A record of sorts

Alan Priddy reports from his RIB, Spirit of Cardiff, as he passes through the Suez canal in record time on his attempt to break the round the world record

Alan Priddy reports from his RIB, Spirit of Cardiff, as he passes through the Suez canal in record time on his attempt to break the round the world record:

“Today’s the big day, our transit of the Suez Canal. Our agent, Nagib Latif, has fixed it so we can go straight through in a day – normally vessels have to overnight at Ismailia, roughly halfway along. The system is that ships travel in convoy, with two departures a day from Port Said, and one northwards from Port Suez.

Nagib has an impressive collection of testimonial letters, including one from the Cable & Wireless Adventurer, whose Suez transit he arranged in 1998.

At around 0700 our pilot arrives, and after ascertaining that he isn’t going to get any cigarettes from us (not for nothing is the Suez known as the Marlboro Canal), we set off at around 0730, at the tail end of a convoy with a number of large cargo ships ahead, spaced roughly half a mile apart.

It’s a hazy day, with not too much in the way of sunshine. The early part of the passage is somewhat uninspiring. We’re fairly low in the water, so we can’t see much above the canal embankments, although we do get a slightly different perspective when a train comes past along the track running parallel to the canal.

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As we get further south, past El-Qantara, the embankments have shallowed out somewhat, and the occasional habitations come into view. More fascinating are the sand dunes, scrub and palm trees of the Sinai Desert on our left-hand side.

At El-Ballah is one of a whole string of checkpoints, staffed by people whom our pilot doesn’t know. So a couple of packs of cigarettes are required to smooth our way through. But interestingly, our pilot doesn’t even step ashore – he simply tosses the packs over onto the quayside. But now from a sedate 8 to 10 knots, we get a short burst of steaming along at over 20.

At just after 1200, we arrive at Ismailia, the halfway staging point where ships are normally expected to overnight. Here we drop off our first pilot, who takes a taxi back to Port Said, and pick up another. This second pilot is rather more interested in the boat, and takes the helm. Definitely what we want – he cranks up the speed to over 20 knots, although he rather gets carried away, so Alan Priddy has to ask him to throttle back. We want to make sure we have sufficient fuel to get us to Jeddah!

For a while, the artificial canal opens up into a wide expanse of water with channel markers called Great Bitter Lake. Fringed with palm trees and apartment blocks to our right, and barren open desert on the Sinai side.

It’s also pretty apparent that we’re travelling through a very sensitive military area. The banks of the canal are dotted with numerous army posts, and every so often, Bailey Bridges are lined up on ramps ready for immediate launching. Sinai, of course, was invaded by the Israelis in 1967.

Perhaps more irksome is the expectation that each of the checkpoints along the way expects baksheesh in the form of cigarettes. If they don’t get it, they can force delays upon you. We have a tense moment at the last checkpoint before Suez, where clearly they’ve learned that the one before only received one pack of cigarettes (our last). But our pilot sorts out the situation with a bribe of a more conventional nature, and we’re allowed to continue.

The good news, as we arrive in Port Suez, is that we have at least one record of sorts, albeit unofficial. We’d been told that up until now, the fastest transit of the Suez Canal was nine and a half hours. Our time? Eight and a quarter.”


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