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Blue Bar No 2

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2

Continued from My St. Clears Voyage, Part Three


The actual canal distance from Port Said in the north to Port Tewfik in at the southern exit of the canal is something like 80 or 90 miles. The lakes at Ismalia occupy several miles of this, which is roughly just over half way, (when sailing from the north.) This is very convenient, as it allows, say, a south bound convoy to anchor in the lakes, whilst a north bound convoy "passes" it on it's way to Port Said. This arrangement allows an almost continual flow of traffic from either end.

Before we had arrived at Port Said, there had been much talk of the canal in the messroom, especially from the older seamen who had been through it before. I, and probably the other Ordinary Seamen, was certainly on edge about steering the ship through there for the first time, and I think the older seamen played on this a bit. The main story was of Canal Pilots who were very temperamental, and dismissed seamen from the wheel at the slightest deflection from the course set by them, and sent for the next man on watch to take his place. There were stories of Pilots who had dismissed in turn, every member of the Deck Department, and had actually taken the wheel themselves, and then demanded that junior officers steer the ship! There were the inevitable comparisons between the Suez and Panama Canals. (I had been through neither!) It seems that in the Panama Canal, (especially during the war years,) an armed guard stood beside the man at the wheel to make sure he applied the wheel precisely as commanded by the Pilot. I never sailed through the Panama Canal, so I never had the opportunity of observing this for myself. However, as far as my own experience of the Pilots on the Suez Canal was concerned, they were quite normal. Having said that, I have to recollect that apart from my turn on the wheel whilst we were adjusting the compass outside Liverpool, I had never steered a ship under the direct orders of a Pilot, and even that had not been in a confined waterway, so I could not at that moment, really say what was "normal" and what was not!

Despite my apprehensions, I need not have worried. The Pilot that we had was great. Once I had taken over from my predecessor, the Pilot came into the wheelhouse briefly, had a look at the compass, presumably, checked that I was steering the given course, and retired to the wing of the bridge where there was more breeze! The next time I saw him was as we were approaching a bend in the canal. He came in and told me to "keep that buoy fine on the starboard bow - or whatever". Once he had "conned" the ship round the bend and set a new course, he repaired once more to the wing of the bridge.

Once I had mastered my apprehensions at steering a ship under the directions of a pilot in a confined waterway, I felt fine. I really began to enjoy my position. Here was I, a sixteen year old, responsible for steering ten thousand tons of war supplies on their way to Russia through this most famous of waterways. It was really quite heady stuff!

In the canal, the maximum speed allowed to ships is eight knots. This is to avoid the larger "washes" that would be created by greater speeds, which over time would erode the banks of the canal. Eight knots is good for the helmsman. It is not so fast that the ship responds too quickly, giving rise to possible over correction. It seemed to be the speed at which the ship responded to the slightest touch of the wheel, and at least in our instance, the ship handled really well in the canal. We had I suppose, what could be called an ideal passage through there, with little or no wind to distract the ship from the course we were trying to steer.

From the helmsman's position, the view from the wheelhouse is not wildly exciting. The narrow slits created by the protective slabs on the fore part of the bridge shielded most of what lay around us from view, they (the protective slabs) also kept the wheelhouse relatively cool! Directly ahead of the helmsman was the fore mast. We could see the banks of the canal as they seemed to merge somewhere ahead, but the actual point where they merged was mostly hidden by the foremast. Also somewhere ahead of us was another merchant ship. It was probably a mile or so away, and of course, there would have been another one astern of us. Mostly, the waterway is a series of dead straight reaches. As we approached a bend, the ship ahead of us could be seen after it had negotiated the corner, its lower hull hidden by the sandbanks of the canal, and momentarily appearing as if it was sailing through the desert, then we would also turn the corner, and once more, the ship ahead would be almost out of sight. At least with the restricted view of the ship ahead, it was easy to notice when the ship was going to wander off course in the smallest degree, and to take corrective action. I must say, I emerged from my first "wheel" going through the canal feeling a mixture of relief, (that it had gone so well,) pleasure, (I had "done" it!) and I must admit, a certain amount of self satisfaction.

Off watch was a different story. For most of the journey, there is really nothing to see, except mile after mile of sandbanks, an occasional glimpse of the ship ahead or the ship astern, and in wartime, there were the gun emplacements placed at regular intervals along the banks of the canal. These were manned by British soldiers who would shout out as we passed for us to throw them any spare firewood. It is very cold in the desert at night, and they would certainly not have been able to gather any firewood from such a barren landscape! Mostly, we were unable to oblige, so we just exchanged greetings and went on our way. Guarding the canal must have been a pretty soul destroying job for these soldiers.

Occasionally we would see some activity ashore such as some army transport traversing a road, which at some places ran parallel to the canal. There were one or two "places" to be seen, plus several crossing points where, I suppose, there were ferries to transport people and animals across the canal. There was also the large Australian New Zealand Monument to soldiers lost in WW1. As we approached the lakes, there was more activity to be seen ashore. There is of course, the township of Ismalia there, and some sort of Control station. We sailed into our position in the lakes and dropped anchor.

Whilst at anchor in the lakes, we began to feel the first waves of heat as the breeze generated by the ships' passage through the canal ceased. The water was a very cool looking deep green colour, and most inviting for a swim. However, we were given to understand that occasionally, sharks swam through the canal, so we didn't risk it. Hardly had the last ship of our south bound convoy dropped anchor, before the north bound ships began to appear. It was interesting to see them sailing slowly and purposefully past us, and then into the northern part of the canal. I don't really remember the time scale of all these movements, but when we got under way again, it was dark, and when we awoke next morning, we had dropped the pilot and the light, and were proceeding down the Gulf of Suez, on our way to the Red Sea.

"East of Suez"

We were now "East of Suez", but any romantic ideas remembered from films or stories by Somerset Maugham about the Raj in India, or the Malaysian Rubber Planters were soon forgotten. We were still very much on a wartime footing. Lookouts were kept, and a strict blackout at night was observed despite the fact that we were still many miles from the Indian Ocean where German and Japanese submarines were known to be operating. We did not travel in convoy, but from memory, the other ships that had accompanied us so far, were either a few miles ahead, or a few miles astern. Throughout the Red Sea, we passed many ships on their way to Suez. It was a very busy waterway. The only landscapes we could see were the bare rocky mountains of the Sinai to our port side, and the equally barren landscape of Egypt to our starboard side.

It took us about a day to reach the end of the Gulf of Suez, when we entered the Red Sea proper. With the wider open reaches of the Red Sea, we picked up a more pleasant breeze, and although it was warm, it was not unpleasant - at least not whilst working on deck. For the Firemen down below it was a different story, and despite all the big ventilators being turned into the wind and regularly adjusted to keep facing into the wind, they came up at the end of their watch almost blue in the face with the intense heat of the boiler room, plus the general ambience of the area.

After something like four or five days, we emerged from the comparative confines of the Red Sea, and into the wide open spaces of the Arabian Sea. We did not stop at Aden, but carried on sailing within sight of the coast of the Arab Emirates for a few days longer. Despite remaining closer to the coast line, we were aware of being in much more "open" waters, and therefore more vulnerable to attack from German or Japanese submarines than we had been in the Red Sea, and the lookouts were intensified. Neither of these situations arose, and we sailed unmolested through the Straits of Hormuz, and into the closer confines of the Persian Gulf.

Once in the Persian Gulf, the waters were like glass, and the heat intensified considerably. There was much more passing traffic - mostly tankers of course - and for this reason, lookouts were kept at all times. Several of the crew had been to Abadan before, and regaled us with stories of the intense heat to be experienced whilst sailing "…up the Perishin' Gulf in a tin can…"! (Up the Persian Gulf in a Tanker!) When, after a couple of days sailing in the Persian Gulf, we arrived at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab River, we picked up a river pilot, and once again, I looked forward to the experience of steering a ship in confined waters. My turn on the wheel duly came around (from the mouth of the river, it is some twenty or thirty miles to Abadan, so it took us quite a few hours at reduced speed.) Somehow, it did not feel quite the same as steering a ship through the Suez Canal. Whether I had become "used" to it, I can't say. Although the scenery in the Canal had been practically non existent, I imagine there had been (for me,) the thrill of steering through such a famous manmade waterway for the first time. Sailing up the Shatt al Arab River was an even more non visual experience, with nothing more than low scrub and the occasional palm tree on the banks of the river. From memory, I don't think we passed any sort of town or settlement on the way up to Abadan.

My St. Clears Voyage is continued in Part Five: Normal Ship Duties?