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Day 031: Suez Canal

Posted by on 2013/06/19

Day 031: Suez Canal, south to north
Position: N 30º 28′ 52″ E 032º 20′ 40″
Weather: 31ºC wind north 15 kts, canal is calm
Last Port: Aqaba, Jordan
Next Port: Ashdod, Israel
Status: underway, northbound in the Suez Canal

From the Navigator

At approximately 0330 we will approach our anchorage waiting area and shortly after drop anchor to await our local officials and the start of the convoy. Just before 0700 this morning we will weigh anchor and join our convoy as we commence our transit of the canal. We anticipate passing through the great Bitter Lake at around 1030 this morning and at around 1430 this afternoon we will pass under the Suez Bridge. At around 1530 we will pass the El Ferdan Railway Bridge and expect to be clear of the canal around 1800. Once clear we will set easterly courses towards Ashdod.

The Suez Canal – quite a lot of sand

Tugs shadowing us as we head northbound through the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal
Even in ancient times, people dreamed of a water passage between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

The Isthmus of Suez is less than 100 miles of open desert, but even this was a formidable task for workers with shovels. There may have been an ancient canal from one branch of the Nile eastward to the Red Sea, but the Suez route was never more than an idea until the 19th century. Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798 raised the possibility of a canal once again, since it would shorten the route to India, and open a vast French empire in the East. But Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt was short, and nothing was done. The French public, however, had become enchanted with the idea, and a workable plan was finally submitted a half-century later.

Engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps had the good fortune to be a personal friend of Said Pasha, the Khedive (viceroy) of Egypt. Technically, Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire, but the Turkish Sultan had very little influence any more. De Lesseps received permission in 1854 to found the International Suez Canal Company, and to dig a canal from the Mediterranean coast to the town of Suez on the Red Sea. He would take advantage of several depressions in the desert, which became the Bitter Lakes. The port of entry for the new canal would be named Port Said, after the Khedive.

The formal opening of the Canal was celebrated in November 1869. The first ship to pass through was the Aigle, carrying the Empress Eugenie of France. A long procession of 68 ships from many nations followed, with much fanfare. The Canal rapidly become a commercial triumph, and the Canal Company grew wealthy. Khedive Ismail, however, fell on bad times because of huge debts.

The Canal was defended during both World Wars, but continued feuding over the Canal Company let to the Suez crisis of 1956, when troops from Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt. The Eisenhower administration negotiated their withdrawal, with the help of the U.N. The Canal was closed between the two Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. The canal was blocked by mines, trapped ships, and artillery fire. It was not until Henry Kissinger worked out a truce that the Canal was cleared and re-opened with the help from the United States.

Since that time, the Canal has again resumed operations with gusto, and substantial improvements have followed. The main channel has been widened and deepened, with several bypasses added. Now traffic can proceed in both directions, without requiring one ship to tie up while the other passes alongside.

The Suez Canal continues to be one of the busiest shipping routes on the globe, and a marvel of modern engineering.

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