography was very difficult because of haze, particularly on the Sinai side where the desert sand blended with the sky. Although at times I could see five or so vessels in front or behind, even the nearest would be out of focus and the most distant just a smudge of grey, which was a pity because I was unable to fully capture the essence of being part of a convoy. We moved at a sedate pace, hardly causing a ripple. The occasional pilot boat or tug created a bigger wake than we did. You will notice that the banks are lined with blocks of stone to prevent erosion from the wash and in affluent locations the stone work is carried right up to the foundations of buildings. The entire canal is dredged out of sand and sandstone through very low country. Some stretches are straight and others follow a winding course. In the middle is a natural lake where, with the aid of dredging, ships are able to pass. There is a double passing canal in one place where you see the ships in it as if they are stranded in the sand. They were difficult to photo against the light. I got as many of other ships as I could for the interest of the crew who want copies. There are several canal control stations that are designated on the chart as SCA Signal Towers that have electronic display screens and no doubt radio contact between stations and with pilots on the ships. All the way through there are numbered iron bollards set in concrete to which a ship could be moored hard to the side in the case of breakdown. The ships waiting in the twin channel were tied to such bollards.



Nearly all the way through as you look left (to port) you see a densely populated Egypt with endless buildings, hundreds of mosques and minarets, palms and trees, fertile fields of corn and other crops that I couldn't identify at the distance, irrigated I suppose from the Nile. For quite a distance there was a fresh-water canal running parallel to the Suez Canal and even where its water can't be seen, its presence is marked by papyrus growing along its banks which you will note in the foreground of a few photos. To the north it was interesting to see how urban development tailed out as it does in all developing urban environments: going from the equivalent of the leafy suburb, through blocky high-rise housing and finally reducing to single-storey places devoid of trees and in this case tapering right off into sand.

In stark contrast the right-hand side (to starboard) is unrelenting desert. In places there are distant strips of dark green indicating palms along narrow valleys but in general it is just sand and more sand.

The first nine shots with buildings are all at the beginning of the canal and the city of Suez. There is a ship sitting in a dry dock behind which are some passenger ships. While we were in Jeddah a similar one came in and I wonder if their main purpose is to transport pilgrims on their way to Mecca. There was no obvious boundary to Suez and although the land bordering the canal gradually became more rural, the city dwellings seemed to continue indefinitely in the background.

Most startling was the presence of military barracks, guard houses, checkpoints, road blocks and solitary soldiers stationed in tiny concrete observation posts or positioned on knolls of sand with as little as four sticks and a bit of cloth for a sun shelter. All had flags. Even the lone soldier armed with a gun stood by an orange flag fluttering in the wind which may as well have said, "Here I stand. Shoot me!" Perhaps his function was to provide a warning shot? The exposure suffered must be considerable. You can see man tracks worn on some of these hillocks from years of use and often the banks are inscribed with Egyptian lettering formed by the arrangement of stones. Each encampment of any size had its own mosque and stones were used to affect significant patterns where in other environments you could perhaps expect flower gardens.


There were few armoured vehicles in evidence, no big guns or tanks and only a couple of structures that may have been missile emplacements. No doubt there are plenty of armaments hidden from sight. There are special launching ramps at regular intervals, many under construction, with green pontoons that can be quickly deployed to form bridges across which the army can swarm to the defence of the Sinai Peninsular should an invasion occur. There are also ramps, presumably to facilitate crossing by amphibian vehicles with roads or tracks disappearing into the fathomless Sinai. Moored to the banks in some places were barges capable of transporting tanks. These platforms were motorised by means of hefty outboards at the corners, each consisting of a stationary diesel motor housed over a fixed drive, individually operated and steered by turning the whole unit. On the defensive side there are tank traps in the form of segments of concrete-capped stone walls. In stretches the material dredged from the canal offers handy ramparts against attack from across the canal.

Apart from the military, human activity of the inhabitants was hard to see, let alone capture on film. You will spot some washing on a line, cattle herding, three boys waiting jump into the canal to be bobbed up and down in the wake of a passing launch, and numerous net fishermen. I loved the opportunists who hitched a ride behind the dredging pipes being pulled along behind a tug. Obviously farmers work their fields but were too distant to observe. Negotiating a roundabout near a checkpoint were typical overloaded utes, the modern equivalent of the donkey and cart. I saw only one such donkey and cart but wasn't quick enough on the draw. There were occasional army roadblocks.

There is only one bridge across the canal, a suspension bridge that is absolutely elegant, its size only really appreciated when you see how small an articulated truck looks as it passes over. The rotating railway bridge is an impressive mechanical steel contrivance of functional beauty. I wonder if its main purpose is to move missiles mounted on flat-deck wagons. As usual my knowledge is lacking. In one place I saw a line of trucks in the desert and puzzled as to what they were there for. As the ship drew closer I noticed a vehicle ferry coming out from the other side and a long queue there also. The lone ferry carried only three truck and trailer units at a time as it dodged across between the ships of our convoy. The truckies at the back of the queue were in for a long wait.

There was surprisingly little canal construction or maintenance work happening, the main exception being some dredging in the lake area. The three workmen scratching away with pickaxes provided an amusing and incongruous picture. Perhaps they were heinous criminals serving out a cruel and lonely punishment for their crimes, an endless task. The pipes sticking out of the sand are probably for dewatering. A curiosity to me was that some of the banks in the dredged material along the canal were perforated with that looked like miniature cliff dwellings. They may have been the nests of sandpipers though no birds were in evidence.


The Ismilia Sporting Village was a modern wonder to behold as you can see by the pictures. Note the children's" playground with its modernistic plastic slides, swings, merry-go-round and sea-saws.

As part of the privilege of using the Suez Canal a ship must allow a group of hawkers aboard for the trip. They arrive in a small motorboat that is hoisted just up out of the water and they set up their wares along the passage of A deck. None of us patronised them although I think some of the Pilipino crew purchased a few gewgaws. If there had been anything remotely interesting for my grandchildren I would have been tempted but what a load of rubbish it was. They are provided with a free meal as well. Apparently the earlier problem with the ships air conditioning was due to loss of gas and I photographed the transfer of new cylinders of Freon delivered out of Port Said just before we left the canal at the same time as the departure of the hawkers.

We left the canal in the early evening via the middle channel. Here the land became closer and closer to sea level and looked dark and damp and is apparently subject to flooding. The final land marks on each side provided a complete contrast with the new container terminal of East Port Said with its leading light beyond and on the west a most beautiful mosque complex illuminated by the setting sun.

We anchored in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere as far as I could tell anyway from a quick walk out on deck. It was hard to believe that were actually in the Mediterranean Sea. I could see lights of other waiting boats but hardly a glimmer from the distant shore. It was a very peaceful night anchored in the roadstead and I slept like a babe.

Contact us at  Return to Home Page