This morning we were up early to get ready to go. Here is sunrise over Suez.
Normally, small yachts transit half the canal one day, spend the night in a town called Ismalia, then transit the second half of the canal the next day. We had committed to being in Greece in 4 days, and the only way to make it on time was to do a one day transit. For it to happen, several pieces needed to come together. First off, we needed to leave by 0700, because if we didn’t make it to Ismalia by 1300 (1:00 pm), they would make us stay in Ismalia for the night.
We paced around nervously waiting for the pilot. Meanwhile, Heebe finally told us what our transit fees were. The trawler that we had mentioned seeing in Port Ghalib had been charged USD$485, and we expected our fee to be the same. Ours was USD$540. Heebe never showed us any government paperwork to verify the fees, so we suspect he upped the fee and kept the difference. He also charged us an extra fee of $70 for the quick transit and we are not sure if it goes to him or is a government fee, but we suspect it goes to him. Unfortunately, we were not in a position to argue with him over the fees, both because we were out of time and because we were afraid if we made him mad that he might sabotage our effort for the one day transit and charge more.
Heebe took care of our exit stamps on our passport before we left and promised that our boat clearance would be waiting for us in Ismalia. We were irritated that he hadn’t taken care of the boat clearance yesterday.
The pilot arrived at 0815 and we immediately departed. It wasn’t looking like we were going to make it to Ismalia until 1400. Speed was vital right now, so not only did we run at full throttle, we also turned on the wing engine, which added probably 0.25-0.5 knots to our speed. We averaged 7.9 knots.
The pilot is named Muhammad. He is a heavy set guy probably in his late 50’s that speaks limited English. Around 0900, we asked him if he wanted something to drink. He said a beer. We were stunned, and refused his request, which made him unhappy. Muhammad and Eric switched off driving during the 6 hours to Ismalia. Muhammad asked at least a dozen times if we could speed up. We kept pointing out the throttle was at full.
While in transit, Heebe called us and told us that we needed to pay a USD$40 bribe to the Port Captain for coming in after 1300, and to give the money to the pilot to pass on to the port captain. A little more than halfway to Ismalia, Muhammad demanded his tip money. We had been warned that you should not give the tip until the very end, but he kept demanding and demanding, so Eric gave it to him. We gave him the amount Heebe recommended, USD$20, which was a little more than the cruising guide suggested. Of course, he was displeased and demanded more money. He harassed us for a good half hour about more money until Christi screamed at him and told him we thought he did a bad job and wouldn’t give him more money. So, he switched tactics. He told us the port captain’s bribe was another $20, obviously intending to pocket the $20. We said no. He told us that we needed to pay $20 to the pilot station, a fee that the cruising guide warned is bogus and not to pay. He harassed us about the assorted fees until he got off the boat.
Heebe called right before we got to Ismalia to tell us that our port clearance form would be waiting for us in Port Said, not Ismalia, which made us nervous. If the paperwork wasn’t done today, we’d have to spend the night in Port Said, and the one day transit would have been for nothing. We got to Ismalia right at 1400. Muhammad directed us to a dock, where we pulled up and Muhammad jumped off and our new pilot, Ahmed, jumped on. We didn’t even tie up. Needless to say, we were thrilled to get rid of Muhammad, and relieved that Ahmed seemed to be a good guy. Ahmed is 38, and his English is passable. We had a nice time talking to him on the ride. He never harassed us about his tip, or complained about how much it was, and we also made it clear we gave him a bigger tip than Muhammad as a matter of principal.
We were still running at full speed (but now with the wing engine off) trying to make it to the other side before dark. They don’t want yahcts in the canal at night, so if we are late, we’ll have to pay a fine. We barely made it. When we got to Port Said, a pilot boat pulled up to us and Ahmed jumped from our boat to theirs. They also handed us our clearance paperwork, which was a big relief. We were told we needed to give the pilot boat a USD$20 tip, which was bigger than we expected.
Even though we feel like Heebe has way overcharged us, we know that an agent is a necessary evil. Just like we experienced in Oman, without an agent, the officials completely and totally ignore you. Without an agent, we would have been sitting in Suez City for days or weeks before being allowed to transit, and there is no way we could have transited in one day. So, we should be thankful for his help instead of complaining about it. And, even though we feel like we had many fees in our canal transit, when you look at the big picture, we didn’t pay much. The minimum fee for a ship to transit is USD$250,000, and the fee for the average ship is closer to $800,000. Big ships pay $1.3 million. So, we really can’t complain, especially when we were in a hurry.
The ride itself through the canal was pleasant. The water was completely flat, which we love. The tankers passed incredibly close by us, though, which was a little disconcerting. We thought they were close in Singapore that was nothing! The first shot is of a ship passing us and the second gives you an idea of how much tanker traffic is in the canal. Remember, the second picture is of just one little section.
The canal is 70 miles from Suez to Said. The east side is almost all desert the whole way up, except for in Ismalia and a few isolated pockets of development. The west side is also mostly sand, but it has some small towns along the water, a train that parallels the water, and a few industrial looking areas. Ismalia is an attractive and newer looking town, from what we could tell. Ahmed lives in Ismalia, and says it is nice there. By the time we got to Port Said, it was twilight, and we mostly saw twinkling city lights. It was hard to really see what the city itself looked like.
Once we dropped Ahmed off, we were still in stressful territory, with tons of tanker traffic. As we exited the canal, we were disappointed to find that the seas were not as calm as we were hoping for based on the forecast. The waves are small but frequent, so while it was not a bad ride, it was a definitely on the bumpy side. Once we got away from the tanker traffic, we breathed a huge sigh of relief and congratulated ourselves on another huge milestone. We transited the Suez Canal! Yes!