Monday, May 24, 2010

God Willing

At last, the Red Sea gave us a window to escape. For three days we watched the wind push storm clouds of dust running across the desert, swirling over the nearby mountains and out over the sea. We kept our eyes on the small fishing boats at anchor and laughed with the locals, shrugging our shoulders and shaking our heads about the sand storm and wild seas. Peering out our portholes, we were grateful we were on DK and not on one of the many fishing boats tossing at anchor with their shade-cloths billowing up and down like unwieldy circus tents.

On May 20, at 06:00 we upped anchor from Ras Abu Zenima. The wind still howled at us us but the seas were manageable. By nine am, the wind continued to build and the seas reared up and threatened to stop us in our tracks again. We had learned our lesson and tucked into Ras Malab at 29.12.1998N, 32.55.814E after a surprisingly blustery but gentle 12 miles north. We gratefully celebrated our wise choice when the wind picked up at noon to 30 knots and we were bouncing around again at anchor. Mentally exhausted, we declared the rest of the day a holiday and lounged around, baked cookies, and watched a matinee. All day the wind picked up, surging past our hull and licking us with salt spray. By 19:00 we were humbled by its strength, blowing constantly at 32 knots, often gusting to 37, the strongest we’d yet seen in the Red Sea.

For those of you who don’t know boats, when it’s this windy it’s really loud. Secured lines bounce, rattle, and buzz. The anchor snubber moans in protest against the wind, and the boat, even when protected from the seas by a shallow reef, continues to roll like we are on passage in moderate but sloppy seas. Here conditions were too raucous to get any sleep in the V-berth in the front of DK (our normal bed), even with one of us wedged horizontally across it. For the first time ever, we made two sea berths in the salon that night. Well into the wee hours the seas slapped us and tossed us around, our hopes dwindling that conditions would allow us to leave by morning.

On May 21st we awoke with our alarms at 05:00 to blustery conditions. Resigned to be stuck another day, we tucked ourselves back into our cozy berths for a couple more hours. But by 07:00 the wind seemed manageable and we again headed up the coast, hopeful we could make the 15 miles to Ras Sudur before the wind barred our passage again. Successfully, we made it by 13:00 in strong winds but decent time. We tucked in at 29.35.135N, 32.41.231E in 16 feet of water next to a pod of resting dolphins. The wind predictably kicked up again within a couple of hours and we were glad we were learning to be patient.

We had twenty five miles to go to Pt Suez Yacht Club, our entrance to the Suez Canal. At 05:30 on May 22, we greeted the chilly morning bundled again in our foul weather pants and jackets. The captain even wore a wool hat. It was dead calm, eerily so. A few fish broke the surface and terns dove overhead. By 10:00, the sun was merciless again. Spinner dolphins escorted us the last 10 miles through swarms of purple jellyfish and into the Suez Harbor.

By noon we were ecstatic and relieved to have made it to Pt Suez, the mouth or the tail of the Suez Canal depending on how you look at it. Our journey up the Red Sea was at last behind us. Kar Kar, the marina man and, Sayed, our agent from Felix Maritime tied us to our mooring. Within minutes Sayed had our paperwork completed and said that “Insha'Allah, (God willing) we could head up the canal the next day if it wasn’t too late for the measurer to come and there were no warships transiting in the morning.” Then we would be lucky and we could proceed north. “Maybe yes, maybe no” he said. “Insha'Allah.”

God was willing. By 16:00 we had been measured, and after some back and forth, Gar and the measurer agreed upon the calculations for our tonnage and canal transit price. The next morning, we rose to crisp clear skies, calm winds and the promising possibility we would be heading north up the Suez Canal. After calling our agent numerous times to no avail he showed up at 9:30 with our bill. Of course it was higher than we had agreed upon with the measurer. This is Egypt after all. After some stern talks and haggling over the difference, we reduced the fees to what they should have been. In the end, we were charged $288 dollars for our canal transit, port and agent fees, $21 dollars for our night on the mooring balls and an extra $5 dollars here and there for baksheesh (bribes, greasing the wheels, Egyptian custom, whatever you want to call it) along with a couple of boxes of cigarettes (on board specifically for this purpose) and our broken VHF.

I had the bonus of having a very sweet old man do my shopping for me at only a moderately inflated price. Freshies abound again on DK and our pilot will hopefully be happy with a feast for lunch including green beans, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, eggplant and fresh Egyptian bread among other things. The best part about my grocery resupply was that it came from an adorable old man with a stunning smile and a winning sales act. I received many kisses, a promise of him as my second husband, and a belly full of laughter before we agreed on a shopping list and a price. If only dealing with all Egyptians were as delightful as this.

At 10:25 our canal pilot took the helm. DreamKeeper’s rpms were revved to a fast but easy 2500 and our pilot steered us on up to Ismalia, adding another run to his 15 years of canal piloting. He is serious and scholarly looking with round frameless glasses, a long face, and tightly cropped hair and beard. The dark callouses in the middle of his forehead mark his dedication to prayer and Allah.

It is wild to think of our journey up the Red Sea coming to a close with the final miles through the man-made canal that is Egypt’s lifeline to the rest of the world. The work to create the first canal that separated Africa from Asia and connected her to the Mediterranean was first recorded in 610-595 BC. For a few hundred years numerous Egyptian rulers and conquerors worked to build and maintain the original canal running through a different and more complicated route that was later abandoned. In 1859, the excavation of the current Suez Canal was begun and in 1956 Egypt fought and won control over the rights and ownership of it.

The Suez Canal is now the one of the most heavily used shipping lanes in the world with over 20,000 ships a year transiting its waters. It runs 167 km in length from Port Suez to Port Said, running through a few large lakes and a waiting basin and yacht club in Ismalia. In some places it is wide enough for a large ship and a small one like ours to squeeze closely passed one another but not wide enough for two large ships to pass each other at once. So there are specific transit times for northbound and south bound boats. The cut off time to head north from Port Suez is 11:00. At 10:30 we were one of the last small northbound boats transiting the canal. Our pilot Mohammed Ebrahim Ali was excellent. He was competent and courteous and hand steered our boat with constant attention to the conditions. He skillfully navigated the canal and passed 28 gigantic ships heading south on our way north to our mooring for the night in Ismalia.

By 17:30 we were med-moored stern to in Ismalia to the entertainment of a large family of Egyptians watching just feet away from our cockpit. We’ll likely spend a day or so here. The weather looks like it will be favorable in the Med in a couple of days and we’ve got diesel runs to do and a re-provision before we leave. Hopefully, the last leg of the canal transit will be smooth and we’ll kiss Egypt goodbye in a couple of days.

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