THE SUEZ CANAL
"East of Suez"
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
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
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.
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.