We departed Port Ghalib after checking out at 4:30 pm, on Thursday 5th April, in the company of Darryl Laurin from Canada, on “Vimy”, a Beneteau First 47.7 which he has sailed around the world singlehandedly.
As you sail north in the Red sea to Suez, particularly in the Gulf of Suez, the prevailing north westerly winds blows continuously against you at up to 30 knots, for days on end. This results in long waits for sailors, for the right weather window to sail north. The various forecasting models, six of which we use, predicted a four-day window of light north westerlies starting that evening, hence the sunset departure.
Well, as experienced many times before, these models all proved inaccurate, because as we headed out of Port Ghalib, the wind picked up to 20 knots – straight on the nose. This resulted in a bone jarring all-nighter of choppy 2m swells, which we tried to motor sail into obliquely with waves breaking over the boat, crawling along at 2 to 4 knots. So jarring in fact, that one of the ceiling panels in the saloon dropped down! 11:30 am the next morning the wind and the swell decreased, allowing us to sail.
It was a relief to sail into Marsa Abu Makhadiq at 5:30 pm. Having only covered 119 nm in 25 hours. We had a good night’s sleep, setting sail again at 5:30 the next morning to take advantage of the lighter winds. A difficult day’s sailing is usually followed by a good day, so we were able to sail across the entrance to the Gulf of Suez in a 16-18 knot wind averaging 7 – 9 knots SOG. The coast of Africa was left behind and we were able to cross the busy shipping lanes between ships, heading for the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
After 40 miles, as we approached the Sinai coast, the wind petered out, so we started the cast iron genoa to make as much northing as possible, before the next N-W buster was predicted to come through at midnight. This got us as far as port El Tor just after sunset, having covered 87 nm. This time the predictions were correct and at midnight the wind started howling, putting strain on our ground tackle. We were surprised to find “Salima 2” a Bavaria 36 at anchor, with an elderly French couple (read, older than me) on board, who have sailed around the world. We first met them in Darwin and have caught up in different ports along the way.
Sunday was spent relaxing, servicing the anchor winch, tightening the jib furler and other maintenance items while the wind continued blowing. On the beach was a hotel with water sport equipment and the board sailors were flying past us. We had internet via our phones, so were able to catch up with emails. Also made some calls via satphone to the rellies. The wind pumped continuously through Monday and Tuesday, but on Tuesday after lunch with Darryl at the Moses Bay Hotel, we walked into town to buy fresh produce and provisions. It was a long walk, but we found more or less what we needed in small shops and markets.
On Wednesday we bit the bullet and motor sailed across the shipping lanes in an 18 knot NW to Ras Gharib, where spent the night in a very rolly anchorage, hardly able to sleep. The next day, we zig-zagged back to Sinai to anchor at Ras Malab, 60nm up the coast. Here we had Egyptian soldiers with AK47’s inspecting our documents and passports, photographing everything, as evidently, this was a military post!
Just as well Karen & Michelle caught a bus to Cairo in Luxor, as they would have been a week late for their flight to South Africa by now. They were being spoilt in Cape Town by their godmothers and friends. The Adelbert’s lent them a car to drive up the Garden Route and visit the Afrikaburn festival.
Vimy in the meantime had developed electrical problems – it appears either the alternator or voltage regulator had packed up. So with his batteries running down, Darryl had to manually steer his boat, hoist the anchor by hand and had no instruments or VHF. We escorted him to Suez, where he hoped to get it sorted. Finally, on Friday the 13th April, the wind died and we motored the last 48 nm to Suez city over flat seas. We were by now over the dust sifting down, and the wind coating the boat in a crust of salt and dust.
Port control gave us permission to motor to the Suez Sailing and Rowing Club, despite the southbound convoy coming down the canal, with the first ships already exiting the canal. It was intimidating squeezing past these behemoths with barely 60m to spare in the channel. We were met at the yacht club by Karkar, the offsider of Captain Heebi of Prince of the Red Sea, shipping agents. He deftly tied us to a buoy and pulled Esprit’s stern to the small jetty and tied us up. Soon after, the larger than life Captain Heebi appeared and relieved us of USD500 for Suez Canal dues, port clearance, agent’s fees and 160l of diesel, which was promptly delivered the same evening.
Captain Heebi also arranged a minibus to drive us into Cairo to see the pyramids on the Monday for USD70 per person including entrance fees and lunch. The Saturday was spent cleaning the boat with fresh water whilst being inspected in turn by Customs, Immigration, The Canal Authority and the Army at 8pm! The Canal Authority makes quite a meal of measuring your boat to determine the fees due, to transit the 162 km long canal. Ours was calculated at USD200, which didn’t seem much, when we were told the big Maersk container vessels pay between USD500,000 to 800,000 to transit the canal. Good revenue earner for the Egyptian nation.
After coffee Sunday morning on Soul, we walked a kilometre to the nearest supermarket which was very modern, having opened in January. Surprisingly, the supermarket and two others, are ventures of the Egyptian 3rd Army. The shop assistants are all national servicemen/women doing their one-year military service after college! The manager (commanding officer) delegated Abu, who spoke English fluently, to accompany us through the shop and answer any questions – not many products have English text on it. We were quite a sensation – they have not had any customers spending AUD70 on groceries.
The trip to Cairo on the Monday was interesting in many respects. All along the road from Suez to Cairo, the areas on both sides of the road were pockmarked by piles of building rubble and rubbish. It appears there are no demarcated rubbish tips and the people therefore dump everything next to the roads. Cairo has a metropolitan population of 21 million people, living in a large rubbish dump, with half built buildings as far as the eye can see. The dreary dust covered structures are relieved by thousands of billboards along the roads, providing the only colour. The Nile flowing through Cairo.
But then you arrive at the Pyramids of Giza: These 5,000 year old structures are truly amazing. It begs the question how such an advanced civilisation from so long ago, building such complex structures, could have degenerated into the chaotic and unplanned city that Cairo is today. Mike and Sarah from Soul, Darryl from Vimy and ourselves, negotiated a guide and camels at $25 per person to take us around this vast area, having espied the sandy terrain we would otherwise, have to negotiate by foot. The camel ride is an experience in itself and not recommended for persons suffering from hemorrhoids. You do walk like an Egyptian after extended periods in the saddle.
Our tickets also included a visit to the Sphinx and the museum underneath it. Then, there was a bit of a frisson with our guide about the size of his tip – everyone tries to milk you for every piaster they can get. Afterwards, we had a lovely lunch, compliments of Captain Heebi, before fighting the traffic back to Suez, where we arrived at 5pm. Thoroughly parched and aching for beers, we decamped to the spacious deck on Soul, where after the beers, many soothing wines were consumed with gusto.
The Suez Canal
We were planning to stay in Suez for four days, but we ended up staying for nine days, due to very high N-W winds off Port Said and on our route to Cyprus. This gave us the chance to do some maintenance work on the dinghy outboard, the deck wash pump and also do a couple of loads of washing in the yacht club laundry. It also provided a non-stop view of all sizes of vessels steaming past us in the canal, a 100m away.
We also braved the streets of Suez city on our bikes in search of a chandlery. Not recommended, as we saw not a single other bicycle and our presence on the road resulted in rubbernecking by vehicle drivers, causing near collisions. Also, in a city where the burqa is quite common, a woman on a bike dressed in shorts and a shirt, raised some lecherous banter from the Arab studs in their clapped out cars.
Ahmed, a canal pilot came on board Esprit on Sunday morning at 10am, the 22nd April and after the main convoy of ships had passed, we headed north in the canal to Ismailia where we arrived at 6pm for a compulsory overnight stop for yachts. Ahmed wasn’t backward in coming forward: As soon as we departed Suez, he asked for a pair of sunglasses and a packet of cigarettes and matches. Five minutes later it was for coffee (only drinks Nescafe) and cake. Annie offered him biscuits, which he grudgingly accepted. There followed a string of requests for orange juice, tea and lunch, which he woolfed down, but didn’t enjoy!
Ahmed was proud to tell us that he had been working for the Suez Canal Authority for 21 years, that they paid well and that he was arranging for his son to get a job there as well. On arrival in Ismailia, the usual arguments then ensued about baksheesh, which really puts a damper on everyone’s Egyptian experience. The four yachts who were transiting together agreed to provide food and water, and tip the pilots USD10 each plus a packet of cigarettes and clothing. They were after all earning salaries from the SCA.
We were warned about Somali pirates, but not about the Egyptian pirates. The pilots demanded between USD20 – 50 each for their eight hours of work. The guy who caught our lines at the jetty, demanded USD5 and the SCA yacht club manager wanted to rip us off for more than the standard SCA, USD21 per night.
The next morning at 5am, when we were supposed to depart Ismailia for Port Said, we were informed that a warship was transiting the canal and that we will be informed later when we could leave. We phoned Captain Heebi who, after numerous calls managed to get us back in the canal after the warship had passed, at 11am. A new pilot Alec, came on board to accompany us to Port Said where we arrived at 6pm. Since the wars with Israel, the Egyptians have put numerous rapid deployment canal bridges in place – see below:
To summarise, for sailors who may be planning a similar trip – April 2018 costs for the Suez Canal in US$:
Suez marina 9 nights @ $21: $189
Canal Authority for a 44’ (13m) monohull: $200
Port clearance: $40
Agents fee (Prince of the Red Sea): $80
Ismailia marina 1 night: $21
Baksheesh pilots: $20 plus cigarettes, food, drinks and clothes.
Cheers, next post from Cyprus.