Much of the day was spent traversing the Suez Canal, a much more straightforward project than the Panama Canal. The lecture staff had us well prepared as to the route, the history and the future of this small cut that changed naval travel. The Constellation is not a good ship for canal viewing. Its outdoor decks only face to the side and do not go all the way around for the most part. The staff opened the helipad deck, which is normally off limits to passengers. We had to wear closed toe shoes for no apparent reason and crawled through a small passage behind the theater to get there.
The canal cuts the journey from Asia to Europe almost in half and sailors had been wishing for it for years before engineers got serious about actually doing it. Early measurements conducted by the French under Napoleon indicated that the level of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean varied by 29 feet and engineers were worried that a tidal wave would wash in once they punched through and greatly alter current water levels Luckily, those measurements were wrong.
The $100 million dollar excavation began in 1859 and took ten years to complete. 30,000 workers a day, 1.3 million people in total work on the dig. Excavation began with hand tools, until enough of the area had been dug to bring in steam operated equipment. Because the canal is in the desert, feeding and watering all those laborers was problematic and many succumbed to cholera and dysentery. The 120 mile long canal is not the shortest route; it takes advantage of three lakes along the way, some of which were dry lake beds before the water came through. Because the elevation between the Mediterranean and Red Seas is nearly the same, no locks are needed, which has made it easier to accommodate ever larger cargo ships with continued dredging. However, the Red Sea is much saltier and its marine residents had a much easier time adapting to the Med than vice versa.
When first opened in 1869, the canal consisted of a channel barely 26 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom, and 200 to 300 feet wide at the surface. GeneralIy the traverse took about 40 hours. It was so narrow many ships ran aground, bringing traffic to a halt. To allow ships to pass each other, passing bays were built every five to six miles. At first less than two ships a day made the trip, disappointing the investors who hoped to earn a fortune from the project. Our sail through today profited from a recent improvement project which widened the canal and added two lanes for much of the trip, shortening the travel time from eighteen to eleven hours definitely worth the $230,000 we paid for the trip. Parts of the canal have two way channels, but traffic still has to be controlled during the single lane parts. We gathered with other ships wishing to make the crossing at 4:30am and formed a convey for the trip. We spent the day following the Queen Mary who congested our stay in Petra. Each ship was boarded by a local pilot who assisted us in keeping to the middle. New shifts of pilots came aboard throughout the day and we saw one enjoying our delicious buffet at lunchtime.
Construction of the canal led to the growth of settlements in what had been, except for the town Suez, almost uninhabited arid territory. Much of today’s trip traveled through arid desolate desert, but there were a few spots were irrigation had turned the desert bright green. We passed a massive new housing development which should contain resorts and hotels when it all is finished. Only one bridge passes over the canal. Ferry boats dart between the traffic, providing regular crossing service at close intervals.
The canal is supposed to remain open for any and all nations to use, but as is often the case, politics have gotten in the way. Theoretically, the canal was open to all during World War I and II, but the naval and military superiority of the Allied forces denied effective use of the canal to the shipping of Germany and its allies. Following the armistice between Israel and its Arab opponents in 1949, Egypt denied use of the canal to Israel and to all ships trading with Israel. The first of two canal closings occurred during the Suez Crisis of 1956–57, after Israel attacked Egyptian forces, and French and British troops occupied part of the canal zone. Several ships were trapped within the canal during that blockade and were unable to leave until the north end was reopened. The second closing was a result of the Arab Israeli War in 1967, during and after which the canal was the scene of much fighting between Egypt and Israel and for several years formed the front line between the two armies. Egypt physically barricaded both ends of the canal, and fifteen ships, known as the “Yellow Fleet” for the desert sand they slowly accumulated, were trapped in the canal’s Great Bitter Lake for the entire war. The international crews of the anchored ships provided each other with mutual support and camaraderie though by 1969 most of the crew members had been allowed to leave. With the reopening of the canal in1975 and the signing of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979, all ships (including those of Israeli registration) again had access to the waterway, though only two of the fifteen trapped vessels were able to leave under their own power.
Our sail through was calm and uneventful. The day was sunny and warm and when we entered the Mediterranean Sea, it was as calm as the waters of the canal. We did hear that a LPG tanker sailing a few days behind us has been seized by pirates. Sigh of relief....