Through the Suez Canal

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We waited for what appeared to be a good weather window and left Abu Tig Marina in near calm for the last and hardest leg of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez…

During the first afternoon we motored to the anchorage in the lee of South Qeisum Island. We had hoped to get to Marsa Zeitiya, but we were beaten by the afternoon breeze coming up earlier and stronger than we had hoped.
The anchorage was a worrying one if the wind were to come up stronger from any direction, the holding wasn’t good, there was a lot of coral and shelter from sea only.
However, it didn’t, rather, it eased, but we listened to the anchor chain growling overnight, watched the GPS position closely and left at first light in the hope of beating the wind.

We failed unfortunately!
Within 30 minutes of leaving we had strong northerlies, up to 25 knots and as we were going due north in narrow passages between islands, we had no choice but to motor right into it until there was sufficient sea room to tack using a staysail, -and engine.
It took all morning to get to Marsa Zeitiya, the anchorage we had hoped to get to the day before.
That is known to be on a very windy point and although the anchorage is secure, it is quite exposed and did not look attractive to us.
As it was still relatively early in the day and we could always return if we failed, we decided to keep on going, hard on the wind, motorsailing, in the hope of getting to El Tor, an anchorage on the other side of the Gulf and where the wind is said to be less strong.
For once, our strategy worked and as we crossed the busy shipping lanes the wind slowly eased, went more westerly, we were able to lay a course making El Tor comfortably in the late afternoon.

This is a town with a good sheltered harbour on the eastern side of the Gulf of Suez.

Many people have waited many days there for the wind to drop before being able to carry on.
It is very attractive beneath the rugged hills of the Sinai Peninsula, we would not have been disappointed had we been forced to stay a day or two. But being Sinai and the security situation as it is, landing is not normally permitted and the view might have got tiring if boat bound for several days, especially in a dust storm!

Maybe it was as well that the next morning the wind was light and we were able to keep on going.

It was a lumpy sea, but the breeze continued to drop and at about midday as we motored past the Belayim Oilfield conditions were near glassy.

Oil platforms and apparatus was all along this coast, we often had to change course to avoid close encounters.

In the late afternoon sun, the wrinkled hills of Gebel Hamman Faroun were very striking.
We decided to anchor at Ras Malab just beyond there, although it is not a good anchorage in southerly breeze. A southerly was forecast but had not happened all day, -yet, -of course, just until we got there!

The southerly arrived , we had up to 15 knots, we couldn’t stop, although disappointed not to be able anchor after a long day of motoring,  instead we were able to put out more sail and kill the engine…well, for as long as the wind lasted.

It was maybe all of 30 minutes before we were back motoring…!
But it was not a bad thing, we made 20 miles further distance north and a late approach in the dark to Damaran Abu Maish, had us anchoring there for a short night.
We left again before it was light to motor the last 40 miles to Port Suez, avoiding all the shipping and entering through all the freighters parked waiting at the start of the Suez Canal.

We anchored in the yacht club there around midday.

Having got to Suez, we relaxed as we thought the hard bit was all done.  All but for a measly 80 miles of canal, we were in the Med.!
Although it was not an unattractive place, we had no wish to stay any time in Suez, preferring to get on to Ismalia, the half way point and as many do, stop there a while.
Our timing into the anchorage was impeccable, the canal measurer was assessing other boats to go through the canal the next day, we were able to tag onto the end of his list.
We had a very busy afternoon; the agent called by with a great deal of paperwork to be completed, we had to measure the boat with the measurer and we also had to deal with a constant stream of people coming by in small boats wanting to get us groceries, fruit and vegetables, beer, diesel,… LPG…Russian ladies… little of which we were interested in, but all needing long discussion and eventually, deal or not, demands for  baksheesh…

In the midst of all our other preparations and a hot day, patience was tested and tempers became fraught!
Our canal fee was decided upon and late in the evening we heard that as there were no military ships passing through we would be able to leave the next morning. (If a military ship is passing through all small craft are cancelled, we are viewed as a security risk!)
Unfortunately departure wasn’t as early as we would have hoped, by the time the fees were paid, our clearance given and the pilot arrived it was 11 am.
A pilot is compulsory for the canal passage, there is no choice for us, rather it is done by allocation and his personality can make the trip an enjoyment or a nightmare!
Our pilot was OK.
He was a big man, -as they mostly are -and seemed friendly enough, but as the day went by and maybe as we all tired, he became less communicative and more demanding…
Motoring up the canal started as a pleasant and interesting experience,

fascinating watching these enormous container ships cruising through the narrow canal in the desert, there’s not a lot of room for us too

and with the very heavy security of the Egyptian Military on guard.

The whole passsage is closely regulated with security and check points which the pilot must report to.

About half-way to Ismailia are the shallow Bitter Lakes, the canal is cut through them. There are some towns and quite attractive beaches around their shore  and the canal resumes on the far side.
It was a long day, almost 8 hours of motoring, against constant current of a knot or more and also against strong wind for the whole distance from the lakes.
Although it would have been useful at times our pilot would not allow us to use sail to assist, he preferred to surrepticiously ease the throttle forward…we eased it back!
We did not mind that he insisted on steering all day, also that he kept well to the edge of the canal in the interest of reducing adverse current, but at times he took us uncomfortably close to the rocky banks and large steel channel markers…!
We were very relieved to berth just before dusk in the Ismalia Yacht Club and even more happy to see him off the boat, especially as after having met every demand for food, drink and cigarettes all day, he was whinging about his ‘gratuity’/gift/baksheesh not being enough…we rather hoped he might have to walk back to Port Suez!

It was good to catch up with friends that night.

The Ismalia Yacht Club, like Suez and Port Said ‘Clubs’, is owned by the canal authority, built on a lake in the canal in the middle of the town of Ismalia.

This is a service town for the canal, only established since the Canal opening.

It is dependent on the ‘Sweetwater’Canal  which diverts from the Nile Delta to empty into the Suez. On the way it irrigates orchards, crops and keeps the town supplied with water, enough to have areas of grass and parkland in a town in otherwise desert.

Its history is short, but along with the water by canal, Ismailia has been given some attractive buildings in the centre.

However for the most part is it a town of untidy apartment blocks and any areas of parkland or open space are overgrown and quickly rubbished…
Egyptians are not good at keeping their cities clean!
Despite that, Ismailia is not a bad place to stay a few days.

Our clearance from Port Suez was for the boat to go through the canal and into the Mediterranean without further paperwork, however our passports still had valid visas, so we were able to leave Quo Vadis in Ismalia and travel to Alexandria.

We hired Mohammed and his yellow taxi for the trip each way. He’s a very nice man recommended to us by friends, honest, helpful, interested in our well being, had good English and most importantly, was a very careful driver.
Neither was he one to demand the ‘gifts’, but got them as his service made them warranted…all those qualities must make him a unique Egyptian?

It was about a 4 hour trip, he took us via Cairo. We had some experience in the Cairo traffic during our Nile trip, but what we saw this time as we went around the city by ring road had us quite incredulous!
This was a multi-lane highway, with many bottlenecks and choked off traffic, where 4 lanes become 6 and still allowing pedestrians, bicycles and donkey carts to mix with motors; the impatient, aggressive, Arab drivers weaving blind to all them between lanes, and when possible, at 100kph! We saw many close calls and several major accidents…
We were concerned as his little yellow taxi in all that traffic was so small, but it was just another time to trust the driver and fortunately too, that time, fate was on our side…


Alexandria is a great city on the Mediterranean.
We enjoyed the sea views and the cooling breeze. Compared with other Egyptian cities it is kept tidy, the buildings have a Mediterranean look.

The women dress smartly, fashion matters here, they may be Muslim, but they wear the headscarf with designer jeans and style, -it’s Marseille in burkha!
Founded by Alexander the Great around 300 years BC, for a while, Egypt was ruled from here.

It was also claimed to be the original centre of learning, where Euclid of Geometry lived, the earth was first proclaimed to be round and great advances in medical science were made.
The first great library, the Bibliotechque Alexandria was here and Alexandrians would like to believe that they have regained the lead in the field with the present modern version opened in 2002

although it is by no means complete or filled to the 8 million book capacity yet…

The external architecture with its reflective disc is striking, if not strange, but the atmosphere in the naturally-lit and multi-level reading room beneath is ideal for the purpose.

I spent some time browsing, far more than I would ever have expected in a library of foreign languages in a strange new city and could have spent a great deal more!
The library building is not just a reading room, there are conference facilities, planetarium, scientific museum and art gallery with a display of contemporary art, but most interesting is the small Graeco-Roman museum immediately alongside.

As a city founded by Greeks then taken over by Romans but lived in by Egyptians there has been a great mixing of all three cultures, the museum represents them all

with marble statues of Greek gods and Roman Emperors,  -Aphrodite

and Octavian (Augustus Caesar);

mosaic flooring from Roman times,

depicting in near perfect definition, the HMV dog???

alabaster plates made for Pharoah Zoser of the Old Kingdom, he who built the first, the ‘Step’ pyramid close on 5,000 years ago;

a mummy of a woman of Alexandria around the time of the birth of Christ

and sarcophagi of around the same time.
Although this is only a small sample of all Alexandria’s treasures, most of which are in the main Graeco-Roman Museum currently having a prolonged closure for renovation, this library museum is a small, bite-sized taste Alexandria’s past.
There’s also the Alexandria National Museum similarly uncluttered, uncrowded and as a chronological display of city history, well worth the visit.

The best known landmark in Alexandria in ancient times was the light-house of Pharos standing 125m high at the harbour entrance. It was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.

Built in 279BC, unfortunately it fell over as a result of earthquakes and a Tsunami, it still lies in pieces on the harbour floor where a dive company can take you on a tour,

or, see this display of bits retrieved from it. The stones are largely worn smooth by the years of undersea abrasion, although in places hieroglyphic markings are still visible.

In place of the lighthouse now is the 15th century Fort of Qaytbay. It has had a series of restorations which have left it somewhat ‘sanitised’,

and all original contents have been removed, it being used now as a home for exhibitions.

However, sited as it is at the end of the harbour ‘mole’, it is a focal point for the modern town and there are good views back across the city from its keep

Alexandria was an illustrious Greek/Roman centre and under the Ptolemys, the fabulous capital city of Egypt for many years.
It was where Cleopatra VII (of Antony and Cleopatra) was enthroned, but despite the glorious past, not a lot of the old structures remain, mostly they have been knocked over or fallen down and been buried over time.

Some however remain, or have been excavated.
The Roman Ampitheatre, although once roofed, is still used to stage outdoor shows;

being excavated alongside are the remains of a residential town

and public bath-house.

There is also the ruined Serapeum, -a temple and centre of learning dedicated to the Ptolemaic god Serapis, containing lecture halls and library all underground.

At the far end of a subterranean passage, is a sanctuary with the black Apis Bull, -an integral symbol of the cult worship of Serapis.

Above ground is what is known as Pompey’s Pillar and  a couple of granite Sphinxes. The pillar once held a statue, probably of Emperor Diocletian rather than Pompey.

Modern Alexandria is a city of 4 million people, stretched along the north coast of the Nile Delta.

Like any of that size, it’s a busy one

and although not on the same horror level as Cairo, the traffic can be formidable and crossing the 6 lane roads can be a faith restoring experience…

The more recent architecture is in mixed styles

although the Western European look is predominant,

but in cases, decaying gracefully…

On the route out of town along the coast is the Stanley Bridge

across the tiny Stanley Bay bathing beach

a quaint little place, a reminder of the days of the ‘bathing machine’!

Alexandria is a modern city of modern shops, but also of learning, with universities, good bookshops and a young, fashionable population,

-the near inner city has is the atmosphere of ‘student town’ about it.

It’s also a place where people come to from all over Egypt for their beach holiday and to enjoy a slightly cooler climate. It’s off the hectic international tourist route of the Nile Valley which greatly improves greatly the attitude of the people and the enjoyment for us.
They are welcoming and friendly without having designs on the contents of your wallet. To walk the streets without’hassling’ by souvenir sellers and knowing that a price is fixed and reasonable was a really pleasant relief!
We thoroughly enjoyed our short break in Alexandria.


The next step for us was from Ismailia to Port Said, completing the Suez Canal.
Port Said has a bad reputation among cruising yachts, the advice always is ‘don’t stop’, just to drop the pilot off and head directly for the open sea.
We had taken heed and intented to do just that. Our boat clearance from Port Suez allowed us to sail directly into the Mediterranean and our agent told us we need not have  passport stamps to exit the country.
After returning from Alexandria we were keen to be on the move soon, we watched the weather forecast and thought there was a suitable 48 hour period of suitable wind coming to get through to Ashkelon in Israel.
We booked our pilot for early in the morning, wanting to make the most of the day and knowing that the pilot is always late, 05.30 seemed a good time for us!
Unfortunately that night, we slept little, partly knowing of our early start, but more so because of the worry of the wind rising.
It NEVER blew hard in Ismalia!
It was concerning as it was northerly, we would be motoring directly into it all the way down the canal and then if it stayed at that strength, we wouldn’t be wanting to go on out into the Mediterranean, hard on the wind…
We reassured ourselves that either the pilot wouldn’t turn up, or that we would be cancelled, but as we had coffee at 05.30am, there was our man, knocking on our bow!
He was a pleasant, happy, somewhat rotund Egyptian man, but with little English ability. We struggled to make him understand that we would prefer to delay our trip, but he couldn’t, -he called his captain to speak to us on the ‘phone, but his English was no better and he would only say ‘You must go now Captain!!!’ repeatedly and in the Arab way of increasing decibels.
Although the decision to go or not ultimately rested with us of course, we were not going to win  easily and as the forecast was still for the wind to drop, we decided to take the chance…we left at 6am.
Unfortunately, we lost this the wager, the wind increased and developed more easterly as we went along the canal, we had 25 knots plus blowing from our bow across the canal!

Progress was very slow, but in our favour, the wind had some east in it; and as our pilot this day was a nice man,

he allowed us to motor-sail with our small staysail thereby greatly helping our speed, -although he had us furl it away with each control post we passed…

It was impossible to enjoy any of that 7 hour trip, it was probably the most anxious time I have ever had on the boat!
The wind direction across the canal meant that if for any reason the engine stopped, we would very soon be blown onto the rough concrete bank and in big trouble. There was very little room for dropping an anchor to fix an engine problem…and with all the rubbish in the water there was a real potential of the propeller being fouled or water intake blocked, either of which meant stopping the boat and a dive to clear…
Allowing for shipping to pass, we kept as close to the middle of the canal as we could and maybe fate hadn’t totally deserted us, as despite it being Friday, we were lucky, nothing of that sort happened.
There was however a serious dust/sandstorm, the worst we had experienced to date in the Middle East. We had little visibility, even resorting to using radar and everything on the windward side of the boat was pasted with black sand!

We were relieved to get to Port Said.
It was quite clear still that we would not want to continue out and straight on to Israel, the wind was still east of north, strong and the sea outside very rough.
The recognised yacht berth in Port Suez is the Yacht Club, our pilot took us there and with some difficulty in the wind and rough water (even at the club!) we managed to drop anchor and berth, stern to, without mishap. We quickly discharged our pilot (with ‘gifts’) to a pilot boat alongside.
The berth there was extremely uncomfortable with turbulent sea and waves crashing up against the concrete dock, it was also full of floating debris,-we did not like the situation one bit!
The man who called himself the marina manager came down soon and asked us why we had come into the dock when it was going to cost us a lot of money (and he listed the charges), when it was quite permissable for us to anchor overnight out in the north basin. He gave us directions, we didn’t need any encouragement, we went and found a far more comfortable place to stop,still in the wind, but away from the rubbish and big sea, in an area marked on the chart as an anchorage.
We settled nicely, washed the black sand off the boat, had a late lunch and began to think that Port Said wasn’t such a bad place!
Just as those mellow thoughts began to develop we were approached by another pilot boat, of course to tell us that we were not permitted to anchor there, nor anywhere else around that we could suggest.
Understandably we protested, saying that we didn’t want to go back to the Yacht Club, they promised to show us an anchorage which would be OK, -not the Yacht Club and would escort us. There would be no fee…
Yeah right…but we had little choice, we followed the pilot boat back in, -of course straight back to the Yacht Club, a journey of maybe 500 metres! We once again went through the difficult berthing process.
Before the pilot would leave of course a ‘present’ was expected, (he’d actually been asking for it before we lifted anchor, we told him to wait…) -cigarettes, T shirts, and US$20!
He didn’t like the T shirt offered and threw it back, he kept the cigarettes and wasn’t happy with just the $10 given, but he did leave!
The marina ‘manager’ then reappeared, surprised to see us, but of course taking no responsibility and produced a completely different set of figures of the cost for us to stay,-including now a pilot fee of US$67 to bring us in from the anchorage! -and notwithstanding the gratuities to the marina staff…etc…
We were getting a little fractious by this time as the marina berth was still no more comfortable, the boat jerking and tugging on its lines with the waves coming in, caused by both the weather and wake from passing tug-boats…it was like the dirtiest washing machine ever imagineable and making memories of Penang Marina, a place with similar rubbish and wake problems, into a crystal clear mill-pond.

We kept our cool and had a good sleep despite the severe turbulence!
As the wind dropped overnight, the place became more tolerable, although never comfortable because of the periodic mini-tsunamis caused by passing traffic.
We also found the electrical system to be completely unsafe and unusable, but still our bitterness eased a little.
We adopted the approach that as we were paying all this money to stay, there need be no rush to leave, we might as well relax for a few days and enjoy what we could of Port Said.

That wasn’t a bad strategy as we did get to like the town over the next few days.
It is a very scruffy place, sadly lacking upkeep in many areas and badly suffering from the Egyptian habit of littering

but in the older, down town area of narrow streets are many old buildings left over from the canal digging days, they’re characterised by full wooden verandahs.

The shopping was interesting with some good market areas and to our surprise although it is still visited by cruise ships and there are many tourist shops, we were left alone.
The streets-people were friendly, wanting to talk, interested in us, but not in our wallets, -just wanting to chat.

That is in total contradistinction to the men operating the Canal, -at all levels.
Our experience so far had shown, and continued to show, them as lying, conniving and corrupt,  as everyone had recommended,  to be avoided at all costs!
Unfortunately we still had to leave and things were no better when we did!

We watched the weather and selected a day to go.
On that morning, the ‘manager’, who we had discovered by now not to be the manager at all, but rather to be working for the Felix shipping agency,  came to collect our passports for stamping to exit the country and presented us with a scruffily handwritten list of charges for our stay in USD. This included our daily charge, one for the pilot to bring us back into the berth and another for a pilot to take us out again, for passport stamping and to issue a new boat clearance, altogether close to $US300, -plus of course the required ‘gratuities’…
The ‘legitimate’ fee that we had paid back in Port Suez had been reasonable and should have covered all costs for the canal with our exit, these ‘extra’ fees almost equalled that amount again! (Naturally we accept the daily charge for the Yacht Club, but even that was very poor value for money!)

As we wanted to leave, we paid without argument, only to find that the clearance given us wasn’t a new one at all and suddenly there was a new charge of $US20 for the coastguard required,  -we reduced it to 10.

It was clear that little of the money we were paying was going to the people it was said to be for, it was going into the back pockets of the men at the dock.

There was no receipt, no accountability it was just more baksheesh.
We’d had enough, but there was little choice and to not pay puts the boat at risk.
When asked for baksheesh elsewhere, in the market place or about town, it is possible to be hard-nosed, ignore the moaning and wailing and just walk away. Here unfortunately where these guys are handling our boat, have a disagreement with them and they can -and will, -do boat damage!
Our pilot arrived for the short 500 metre trip to the harbour exit, he seemed a reasonable man, we cast off quickly, he showed us the way  which we  knew well already, we paid him and his boat crew off with the last of our baksheesh cigarettes and soft drinks, then were off into the Med., with wind on the beam, -great sailing!

Goodbye Egypt, -somewhat sadly, and goodbye Suez Canal, -VERY GLADLY!

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