The Egyptian government endeavors to require as many people as possible to be involved in a single ship’s passage through the Suez Canal. Over the course of ten hours and a mere 200 kilometers, we had seven different pilots come on board the CC Rigoletto. They worked in pairs but it seemed that one pilot did all the work while the other was only present to argue, talk loudly over their walkie-talkie, take personal calls and generally create significant noise.
Not only were we required to take seven pilots but also an additional crew including one Suez electrician and two men who I doubt had any maritime qualifications whatsoever. The electrician’s duty is to operate the ship’s main pilot light on the bow, which is only needed in southbound convoys occurring at night. We were traveling northbound during the day and therefore the electrician’s job was unnecessary. Regardless, his presence was compulsory. The other two men were in charge of the small boat that we took on board at the beginning of our crossing. The small boat is sometimes needed if ships dock on the side of the canal to spend the night. But large container ships never dock along the canal. These two men spent their time on Rigoletto hawking cheap trinkets and black market electronics in a makeshift market outside their temporary cabin.
Every person associated with our Suez voyage demanded “gifts” of Marlboro cigarettes. The port agent, the pilots, the Suez crewmembers—none would disembark without taking their carton of cigs. I was told by the Chief Mate that sometimes a Suez pilot will board the ship and concern themselves with nothing but acquiring cigarettes. Once a pilot demanded a carton from the pilot boat, and when had them in hand, he took off without boarding the ship! During our voyage the captain gave out a total of 40 cartons of cigarettes.
Petty bribery perhaps wouldn’t be so surprising if CMA CGM were not already paying 500,000 dollars to traverse the canal. And that’s the cheapest rate. Ships arriving after 4:00 a.m. on the morning they wish to transit the canal pay an extra 10%. Avoiding the Suez canal altogether and taking the route to the Mediterranean around the southern tip of Africa would cost the same amount of money in fuel as the price of paying the fee to transit the Suez. For this kind of money, I would think the gifts would be coming in the other direction.
Bribery aside, the passage through the Suez was magnificent. The canal is quite narrow and ships sail from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean in single file. To someone standing on land, the ship appears to be sailing on a sea of sand. We crept past towns and white mosques tinted yellow in the early sun. A lone cow ambled along the bank. Fishermen rowed out in front of us and we sounded the horn in long blasts to warn of our approach. I wasn’t allowed to disembark when we berthed in Port Said because of the unrest in Egypt, but our passage through the Suez was peaceful and a highlight of my time at sea.