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Saturday, 13 November 2010

Memories of Suez Canal, '70s

So, the Israelis and Egyptians had just about made up, the canal was re-opened on the 5th of June 1975, and there we were, cream of the Nation, fresh out of the TS Rajendra a few days later on the 7th of June 1975, ready to sail. Scattered like so many dried leaves in the summer winds, 120+ of us went forth to sail under the red ensign. Many of us wanted to sail across Suez, because beyond lay the dreams and delights of Socialist countries, with their welcoming feminine arms and charms.

A dollar and pound went a long way there, so did the rupee, actually. Another story for another day.

Yours truly was lucky enough to be on one of the earliest merchant ships to cross the canal, the date is lost in the diary I kept, which got stolen years later with all the other diaries. There were reports of minor floating mines popping up every now and then, brought to the surface by the wake and churn, and similar explosions, still making the news every now and then, and extra lookouts were posted, without a clue on what we were supposed to do if we did spot sommething looking like an undefined mine floating in front of the ship. Throw a stone at it, no stones, ok, shackle, bolt, piece of dunnage wood?

On the desert side of the Canal (polite word for Israeli side) still lay the remnants of much of the Egyptian Armies hardware, growing older gracefully under the desert sun, a pity digital cameras were not around then.

Here's more of what I remember of the Suez Canal transit . . . I wonder if things have changed?

# Four pilots, each one ate at least 2 or 3 meals and drank half a dozen or more colas, while nibbling constantly at the cookies and biscuits on the bridge. and took back huge bags full of cigarettes, condiments, and whatever else. One even visited the dry provisions room to take a look, and picked up spices as well as "daal" and "basmati rice".

# A "Suez Canal Light" was rescued from the bottom of the rope locker, where it had lain forgotten since the ship was built. The Electrical officer and his assistant workedon it for days, and then we struggled to get it ready, after which, once we were in the canal, it didn't matter if it was used or not. It was heavy.

# The anchorage slots in Port Suez were really tight, and required amazing ship-handling, especially on unwieldy bulk carriers with wide beams. The slot we got would always be somewhere in the middle. Yes, you could buy fresh fish from the boats that swarmed around you, in exchange for old ropes, paint cans, and other scrap.

# Pilots and everybody else would only board and disembark by the gangway. This would include all variety of shopkeepers, who both bought and sold, and at that juncture, did not know the difference between a West German Deutsche Mark and an East German Deutsche Mark. For some reason, they always sold a lot of candies and gum - borrowed from other ships.

# These shopkeepers were also the emergency boat crews, who were supposed to keep their boats ready, but were actually running a great trade in Egyptian souveniers and artefacts. If you wanted something they didn't have (they had these photo albums) then they would deliver at the other end. In a day and age before mobile phones.

# We were like awake and on duty most of the while during transit, which could take a day or so, and the whole issue of fatigue and IMO inspired rest was not a parameter then. Also, keeping the ship in the middle while steering, especially if the ship was on even keel, was very difficult. You needed the best quartermasters on duty then.

# Fine sand got into everything. Even and especially into your nostrils. And for some reason, we would often pick up a pigeon or two hitching a ride towards the Med, once one stayed with us till Poland. Mostly, they would fly away near Gib, fatter for their experience.

# Crossing the South bound convoy, since North bound would be non-stop, was always great fun. Thanks to free rights of innocent passage to everyone, you saw all sorts of ships and flags, merrily next to each other - even if they were at war elsewhere.

I loved the Suez transits, and look forward to doing them again, as well as sailing past Gib. Some day soon, Insha-Allah.

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