Sea Life’s Suez Canal Transit
Friday 2nd  and Saturday 3rd April 2010

We had a nice passage from Hurgadah Marina in Egypt which took us two nights; we had lovely 15kts winds for the first 8 hours and then were hit with the 30kt winds and short, lumpy seas until early Wednesday morning. All in all though it was not too bad and going through the oil platform and oil rig areas was very excited and interesting. We stuck to the edge of the shipping lanes to avoid fishing nets and unlit oil platforms etc at night. Early Wednesday morning the winds dropped off and the seas smoothed out and we had a lovely gentle sail in about 15kts and then motored into port when the winds dropped off again.

We arrived in Suez port on Wednesday morning at about 10am and were approached by the quarantine launch boat who sent an officer onboard to give us some paperwork and of course ask if we had a present for the driver, we gave him a little toy koala which I am sure surprised him as he would have expected money or cigarettes. He came at us very fast when he dropped the officer off and we had to shout for him to slow down and be careful, which seemed to work. It was of course our first of many launches coming alongside during the transit experience.

We then called our agent on the VHF and they advised us to come into the marina, which is a slight misuse of the word if you call tying to if mooring buoys fore and aft in the middle of the tug and pilot launch traffic area a marina, but it was good to tie up and relax whatever it was.

Our agent Abdul from Felix Agency was very efficient and came straight aboard to the process underway for our canal transit. He arranged for the measurer to come that day and measure Sea Life and we organized to get some diesel in jerry cans as there was no fuel dock. Abdul said that if the paperwork was done that day and no warships were going through the next day we might be able to transit then. He said he would come back at 8pm to tell us or not come, which would mean we weren’t going the next day.

The measurer came within about 30 mins of Abdul leaving (which was very quick indeed) he was a nice fellow who took down various measurements of Sea Life, length, beam etc and the dimensions of the  engine room, it only took about 10 mins. He was dropped off by one of the larger white pilot launches and they stood off while he measured. The driver of the launch was very good and safe. I still had my fenders up from the first launch and I left them up for the entire time through Suez and had a roving fender handy too. We gave our measurer (who didn’t ask for any presents, although our agent came back aboard not long after he arrived so maybe that was why) a little koala also and one of our boat cards to say thank you. Some other cruisers we read about on the internet paid the measurer $10 USD and gave cigarettes but we chose not to and we still got the correct price and were able to transit quickly.

We had a nice rest and relax for the rest of the day and enjoyed watching the convoys of ships go past through the canal. The following morning on Thursday we waited for Abdul to come to see us or contact us. We had his mobile number so we sent him a message to find out what was happening, no reply so a few hours later we called him on the VHF. He said we might be able to transit tomorrow if no warships were going through. He would come and tell us at 8pm if we were going to transit. We reminded him that we still had to get our diesel and he said he would send the guy out to get our jerry cans.

A few hours later the man from the yacht club came and collected our 8 jerry cans saying that it was very difficult to get fuel etc etc. We found him to be friendly when we first arrived, although he did come out in his dingy and keep trying to get us to spend more money at the club, laundry, drinks, garbage, showers etc etc. We had to keep telling him we were fine and that we had no money, we just wanted to rest and stay aboard. He came back a few hours later with our jerry cans with another man in the dingy to help. He would normally be very hard to get rid of, however this time he was throwing the jerry cans onto the boat as fast as he could and then tired to race off. Mark said, these aren’t full (he had clearly told the guy to fill them all to the safe fill line so they would be 19 liters each). He asked him how many litres the fuel pump had on it and they said 152 litres (which was how many litres we told them we wanted).

They kept saying 152 litres, we said no that was wrong as they were not full. He tried to drive off and say to speak to Abdul later. We got firm and told him to come back and tell us how many litres we had as he was not telling us the right amount. Anyway after some heated discussion etc we finally got the true amount from them, surprisingly it was only 138 litres! The fuel was $1 USD per litre.

Not surprisingly Abdul was on our boat within about 10 mins after all that to try and smooth things over and get payment for the fuel. We were not happy at all, but tried to be polite as we felt Abdul was doing the right thing and was a good guy. Abdul took us to the ATM to get out money to pay for our transit fees, he gave us the amounts in the afternoon but still had to wait until 8pm to tell us if we were going to transit the next day. We paid for everything in Egyptian pounds (you could pay in USD too). Paying in the local currency wasn’t that good for us as they made up their own exchange rates. We tried to show him what the actual exchange rate was on the internet but he would only give us 5.7 (it was only 5 at the time), the marina was 6 even higher.

Our total cost to transit for our 11.62 m long, 1.8 m draft, Beneteau monohull was: $200 USD measurer fee, $70 agent fee (was $80 but he gave us a discount), $40 port clearance fee, $20 passport clearance out fee.  So in total our transit fees were - $330 USD (or 1881 Egyptian pounds at the time). We also had to pay for 2 nights on the mooring (as we were told we were not allowed to anchor). That was $21 per night for our 11.62 m length (or 252 Le). We also had to tie up in a med style berth at Ismalia for the night half way through the transit so that was another $21 USD for the night (or at an exchange rate of 5.5 – 115.50 Le). So with the mooring fees added on we spent $393 USD (or 2248.5 Le).

We had Abdul come to our boat at about 9pm with good news, we were going to transit to next day, he gave us the paperwork (our port clearance form) and his bill. We paid him and gave him our passports to have them stamped for our clearance (it cost $10 USD each). He returned our original boat registration papers (he said the canal authority needed to see the originals – it was a bit nerve racking having him take them away for so long, but that was the process).

Abdul came back later that evening at about 11pm in a row boat with 3 other men to return our stamped passports. We were asleep of course and I woke up to hearing 4 strange men at the stern. I woke Mark up and he was dazed and still half asleep and come running out in only his underpants to be greeted by Abdul, a police officer, immigrations officer and the rowboat man. Luckily I was still dressed as it was cold and I looked as little more decent. They officials wanted to see us to check it was really us and they were our passports, although it was pitch black so I am not sure how they knew it was us, they must have exceptional night visionJ.

We were told Abdul would return at 9am the next morning with our pilot and see us off. The man from the yacht club had come around earlier to collect his mooring fees (also hassled us for gifts, asking for t-shirts etc. We had already given him a gift, a little koala. This was not good enough and he sulked and wouldn’t help us the next day with our lines etc, which was fine we didn’t want his help anyway), so we were all ready to head off in the morning. I had some yummy cookies baked for the transit and we had packed away everything valuable or that could be asked for as a gift by the pilots, hidden in the closed aft cabin. We also organized our ‘present’ baksheesh envelopes for the two pilots.

We gave each pilot $10 USD but in Egyptian pounds and a little koala. No cigarettes, no t-shirts, no hats etc etc. We also gave them the amount of money in various notes so that they couldn’t tell how much was inside the envelope when we handed it to them at the very end as they were getting off, they enveloped were hidden away prior to that. I also sealed them with a good amount of sticky tape so that it was hard for them to just open it straight away.

We were very lucky, we had great pilots. Both of the men were very quiet, polite, helpful and spoke very little English (which may have been a good thing?). But we were able to understand each other well enough. They didn’t smoke on our boat and each one only went downstairs to use the bathroom once and asked to do this before going down. They never once asked for any baksheesh or gifts and said thank you when getting off and went without any problems. We made a point of getting each pilot to sign on in our log book when he first got on, so we had his full name before we left the mooring and I took some photos of him when he first got on, saying that I wanted to have some photos of our pilot and photos on the transit for our memories. That way it there were any problems we had his full name and his photo. I think this helped and would have helped even more so if we had gotten a difficult type of pilot too. Our second pilot even gave us a little present, a packet of wafer biscuits each which we thought was very sweet.

Mark also set them straight first off by showing them that the maximum revs we would do on the engine were 2200 rpm and the agreed to this by signing on in the log book. This solved any problems later on when they asked him about speed and going faster etc. He also told them he was the only one on the helm and it was his job as captain, not the pilots. He said we had a present for the pilot and if he tried to stop at any pilot stations or anywhere to see his friends then the presents would come out of his stash. Needless to say we never stopped off anywhere or where hassled by anyone. Our first pilot ate everything I served and seemed happy enough (we explained it was all from Egypt), he asked for a tissue, some lip balm to use and later seemed a bit bored so Mark gave him his cruising magazines to browse. Our second pilot didn’t seem to want to eat very much and only had the pasta, not the tuna sauce I made for lunch.

The first part of the canal was not as pretty as the second, but it was interesting to see some of the Sinai Desert, some old remains of the 6 day war and other little buildings and things along the way. We saw a couple of small fresh water spring with reeds growing all around them which were very lush and pretty. We had a convoy of ships pass us from the north, about 10 ships or more. It was all very easy we kept to our side of the canal and the ships passed us at about 8 or 9 kts with a comfortable amount of space to spare in-between. They created some wash after they went by, but we found the wash from the tugs accompanying them was worse. We are used of big ships and so for us it was all very easy and straightforward.

As we got nearer to and in the Bitter Lake, we saw some small row boats with local fisherman and their nets. There didn’t appear to be any fishing nets inside the canal channel but our first pilot said (we think anyway) that the fisherman put nets inside the channel after the ships have gone through. It was hard to clarify what he actually meant due to the language barrier. We saw lots of fisherman around in their little boats with nets but we didn’t see any nets in the channel or come across any in our transit. We did see some round yellow foam floats in the channel area which our pilot said went straight down and were not floating nets. We went by one that was close and it did have some floating rope (what looked like a couple of meters) coming off it, so we made sure we watched out for those ones just to be careful.

The transit itself was very easy and once we got going each day it was just a matter of clicking off the miles. We left at around 9:30am on the first day from port Suez yacht club and arrived at Ismailia yacht club at around 5:30pm. That was doing 2200 rpm under motor. We had to pick up the mooring buoy ourselves at the yacht club (there was no dinghy assistance) which we did first and then Mark backed into the berth space and we tied stern to the wall. Of course the pilot tried to tell Mark what to do and help, as did the 8 men standing on the dock, all shouting and talking. Mark was very firm and asked to pilot to please let him do it his way as it was his boat and he knows how best to handle it. He also asked him to tell the men on the dock to be quiet or he would tell them to shut up himself. It had been a long day!

So with a large crowd of men looking on we got Miss Sea Life into the berth slowly and carefully, doing it our way and working as a good team to handle our boat the way we feel comfortable. We simply ignored everyone else and did it our way. We found with the Egyptians we always had to be very firm and give very clear instructions to the boat boys in the marinas or anyone taking lines for us. They tend to try and do it their own way and stand there and hold lines around the cleats instead of securing them off quickly. They also try to put a boat boy on the boat and then they would just get in the way and basically not have a clue how to handle lines or a boat safely or efficiently. They would also always try and push me out of the way (as of course I am just a dumb white woman!) or take over my lines etc and then stuff everything up. I leant pretty quickly to be firm and tell them to let me do it as it was my job.

We had a nice shower, some nibbles and a relaxing evening in Ismalia. The port captain (who was a very nice man) teenage son was having a birthday on the dock at the little café and so he brought us a piece of yummy chocolate cake to say sorry about the noise from the party. We thought that was very kind of him and had a nice chat to him.

We were told that we should get our second pilot onboard at about 8am or by 10am at the latest the next morning if there were no warships transiting. The man from the yacht club came around and collected our payment for the berth. We also sent our agent a text message to make sure he had our pilot coming the next morning. He said he would arrive at 6am or 8am. Yay, we thought. We can get going early and be finished our transit by about 4pm. 6am came and went as did 8am, 10am, 11am………finally at about 11:40am we sent a message to our agent and went to see the man at the yacht club. We were beginning to think that our transit was not going to happen that day, we were tired and eager to get going and finish, to get out of Egypt and into the Med. We enjoyed Egypt but by this time we had really had enough and wanted to leave.

Finally at about midday when I had given up all hope of going that day our pilot arrived. I was laying half naked on my bed trying to get some sleep as we had both been up since 6am ready to go. We quickly got organized (me getting clothes on of courseJ) and set off for the last part of the canal, feeling much happier and excited to be underway. We realized that we wouldn’t make it to the end of the canal before dark, but that was ok. We were just so happy to be heading to the Med. The second half of the canal was much prettier and more interesting. The sand dunes and the Sinai were lovely (amongst all the rubbish and the old stuff). We had a convoy of ships pass us again, heading the same direction as us and this was all easy and no problem.

The day was easy and again just a matter of clicking off the miles. We explained to our pilot that we didn’t need to go to Port Said as we had already cleared out of Egypt in Suez. He seemed to understand but said we still had to go through Port Said to drop him off at the end. Mark was on the helm the whole day with the auto pilot on and I served drinks, snacks and lunch etc, then slept for the last part of the afternoon as I was to do first watch after Port Said.

So at about 8pm we navigated through a busy commercial shipping port, through blinding bright lights from the port, ships at anchor and on moorings, dim navigation marker lights that were very hard to see, moving traffic of huge ships, speeding pilot launch boats, tugs, ferries crossing across our path, small fishing row boats with very dim lights, dodging large ship mooring buoys etc etc. You can just imagine how fun it all wasJ It wasn’t too bad, we are confident with night navigation, it just took lots of concentration and spotting through the binoculars. It was actually a really great experience and very exhilarating!

Then as we were in the middle of the ferry crossing path with a ship coming into the port towards us, moving vessels all around etc, very busy moment…..the pilot tells us he is getting off. He says thank you, we give him his present, which he opens and counts (the other pilot didn’t open his in front of us). Then a smaller version of the big white pilot launches comes roaring up to us like a bat out of hell to collect the pilot. I had a couple of fenders on each side, the launch came up on our port side. So I quickly got my other fenders on that side with a roving fender to use where needed.

While the guy on the launch is yelling out to Mark for a gift and baksheesh, I am trying to fend of the pilot launch boat whose driver does not seem as skilled as the guys back in Port Suez who I think were pretty good overall. He seemed to enjoy trying to squash us and shove into us as though trying to intimidate us into handing over money and gifts. It didn’t surprise us, we had been lucky overall to avoid this nonsense and had to have our share I guess before passing through the magic end of the canal and into the freedom of the Med.

So while Mark was telling him no, I finally got the pilot off after about the third ram from the pilot boat, my fenders were amazing and I love them to bits for protecting Sea Life from the crazy driver. Once the pilot was off Mark speed off and we still had the screaming baksheesh guy following. Can you believe these people? We wanted to go fast, leave Egypt and never return and get away such from greedy, rude, pushy people. I decided to use the magic word that we had leant while in Egypt, taught to me by an Egyptian salesman (he didn’t realize this of course or he would have asked me for money…Lol). We left Egypt as fast as possible, speeding away into the dark night with the annoying call for baksheesh sending us off on a familiar farewell, we parted using our favorite words of all “Finished, Finished, Finished” we shouted back at him with passion and feeling into the cold, long, crazy night. Looking only forward to our goal, the Mediterranean Sea. Freedom never felt so good and we felt our spirits lift!

The channel markers at night were a little confusing but we managed to work them all out as there we many lights, and ships at anchor with navigation lights on and all sorts of confusing things. The shipping traffic was heavy for the next few hours until we got further along. It was a little bumpy as we were only in about 20 m for a few hours and once we got into the 100 m areas the seas smoothed out. We felt our hearts sing and dance when we were finally more than 12 nm off Egypt. Yay, we are really in the Med! We planned to go to the Med in 2008 when we first got Sea Life and started cruising, but decided to do the Pacific route instead. So now 2 years later we arrived in the Med, very excitingJ

Looking back though, the whole experience was fun and we leant a lot. It wasn’t that bad and we survived. It was an adventure!

(Writen by Nic off Sea Life (please excuse any typos, spelling mistakes etcJ – my little account of how our canal transit went. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions email me.

Good luck with your transit!