In a way, using either of the world’s main artificial shipping canals (Panama and Suez) in a sailing circumnavigation is a form of cheating… the natural world was not formed (or designed?) in this way. The existence of these canals is entirely a result of enormous human or human-made resources: money, technology, equipment, paid labor, slave labor, and countless human lives. Without these canals, the world would be a very different place, and their significance cannot be understated. 8% of world trade now transits the Suez Canal, including two thirds of European oil. It makes up an astonishing 20,000 car haulers, container ships, fuel tankers, and fishing boats each year, with an average canal fee of $250,000 per transit. The ability to move warships through this canal also has huge geopolitical consequences… any attempt to close it or destroy it would be met with a massive response by military assets from around the world. The Suez Canal is one of those things we just never thought anything about during our normal lives in the city, but as we look this enormous machine in the face we realize we’re looking at the gears of a major intersection of world trade and geopolitics.
Our original hope had been to depart from Israel and spend a week or so visiting the Egyptian sites as we paused at the canal’s southern entrance at Suez. But after some deliberation following our recent chaotic experiences in the Middle East, we decided we’d skip it. Since making that decision, there have been several coordinated ISIS attacks with dozens killed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and just a few days ago the Muslim Brotherhood issued a warning to all foreigners in Egypt: leave by Feb 11, or you risk physical violence. With Egyptian tourist revenue already down 95% since 2011, we kind of understand it all now.
By the time we’re through the canal it will be a three day-process: one day for measuring the boat and paying “canal fees” (bribing every official in the region is probably closer to the truth), and another two days for transiting the 100 mile long canal. We’re slower than the merchant ships, so we’re forced to make an overnight stop at the half way point in the canal. Despite a massive expansion project currently in process, most of the canal can still only accommodate one big merchant ship at a time, so they run in a northbound and southbound convoy system that maximizes the throughput. But the smaller boats like us don’t really count… we just get shoved over near the canal wall, and are mostly ignored by everyone (other than the Egyptian Navy, who appears to suspect us of being Israeli secret agents… or something).
Because of the narrow width, navigating the canal puts us in closer proximity to the big cargo boats than we’ve even been before. The enormity of these things, some four football fields in length, really must be seen to be appreciated. Even more impressive are the mountains of sand piled up on either side of the canal… dredged and piped over many decades of canal expansion projects and battling the endless buildup of new sand blowing off the surrounding desert. Hiking to the top of these sand piles would be good day’s worth of exercise.
As we approach the canal exit, our attention turns to the Med crossing. A wild low pressure cyclonic system is forecast come ripping through the Med in about 36 hours, and we won’t have time to get to Rhodes before it starts to set in. So with just 350 miles to go before our circumnavigation is complete, we face the most intimidating weather forecast we’ve ever had…. beating the cold front’s arrival in Rhodes is the only thing that matters to us right now.