SUEZ CANAL Transit
Phil Jones, manager of Abu Tig marina, asked us to write to him regarding our experiences transiting the canal. Here is out letter:
Thanks again. We had a wonderful time in Abu Tig and in Egypt in general. You asked us to let you know how our transit of the canal went.
Overall, the transit was a lot like we expected and perhaps a bit better. Of course, we had heard some very bad stories and felt prepared to deal with what would occur.
We sailed overnight from Abu Tig and arrived at the Suez Canal Yacht Club around 9am. We had been in radio contact with Felix Agency for hours and they did a good job of juggling quite a few boats that were arriving. We got tied up to the buoys quickly and with plenty of help from the yacht club people.
A number of boats had previously reports excessive charges for canal transit. In Abu Tig, at least 5 boats were carefully measured and we calculated the expected charges based on the published formula. We all had these numbers for reference. The measurer was on Sea Witch with a couple of hours of arrival. Although Felix Agency had promised to accompany the measurer, they were not present on our boat or any of the other boats I spoke with that day.
The measurer came down below and sat at my saloon table. He asked me to measure my engine room - width, height and length. No other measurements of any kind were taken. He asked for the numbers from my coast guard doc certificate and also looked at the measurement form I had prepared. I showed him my calculations and the expected amount. He said he "would see".
The previous week, Heartsong III and Nighthawk had transited the canal. Their measurer (no idea if it was the same gentleman or not) had asked them for a watch, sunglasses and a phone. We had cigarettes, money in an envelope and sunglasses prepared. When he went to leave, we gave him the money ($10 USD - all the boats had agreed to not give more than that) and a pack of cigarettes. He politely asked if we had anything "to remember the boat by". We gave him a hat and a picture of the boat. So far, we were content with the process.
Well, nothing happened the rest of the day. No results, bills, etc. We met Achmed from Felix Agency and had a coffee with him. He seemed like a very nice young man. He even showed us a nice local place to each and facilitated the groups transportation, etc.
The next morning, the wind was blowing and the canal was not permitting any vessels to transit. It took until noon for us to find out what was happening. Prior to that, the person from Felix (not Achmed) kept telling people we would transit that day. OK. No big deal.
We had heard from Nighthawk that they had showed up in the morning with the bill and a pilot. Even though the bill was judged excessive by Nighthawk, they paid it because they were told there was no time to discuss/review it. We wanted to avoid this.
We all waited all day with constant promises that the bills would come and we could pay and get everything out of the way for the transit the next day. Despite constant promises, nothing happened. A number of us went to the movies; Achmed accompanied us. I did wonder who was dealing with the Suez Canal Authority but assumed they would probably pull what they did with prior boats.
Sure enough, the "bills" showed up between 9 and 10am the next morning. Actually, Achmed showed up with a "form" that he wrote numbers on in front of me. The amount for Suez Canal Fees (not agent or port fees) was $225, not the $149 I had carefully calculated. I told Achmed this was too high and he said I wouldn't get to transit if I wanted to argue. I knew I could be in for at least a day or two of delays, more Yacht Club Fees, etc. so I agreed to pay it. It was "only" $75 too much. I was never told what the calculations were, the gross tons, etc. I was never given a receipt from the Suez Canal Authority, etc. I talked with Outlandish and Poppy (the boats next to me) and they also were 50% higher than expected. By the way, all of us had precalculated our tonnage. And, our calculations matched the US calculations on our documentation certificates.
Our first pilot was delightful. His name was Halid. After we got used to the fact that he liked to drive very close to the poles on the left side, we relaxed. He was definitely paying attention to where he was going and watching/driving carefully. Our whole group was held up when a convoy was catching us. We anchored in the lake for an hour and had a pleasant conversation with Halid. He had no problems when we asked him to smoke outside the cockpit and to use the facilities over the side. We had expected to be held up at some of the "stations" and asked for cigarettes. We mentioned this to Halid and none of this happened.
We arrived in Ismalia two hours after dark and anchored (the club was full). Halid tried to get a pilot boat to take him off but a friend came by in a dinghy to do it. All the boats had agreed to give the pilots $10. We gave Halid $15 (we thought he was very nice and didn't ask for a thing and gave us great service, a couple packs of cigarettes (we hadn't had to use any at the intermediate stations), some crayons, balloons and toys for the kids (we always enjoy sending stuff to the kids). Halid gave us his phone number and said we should come visit if we get back to Egypt or stay in Ismalia. This was the kind of Egyptian hospitality we had often experienced.
Around 11pm that night, the Pilot/Police boat came by and asked for our crew list. No problem. Then, they asked for cigarettes. We gave them a pack. They asked for more and we explained we were out. Then, they asked for beer. They were getting a bit pushy. We told them we only had one left.
Day 2 of our transit was different. Our pilot was Mohammed, the chief pilot. He was polite and friendly for the first hour. He ask all the right questions to figure out whether we were wealthy or not and made repeated excuses to try and go below. We were uncomfortable with his driving as he did not seem to pay much attention. He weaved all over the place and spent a lot of time writing stuff and keeping track of the other boats. I helped him write down all the boat names, flags, etc. He spent a lot of time yelling into the radio. One minute he was friendly, the next he was yelling or complaining about his job. It seems he was a pilot on large ships where it "was air conditioned, they served great food and he didn't have to drive". He was very upset when we asked him to use the facilities outside and told us he had never been asked to do this. The Red Sea Pilot recommends this so we can assume that most boats do this. But, we simply explained that our toilet was already sealed for our open ocean passage to Cyprus.
Around noon, we served lunch. At that point, Mohammed was going to let me drive so he could eat. I punched the autopilot. After that, he let me "steer" the rest of the way. We were grateful for that.
Mohammed kept asking us to go faster. We were running about 7 knots most of the way, close to max for us. I was burning fuel at a ridiculous rate but was happy at that point to do it and get this guy off my boat. About halfway to Port Said, Mohammed was talking with one of the stations. We got the impression that we were about to stop. I put 5 packs of cigarettes on the table, told him that was what I had left and said that any packs we had to give out came from those 5. About 2 hours south of Port Said, Mohammed told me that if we went faster, we could avoid having to stop. I cranked it up another 100 rpms to maximum safe throttle and made a show of watching the engine temp carefully. We did not stop at any of the stations.
Near Port Said, Mohammed talked with customs and told us we might have to stop. He knew that any cigarettes came out of his stash. He had a heck of an argument on the radio. We eventually put a crewlist and a pack of cigarettes and a small weight in a plastic jar and just tossed these to the customs boat.
We had been told not to give the pilot their "present" until they were getting off the boat. Mohammed kept hinting but we found excuses to delay - check engine, make adjustments to the boat, etc. He asked us if we needed the third pilot and we declined.
With the pilot boat approaching, we gave him his "present" - $10 and the remaining 4 packs of cigarettes. Earlier, he had mentioned that his deaf daughter collected money from other countries. We also gave him a number of small bills from a number of other countries. He tried to hit us up for more but we held firm. No problem. We gave him two packs of cigarettes for the pilot boat. He was good about holding them up and making sure the pilot boat saw them so they wouldn't bump us.
We went out the harbor entrance and, since it was getting dark and we were tired, we anchored with 2 other boats. Just before midnight, we were awakened by a pilot/patrol boat. They were holding their boat 2-3 feet from ours and shining a huge spotlight in my face. I was instructed to contact Port Said control. Control asked what we were doing, I explained and they said that there was no problem. Then, the pilot/patrol boat asked for cigarettes. We actually had one pack left and gave it to them. This wasn't enough for them. They got very insistent and told us they needed a pack for each of the 4 people on the boat. The moved their boat right up against us and wouldn't take no for an answer. I tried to contact Port Said Control on the radio but the pilot boat kept keying their mic and preventing me from contacting them. They then turned off their lights and took off in a hurry but continued to click their mic for 15 minutes as I tried to contact Port Said. We decided we didn't feel comfortable there so we left for Cyprus.
We had dealt with small amounts of baksheesh and even some minor amounts of physical intimidation while visiting Egypt and weren't terribly bothered but what we experienced in the canal transit was excessive and left a bad taste in our mouths. We thoroughly enjoyed the Red Sea and thought about coming back next season but we do not want to deal with the canal.
We recounted our experiences with other boats. Tatanka had no problems with either pilot, only the overcharging in Port Suez. Piquet's pilot insisted on driving the boat into the club in Port Said and ended up hitting the wall. Blown Away II's pilot ran them aground at almost 7 knots while leaved Ismailia. They insisted on going back to the dock and checking the damage. The pilot - Mohammed - tried to get them to sign a paper in Egyptian that supposedly said they were happy with his services. They insisted on not transiting until the next day and insisted on a different pilot.
Overall, it seems that this year's experiences were very similar to what was written up in last year's cruising notes.
Again, thanks for all your help. We really enjoyed Abu Tig and have
recommended it highly to next year's group...jpc