I have been through the Panama Canal over a couple dozen times and am still impressed, as it is an engineering wonder, but today was my very first daylight transit of The Suez Canal, or “Ditch through the Desert”.
When it opened in 1869, the canal was 200 to 300 ft wide at the surface, but only 72 ft wide at the bottom, with a depth of 26 ft. Over the years, the canal has been widened and dredged deeper on multiple occasions, with the last project being completed in 2015.
Enjoy the photographs of our transit from South to North.
During the initial years of operation, numerous ships ran aground, as it was only 72 ft wide at the bottom, so numerous widening projects were completed over the years. By the 1960’s, although it was dredged to about 40 ft, at 33 ft of draft, the channel width had increased to at least 179 ft.
In the mid 1960’s plans were being developed for a further widening, when the Canal shut down in 1976, as a result of the Arab-Israeli War. A number of ships were trapped in the canal for many years, about 15 if memory is correct.
By August 2015, after an $8.5 billion project, the canal was lengthened to 120 mls and a 2nd channel created between the Bitter Lakes and the Bridge, which permits north and south convoys to operate concurrently.
My first transit was southbound on a cargo ship in May 1976, less than a year after it re-opened. This was a night time transit, so as cadet, my job was to keep the searchlight trained on the stbd bank. The next transit was our 2015 WC, which should have been Northbound in daylight, but construction delays meant we went through at night.
The Northbound convoy commences at 04:00, so right on time, we were awakened by weighing anchor (raising the anchor). Once the anchor is aweigh, the ship is navigated to the entrance of the buoyed approach channel.
At a distance, the entrance is readily identified by the shipyard, with floating drydock and large crane.
Must be fun living in this area, with ships passing almost 24/7, with the start of the morning convoy starting about 05:00. Viking Sun was the lead ship in our convoy, as we had no warships today. The CMV Columbus was next, then 7 other cargo ships. Convoys are created with warships having first priority, followed by cruise ships, container ships then other cargo ships/tankers, etc.
We passed the housing estate, then a small boat basin, before reaching the first bend in the canal, which was a very wide and gradual turn.
Since the entire Canal is only crossed by 1 tunnel, 1 bridge and a number of tiny ferries, the pontoons seen below are a very common sight in multiple locations along the entire length of the canal.
Can only assume these are to facilitate the crossing of military equipment and troops across the Canal, should the need arise.
In addition to this berm, they have guard towers along almost the entire length of the canal, probably 1/4 to 1/2 miles apart. They are all manned by armed soldiers.
Between the southern entrance and the Great Bitter Lakes, the canal is tidal. The buoy shows a clear indication of the tidal stream, which was flooding, or going with us.
Looking ahead, you are amazed by the contrasting sides of the canal. The Port, or West side is mostly irrigated with lush vegetation, while the Stbd side, or East side is barren desert.
In addition to the pontoons ready for launching, the Egyptians have recently developed new technology and pre-built floating pontoon bridges, which are docked along the canal bank. When required, the entire structure is towed into place across the canal.
The Great Bitter Lakes is a common anchorage for both Northbound and Southbound convoys, as the approach channel is only single lane. Therefore, a S’bd convoy will have navigated South to the Lakes and anchored, while our N’bd Convoy passes them in the Lakes. Once the N’bd convoy is clear, the anchored ships will resume their transit.
The next few photos show us navigating through the Great Bitter Lake, which is many miles wide.
I watched most of the transit from our balcony on Deck 4, which is 2 decks below the Bridge. While transitting the Lakes, I spotted one of the Bridge Lookouts
Since the vessel required a Suez Canal Pilot on the Bridge, the Master operated the Bridge with a bridge team in full protection equipment, with gloves and masks, to limit the potential of them catching any virus. Once the pilot disembarked, the Bridge was thoroughly disinfected and those on the Bridge entered quarantine in their cabins. The Staff Captain and remaining Deck Officers, not on the Bridge in Suez are now conning the ship.
This is one of many measures being taken to ensure this vessel remains healthy.
Above is the result of the Canal Authority’s last major capital project, the creation of a 2nd channel. The original single channel was only wide enough for 1 ship, so all passing was completed in the lakes or passing bays. By creating a new 22 mile long channel, N’bd and S’bd convoys can operate concurrently.
As seen above, the new channel is to Stbd and it opened in August 2015.
When digging out the new channel, the sand was simply piled up on both sides, so no doubt it gets blown back into the channel, requiring frequent dredging.
Having 2 lanes for concurrent N’bd and S’Bd convoys has significantly increased the canal’s capacity. Seen above is one of the S’bd ships.
Next few photos show the transit through the new Canal.
Since the bridge only has 1 main navigable section, I doubt whether they will be able to double the canal through the bridge. If they eventually succeed, it will require some extensive modifications to the bridge.
Next few photos show the approach to the bridge.
The Murbarak Peace or Al Salam Bridge is for cars, but when we crossed below it was completely empty – no traffic. This is considered as the bridge that joins Africa and Asia.
North of the bridge, the canal is almost straight for 20+ miles, as it heads to Port Said or the new exit channel.
The next few photos show the transit through the original canal.
To reduce the traffic through Port Said, they have built a new exit channel.
Our transit north was continuous, as we didn’t have to anchor waiting for the Southbound convoy to clear, so we completed the transit in about 10 hours from entrance to exit, or 12 hours, if also considering the buoyed approach channels.