The recent pictures of the gigantic Evergreen containership sitting forlornly across the Suez Canal, bow and stern hard aground on the sand, with a diminutive digger scraping away around the bulbous bow, sparked a few memories.
For a start, the sheer size of the canal itself, able to offer a passage to ships of 400 metres maximum length, seemed extraordinary, with the waterway at least three times the width it was when we used to transit it in the 1950s and 60s. They have done plenty of digging since those days, vastly widening, deepening and “double tracking” the waterway, keeping it competitive and reacting with speed to ship owners using alternative routes. They invariably return.
My first voyage through the canal was in 1957, not that long after the waterway had been nationalised by President Nasser and the dust had settled after what had become known as the “Suez Crisis”. Ships flying the Red Ensign were, perhaps understandably, unpopular and workers on the waterway (a lot closer than they are today) would cease their labours and shout abuse at us as we steamed past. Our sailors would respond in kind.
“Seafarers in those days, as they probably do today, find it better to steer clear of politics.”
There was something of a “post-Imperial” arrogance around at the time that said that the Egyptians who had taken over from the French and British canal management, which included its pilots, would not have a clue and would be unable to cope. Curiously, there was the same attitude in the Isthmus as the Panamanians took over from the United States in 1990. There was not much humility around in either case.
The Egyptians were given a certain amount of initial assistance from the Soviet bloc but within a short time were operating the waterway, with conspicuous efficiency and according to our senior officers, a lot less fuss and ceremony than had been the case when the “colonials” had been doing the heavy lifting. I can remember a pilot pointing out the the huge statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps as we passed it at Port Said. It had been felled in 1956 and only his feet remained on the plinth.
With the first transit I recall, we had a Russian pilot, who, despite our apprehensions of Cold War politics, seemed perfectly amiable. He had been a shipmaster in the Baltic and seemed very happy to be working somewhere warmer. Seafarers in those days, as they probably do today, find it better to steer clear of politics. Subsequent transits were with Egyptian pilots, who were clearly proud of their waterway and keen to demonstrate their efficiency.
Curiously, our company had, some years previously, made available a number of cadetships to young Egyptian officers and it was not uncommon to find our ship given priority to head the convoy, as the officer in the operations centre remembered his old shipmates. Some of those cadets, I am told, were to rise to head the management of the canal authority. The masters of loaded tankers, who expected to be given the priority places, would seethe with rage at their downgrading by a mere cargo liner.
“The canal remains at centre stage, although like everything else in shipping, the public only notices it when it gets blocked.”
Memories of those canal transits are of a chaotic couple of days, the ships tied up for a few hours at either Suez or Port Said, surrounded by bumboats, agents’ launches, the canal crew with their little boats to be hoisted aboard, the searchlight in its box to be hauled up under the bow. There was potable water to take, there were regular patrols to ensure that the mooring ropes didn’t vanish over the bow or stern.
I have wondered from time to time whether those involved in today’s frenetic passages have time to meet the “gully-gully” conjuror with his live chicks and whether the offspring of “Jock MacGregor” with his authentic Clydeside accent still swarm aboard to offer their dubious merchandise. Sadly, I rather doubt it, with both haste and security very much against them these days. I once bought, from a very plausible chap offering convincing testimonials from previous distinguished customers, a remarkably cheap dress shirt, beautifully wrapped in a smart box. The first time it was washed, it shed its sleeves, which turned out to have been fastened with glue.
They were excellent salesmen, I recall and they probably have gone on to market far more important products in 21st century Egypt.
I have only been back to Egypt once in recent years, to Alexandria and the amazing Arab Maritime Academy with its banks of simulators and world-class facilities, evidence that the maritime industry is taken commendably seriously in the region. And Egypt’s canal remains at centre stage, although like everything else in shipping, the public only notices it when it gets blocked.
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Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.