The first thing you need to know about the Suez Canal is that it is a canal. Even as canals go, it’s a pretty straightforward canal. You just sail in one end and sail out the other about eight hours later. There are no locks, no gates, nothing to make life complicated.
If the Captain and crew of the Good Ship Bougainville were skilled enough to handle storms, typhoons, tempests and tsunamis on the High Seas, you would think that they would be able to steer the ship along a canal without too much difficulty.
So why, I wondered, did we need a total of five Egyptian pilots, one electrician and three extra crew men to escort the ship up as far as the Mediterranean.
Ships go through the canal in convoy, so we had to moor at Suez and await instructions from the authorities, who decided which ships should go first and how many there should be in each convoy.
One pilot’s duty was to guide the ship from its anchorage, within sight of the mouth of the canal, into the canal itself, at which point, he was replaced by two fresh pilots.
Clearly, his job was to make sure that we didn’t bump into anything as we settled into our place in the convoy.
We set off on our voyage through the desert, the Nile on our port side and the Sinai on the starboard side.
Last year, Egypt opened a second parallel canal to ease the congestion on the main canal. Unfortunately, within a very short time, a large ship managed to run itself aground in the old canal, so we were back to one-way traffic again for much of the journey. There were some stretches where both canals were in operation, which enabled me to take a few ‘ship-in-the-desert’ pictures.
I’ve mentioned before that Maersk are the biggest freight shipping company in the world, and their ships, with their distinctive blue hulls, were everywhere.
Anyway, back to the pilots. Every so often there was a cross channel that linked both canals, and it was at one of these crossing points that our two intrepid pilots, having sat for four hours doing very little, left the Good Ship Bougainville.
They were replaced by two more, who were charged with delivering us safely to the Med.
For the first time in two weeks, we were not short of company and ‘ship-spotting’ became a new pastime.
Oh yes, I mentioned the electrician. His job was the check the big searchlight that had to be mounted on the front of the ship as a safety measure in case of poor visibility in the canal.
When I say ‘check the searchlight’, what I mean is that he would ask a crew member to switch the light on and then switch it off again. If all was well, his job was done for the day, and he could retire to the cabin that was reserved for him to recover his strength!
And then there were the three men who arrived in this boat and had to be winched aboard.
They were on board just in case there was an emergency and the Good Ship had to be moored up somewhere along the canal. Obviously the crew of the Bougainville would have been perfectly capable of mooring the ship, but in order to do so they would have to step onto Egyptian soil, which would, technically have constituted an invasion. Not a very effective invasion of the country, but an invasion nevertheless.
So these three fine fellows had, literally, nothing to do all day, except sleep, (in the cabin provided for them for that purpose). Indeed, one of them took advantage of the fact that he was going to spend eight hours, with nothing useful to do, on a ship where the passengers and crew had little opportunity to set foot on dry land. He had with him a huge canvas bag full of some of the cheapest and nastiest tourist trinkets I have ever seen; fridge magnets in the shape of the pyramids, plastic statues of Cleopatra with diamonds in her eyes and a particularly sparkly plastic camel with a hinged hump that revealed a secret place for you to hide your jewellery. I regret, every day, that I didn’t buy at least one of those. What a missed opportunity!
It was clear that the Egyptian government was fortifying the canal to protect it from enemies. Ramparts, roads and walls were all under construction, although it wasn’t clear whether the perceived enemies were the Israelis or the Islamic State.
Either way, there was a lot of equipment along the Cairo side of the canal that could be deployed to get troops and military hardware across the water in a hurry.
Going though the Suez Canal was a great experience, with no shortage of things to photograph. The problem is that it has whetted my appetite for canal travel and I understand that there is another quite famous one in Panama and that that one even has locks!