Day 8

10 September, 2003

I wake up at 0730, quick, breakfast! No shower, on goes the old clothes and down I go. I must still be dreaming, I hear Reebo intone in slow motion “this morning we have baked beans and luncheon meat”. Surely, that can’t be right. Once again a meal combo I might have resorted to in my first student days. Oh well, gulp gulp.

Out onto the decks I go, just as we pop out of the canal into the Great Bitter Lake. We lead the rest across at higher speed, as the Captain does one of his pretty anchorings across from a town. I find myself locked out of the superstructure! The watchman have locked all doors against the marauding Suez crew and other known pests of harbor environments. So down six flights, into the main entrance of the ship (which I now know), and there I meet Mr. Mohammed one of the Suez crew. That is, not only is the ship charged something like two hundred thousand dollars for the passage, but they are made to hire an extra crew of Egyptians in a classic featherbed! This is such an excepted part of the deal that the ship is built with special accommodations labeled “Suez Crew”. But as they have nothing to do, they set up souvenir shops along the hallway wall of the H/C top deck and outside of the crew’s mess, trying to make even more money. Mr. Mohammed looks like a shorter and swarthier Anthony Quinn. He tells me he will be set up in half an hour and would I come back down, I will. This deck is locked from the rest of the ship but, aha, I have a key!

This pilot business is interesting. The insurance companies require them. The local laws require them. But in many places, such as in the straits of Messina (between Sicily and the toe of Italy), the pilot boat runs up alongside, the pilot runs up the ladder to the waiting captain, who signs a paper saying the job was done, and back down the ladder he goes (in a rush to invoice the company for thousands of dollars). This example given by the captain. Generally pilots are ex-captains, who wish to stay at home more. But as they must be bonded at a high price, one has to either be backed or have saved over a long career.

I go to my quarters and finally perform my morning ablutions. I want to say something about my bathroom. It is really cool but small. It has that old setup where there is a slight lowering in the tile in one corner with a big drain, a curtain comes from the wall and kind of isolates the water to this indented area. Over this section is a shower fixture that is so great (particularly after a year in English bathrooms). It has a simple on and off valve, and a temperature setting gauge, and it works. Once it is set, no more water testing. Within seconds of turning the shower on there is a big, strong stream of, exactly the right temperature, water. The water, of which many tons is made every day from the local sea, is always of a lovely softness. The commode and sink are small and set in the other corners, but suffice perfectly.

Fresh, I went back down to Mr. Mohammed and purchased some souvenirs at an exorbitant thirty dollars, but I liked what I was buying and felt sorry for the guy, only one passenger. I knew I could have got them for half, even less if I waited until just before the he had to leave.

Up to the bridge where the captain, third mate and extra watch are running a checklist for getting started and having the bosun stand by both for and aft with the anchors. We had watched most of the twenty seven strong northbound convoy come through. Ranging from a three thousand ton bulk carrier in ballast to a giant ninety one thousand ton, new, containership (Shanghai Express). The twenty third ship was supposed to be a seventy one thousand ton US Navy ship, but it hadn’t shown up which is why the convoy was running late. They had waited, but I saw it many hours later, still an hour out of the Suez end of the canal. Rude.

The lake, maybe five miles across, like the next fifty miles to the Red Sea, has a green western rim. The east is the most barren desert, the Sinai, that I have ever seen. The western green extends about a half a mile and then a desert mountain rises up to a plateau Small dhow like boats rowed by pairs, one sitting one standing, with dhow like rigging, play chicken with the gigantic ships in their crossing from side to side. The southern corner of the lake has as nice as beach estates as you might see anywhere. With full on docking, beach houses, satellite dishes, manicured gardens with long alleys of trees and grass they could be in Palm Beach but for the slum like deep desert surroundings just on the other side of the walls. All life, in this heat, takes place indoors, so not a lot is spent by the poor as regards their exteriors.

I have put on a “Lawrence” type head wrap, and packed my back pack with bottled water, binocs and radio and head all the way down seven flights to get out by the Suez Crew room. Mr. Mohammed now promises even better prices. I tell him I have no more money on me (which I don’t) and that in the cabin I only have some British. He’ll take British, but there isn’t really anything more I want. As I would have to go back up seven flights with backpack I said I might come back later, he would be there until the end of the Canal, since I would have to come back through this way, he would see me and went out. I climbed up the outside to a good perch.

Finally, a couple of hours late, we head south on the lake, through all the signs of constant dredging and past more serious juxtapositions between giant rich estates and poor miserable huts, and into the canal south. When this was built (mid nineteenth century) it must have been passable by two ships, but the growth of size of ships has made that impossible, necessitating the convoys. The eastern side is a picture in desert desolation, beautiful and eery. Seeing a deserted mosque, all by itself in the middle of sand dunes. the road going by so unused that sand has drifted across in many places as if to cover all evidence. Occasionally, that strange vision of a solitary person a million miles away from anything, walking along from nowhere to nowhere visible The western side is a long line of dusty, mostly deserted looking military installations, and now I start seeing occasional guard boxes with lone, sleeping soldiers posted along the canal about every couple of miles. Nearing Suez we sail over a tunnel (always a strange feeling in this giant ship sailing over a road) which seems only to lead to a ghostly US style shopping center in the Sinai. I see a big Hilton sign! A little later, ferries that dart back and forth just under the tails of the ships.

Suez. I see the pilot boats coming and realize it is too late for me to get down to Mr. M. and then back up to my cabin for my money. Besides, I want to see this sight of the city and our entrance to the Red Sea. Oh well, I hope he doesn’t put an Egyptian curse on me. First a boat instals the Suez harbor pilot, then two other boats remove Suez canal crews, then another boat takes the canal pilot and some miles off of Suez a boat picks up the Suez harbor pilot. Then the boats race off to do the same thing with each of the next sixteen ships in the convoy The city looks so interesting, a building called the Red Sea Hotel beckons in my future. A beautiful Mosque faces the canal. Suez looks like both the armpit of the world, and the most beautiful, romantic place I have ever seen. Young boys in bathing suits sit in the water at the edge of the canal, laughing as each machine gun like wave created by us passing monsters rips along the wall, spraying them. I remember my late little brother and I doing that on Lago di Garda (north Italy) when the hydrofoils went by in 1965. Various men are standing in the water of the Red Sea at the point we exit. East of canal, desert, desert desert. A few crumbling and abandoned houses and a mile or two up the coast a giant generating plant. All kinds of old and derelict vessels sit at anchor or at the quays. In the distance are refineries burning, and mountains in the west towering over the bay. It is hot, hot and humid, and it looks like it never rains. The wind from our rear, although philosophically a good thing, and visually enjoyable as it pushes our smoke ahead of the ship like the old photos, means our decks get covered in oily black soot, piling up like black, oozing snowdrifts.

As we pass out of the channel and the chief pushes the engine telegraph up to full, the ship shudders in joy at full run in the open sea again. I am here to tell you that the Red Sea is as deep an azure as the Mediterranean, maybe a bit more steely gray. It is also choppy as we pass down the gulf of Suez. A strengthening northwesterly wind keeps playing havoc with our steering. Like a car with bad alignment, the computer has to keep correcting to keep the ship on coarse. Earnesto says the red sea is always like this. Beautiful rocky, desert mountains rim the west side and the flat sandy Sinai on the east. As night falls, evidence of Egypt's main economic strength, oil, is visible everywhere. All kinds of oil platforms, emitting hellish, giant waving flames as if from magic lamps. The Sinai coast, as well, oil derricks and plants. Flames and the smell of oil. Now on both sides and on platforms. Still a full moon and Mars watching over all. I watch Casablancabefore going to bed. We sail on. Full speed, next stop Singapore in ten days. There, twenty two hundred containers will be shifted. The telex from the head office gives instructions, “proceed at economical speed”.