The Suez Canal

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23 December 2009

The Suez Canal, a waterway which cuts through the desert, is more often than not seen as a sort of “marine highway”, what with its colossal dimensions, its massive display of industry and organisation and its picnic areas –such as the lake in which Tara rested last night.

Countless ships pass through it every day: boats such as monstrously large cargo-ships (up to 500,000 tons!), oil tankers and bulk carriers (which transport unpackaged bulk cargo). It’s difficult to avoid feeling tiny in this lengthy channel, just as fishing boats seem minuscule next to massive ships built of hundreds of thousands of tons of steel. In a sense, the mammoth shipping vessels mirror this civilization of worldwide commerce, with its gigantic quantities of merchandise in perpetual movement.

Through the canal passes a continuous flux which supplies and fuels a major part of the worldwide machine, constituting yet another undeniable asset of the Near East – which already possesses many. In fact, the Near East is the meeting point of continents, cultures, and hydrocarbon resources (something which an extensive number of pipes, derricks, tanks, oil tankers, and impressive platforms with their lit flares make impossible to forget).

Regrettably, aside from some nice scenery of the two lakes ( Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake), Tara’s deck doesn’t exactly offer much of a view of the canal, which is bordered by high banks. To appreciate its size and enjoy the perspective, you need to climb into the crow’s nest.

From time to time, a small town or a radar station appears along the long road of the channel, lined with military posts and observation checkpoints.

Only now, actually experiencing the canal, do I understand why we were made to turn around yesterday because of an American military cargo ship: choked in the narrow 195km long gully, a convoy would make a very easy target if it weren’t for the heavy network of control and observation surrounding the canal.

The landscape seems almost bare, made up of a repetition of carefully located elements. A few seabirds are in sight and high up in the sky, flocks of migratory birds are travelling to their winter destination in long geometrical shapes and figures.

From time to time, we come across fishing boats, or pilot boats guiding larger ships. Sometimes, we can make out ghost structures in the fog, such as the monument to the defence of the Canal in 1914-1918 which emerged from the haze like a strange obelisk, or long forgotten tanks in the dunes surrounding a statue commemorating one of the battles of Suez.

Lake Timsah is where we have decided to stop for the night. In the late afternoon, we arrive there under low skies. Even the waters give the impression of being grey, and everything seems motionless. After diner, as a distraction, several of us improvise the taking of a picture to celebrate the New Year: we do this on the deck, with flashlights, a projector, and survival suits. The exposure time is fairly long, and to make sure our timing is right, an old photography tip is given to the crew to help them count the seconds: One second corresponds to the time it takes to say “one elephant”. So there we are, counting elephants in unison on the front deck… Ronan, who won our little contest, is playing photographer with his digital camera while Anne-Kristel handles the headlight, Jean the spotlight. In the meantime, Daniel, with his flashlight and orange survival suit, looks like a comical cartoon character.

The next morning, after a peaceful night, we set off once again under a thick, grey-blue fog. This time, the landscape is nearly monochromatic, giving those on deck an impression of tranquil solitude which the fog magnifies as Tara glides along the middle of the canal or the Great Bitter Lake.

It almost feels as if we are nowhere, shrouded in an abstract world. Not until late morning does the sun make an appearance, and in the stillness of the air, the colossal floating castles passed along the way seem to be moved by a calm yet powerful force. We reach the mouth of the channel in the early afternoon. The scenery is different. On the starboard side, the desert rises up in mountains; on the portside, the shore is moving away as we enter the Red Sea, surrounded as we are by large ships each waiting for their turn to pass through.

There is quite a bit of traffic and watch calls for more observation. In the night, if it weren’t for navigation instruments, one could easily get lost among all these sparkling lights: buoys, boats, platforms are difficult to distinguish from the lights of the coast, and the narrow Red Sea is bustling with motion. As we sink deeper into the night, Tara remains on standby.

David Sauveur