Monday, December 27, 2010

Egypt: Suez Canal to Hurghada (December 2010)

Dodging ships and oil platforms in the Suez Canal


The passage from Lebanon - 240 n.miles took us a total of 50 hours. We had great following winds and sailed all but 25 miles - and that was because making our way in the wee dark hours of the morning on the approach to Port Said (Sa’ Id) through oil rigs and capped wells was a bit daunting.

Entering the channel to Port Said itself we were obliged to take on a “pilot” to guide us in. He began asking for baksheesh the moment he came aboard - we had expected that - so were able to cope with him. The pilots we were to have later for the trip down the canal were gentlemen by comparison.

The Port “club”was very dirty and the wash from the ferries, pilot boats and large freighters was quite unnerving, setting up a constant surge and fore and aft bounce. We had double lines to the dock, the stern anchor we initially set dragged, so we reset with the main anchor stern-to with help from the crews of yachts beside us. We did not venture near the men-only toilets or showers!

The city of Port Said was also very dirty - garbage littered the streets (few overflowing containers), rubble and flies. We visited our “agent” (Felix Shipping Agency) who was to arrange our “formalities“: passport visas, Canal Authority transit procedures (tonnage measurement and pilots) as well as our stay at the “club”  Gil on "Jacare" whom we met in Lebanon was beside us in Port said and we would meet up again in Hurghada.

The trip down the canal went well all 90 n. miles taking us a total of 20 hours (in two legs) with our “pilots”, Moses and Sayed - quite nice guys. Moses phoned his wife and daughter and Debby had a short chat to them and he taught us the pronunciation of the basic Arabic numbers. Sayed was the devout one and left the cockpit to pray on the foredeck three times - at noon, 3 p.m. and sunset. Neither asked for baksheesh, but it is understood that they were to receive some - and we gave gladly.

Photos: our "pilots" Moses (above) and Sayed

We had to wait to complete the transit halfway down the canal in the oasis town of Ismailia because of weather. An extensive low pressure system covering the whole of the Eastern Med. hung around north of us for a week creating very strong south winds (and wanting to sail southwards after exiting at Port Suez we took the better place to wait) The canal was actually closed for the first time in 20 years! It was also quite chilly (down to 18 C). The desert winds covered Chinook with a layer of fine red dusty sand - inside and out!

While staying at Ismailia we took a bus to Cairo and spent 3 days plodding around the pyramids, commiserating with the mummies in the museum, slinking around souqs and nodding at the Nile. All great fun! The Canadian Hostel was our bed and breakfast place - cheap enough ($30 USD/night) although we did get what we paid for. The advantage was that it was right downtown near the Metro (subway), the National Museum was across the road and the bus station a 10 EL ($2 ) taxi ride.

Cairo is interesting. The traffic is sheer madness - no rules apart from one: whoever is in front has the right of way, so of course it is always a race to get in front! For a driver to stop for a pedestrian is simply not done, so crossing roads we stuck beside locals and weaved our way across with them.

The pyramids at Giza (a Cairo suburb) are really awesome. We went deep inside the ‘Great Pyramid” to the burial chamber along a steep, dimly-lit narrow passageway. Not good if you have claustrophobia. Fewer tourists this time of year made the Giza area even better although the touts had fewer to tout to, meaning we were frequently hassled to buy trashy souvenirs and camel rides.

Photo: the fish market in Ismailia

We have found the Egyptian people to be very, very friendly in spite of what you often hear. Backsheesh is still a way of life - but if you look on it as a form of tipping and build it into overall costs it is not too bad. Which leads us to mention Karkar, the friendly marina assistant at Port Suez Yacht Club. The young man who said he wanted nothing from us but asked for t-shirts, caps, a recommendation and of course a small donation for his 5-year-old son!


The 200 n.miles to reach Hurghada we planned to do in one passage. We were not to receive our cruising permit until Hurghada and therefore could not go into ports along the way - although anchoring was permitted (if we were prepared to put up with the hassling by coastguard and police patrols. It was getting closer to Christmas and we wanted to be settled. Motoring out of Port Suez for two hours (where were those forecasted north winds we had waited for?) we were soon able to sail under foresail for a few hours. As the wind grew stronger we reduced sail more and more until by midnight we were running under bare poles in force 6 (near gale) winds Surfing down the waves at 8 knots (Brian saw 10.5 knots on the GPS when sliding down a particularly big one) made the auto pilot “give up” so it was hand-steering for much of the time.

We were sailing just outside the shipping lanes but having to keep a good lookout for the dozens of freighters approaching from behind. Moving through the four offshore oil fields was not as bad as we expected as the platforms are well lit. Chinook performed well - we always feel safe as she handles strong weather well in spite of us. Brian’s seasickness, of course, returned.

Over the two days we made great time until we turned west, beating hard to reach Hurghada; it took us over six hours to cover the remaining 20 miles, still blowing 35 knots under our tiny storm tri-sail and motor!

Photo: a bridge over the canal
Chinook entered Hurghada Marina (large and modern), almost 48 hours to the minute after leaving Port Suez with a tired, wet, cold crew. We think sometimes we are getting too old physically for this stuff, but then we forget the rough times quickly (not sure which is worse…)

The next round of formalities were effected by our agent (Felix) - customs clearance, visa extensions, a cruising permit - with doses of baksheesh helping. It is virtually impossible to accomplish formalities on ones own without spending a tremendous amount of time and hurdling the language barrier.

Christmas! We did not even think about it - being in a Muslim country, warm weather, very few signs of Santas in the stores, no Xmas music anywhere, no smells of turkeys roasting... We enjoyed a nice fish dinner at a local restaurant on Christmas Day and phoned our families.

Brian and Deborah