Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Suez Canal

Map picture

The Other Canal: The Suez Canal

Here is a little trivia question for you: how many pumps does it take to operate the Panama Canal? The answer is; none. The Panama Canal raises and lowers ships through the various locks by means of a natural water pressure differential from the surrounding rain forest created lakes.

OK, let’s try that again. How many pumps does it take to operate the Suez Canal? The answer is: none, but for a different reason. On the Suez Canal there is not a single lock. The Suez Canal is a sea-level waterway connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. I tell you that fact came as a complete surprise to me. Today, our ship transited the canal, which was built in 1869, and is 119 miles long.

We spent the night at anchor off the southern entrance to the canal awaiting our turn to enter. Since the canal can handle traffic only in one direction at a time, ships line up outside the entrance and await their turn to join a caravan going in their direction. Cruise ships are given priority, but still we had to wait until the south bound traffic had cleared before entering. We were scheduled to enter at 6am, and when I awoke at 6:15 the ship seemed to be well underway along the canal. IMG_7673 After a quick breakfast, we ran to the top deck for pictures, but then the sun was so unrelenting that we scurried back to the cabin. After all, the trip north was scheduled to take until 5pm.

Suddenly our ship slowed, stopped and dropped anchor. The Captain came on the PA to inform us that there had been an accident with the southbound shipping and that a large tanker had run aground blocking the channel. He told us that the canal was very narrow and that there were only two places where ships could pass one another; so at this point, he was assuming we might remain at anchor for quite some while. After about an hour, the Captain again came on the PA and informed us that the accident had fortunately occurred in one of the few places along the canal where two way shipping was possible. It appeared that the stranded ship was clearly stuck, but authorities had determined that the northbound convoy could safely maneuver around the wreck. Our position in the convoy had been changed to number one, and momentarily we would raise our anchor and begin our journey north. We had now become the lead ship for a 23 ship convoy.

I could hear our anchor being raised and Lisa and I were getting ready to go topside for pictures. IMG_7689 The ship started to move forward when after just a few minutes it came to an abrupt halt. I could hear a commotion on the deck above, so I started up the stairs when the Captain again came on the PA to announce that we had almost had a collision with a China Shipping vessel. IMG_7709 It seems that the China ship was coming to join the convoy line, and it was to stop while we went by and took the lead. However, our Captain fortunately determined that the ship was coming towards us too fast and so he stopped, and the China ship not being able to stop, cut right in front of us and ran aground just off our starboard side. I got to the top deck just after this had happened and we were very close to the China vessel, which was clearly stuck on a sandbar and trying desperately to back off. Our Captain was pretty dismissive of the other Captain, and we simply sailed around the stricken vessel and went on our merry way while tugs came from everywhere to help resolve the situation. Two groundings in one morning should be enough excitement for any cruise.

The remainder of our passage was uneventful. It was a strange feeling to see the desert going by on either side of our ship. We travelled northward at a fairly rapid clip. I was surprised to see two things. All along our route there was a military presence. Sometimes it was a small military compound, sometimes it was a lone soldier with a rifle standing atop a sand dune, and sometimes it was a few soldiers hiding under the shade of a tree, rifles at their ready. The second surprise took some time for me to figure out. All along the canal there were metal canisters strategically located in large groupings. Eventually I figured out that these were pontoons that could quickly be strung together to form a bridge across the canal. In fact, later in our trip I saw some of the “bridges” already partially constructed with large motors already attached. Where these pontoons were stored, just happened to coincide with a nearby military barracks and a specially prepared road structure leading up to the pontoons, so that equipment could quickly be moved across the canal into the Sinai if needed.

It took us two hours to reach the point at which the large tanker had run aground. IMG_7760 Our ship slowed as special pilots came out to the convoy. We had to maneuver around the grounded tanker, and in so doing, we were navigating a small and rarely used channel. Not only did we board a special pilot, but one of the pilot boats took the lead for the convoy to insure that we went exactly where it was safe. I was able to get pictures of the grounded ship. IMG_7776 It appeared that the front of the ship had caught the shallow sandy bottom, and that swung the ship violently around so that it had rolled over on one side and swung around to block the entire main channel. When we arrived all efforts to back the vessel off the sand using tugs had ceased and the flotilla of little ships was just sitting there. I am guessing that the next step would be to arrange to off load enough of the oil that the vessel would be lighter and thus easier to move, but whatever the plan, it was clear that they had a mess on their hands.

We finally exited the canal at Port Said and pulled up to a large assembly area and stopped, dropping anchor once again. IMG_7812 The Captain again came on the PA to announce that one of our passengers had been taken seriously ill with a cardiac problem, and that we were stopping until provisions could be made to take that person ashore for advanced medical treatment. After about 3 hours at anchor, we started off for our next stop, which is the Delta city of Alexandria that lies at the head of the Nile River.


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