We anchor off Port Said in heavy dry heat and a crowd of ships. The anchor weighs twenty tonnes – I am trying to record the process of lowering it but as the mighty chain runs off the winch it causes a vibration in the hull, a deafening high steel singing, as if a giant is circling his finger around the rim of a volcano-sized glass. The record levels go off the scale.
As we swing around into the current a strangely peaceful atmosphere fills the ship. There are eight pairs of flip-flops outside the saloon, and soulful singing coming through the door. The Filippino crew are doing karaoke, serenading their true loves.
In the engine control room the chief engineer is under the desk fiddling with the back of the second engineer’s computer. “What are you doing, chief?”
“He couldn’t hear his music. He can’t work without his music!”
Robbie Williams suddenly belts out his desire to feel real love and know it’s for real. Smiles all round.
The Suez pilots come aboard and disappear into the Suez lounge, which soon begins to emit gusts of cigarette smoke and loud Arabic. The crew call the Canal the Marlboro Channel; Egypt is ‘Marlboro Country’. You don’t get through without paying an informal tax.
Do it – or else
A Russian captain is on the radio, arguing with Port Said control. The Captain has lowered his gangway on the starboard side, but Port Said want in on port. It’s already down on starboard, the captain protests.
“Do you want to transit the canal tonight or not?” returns Port Said, crisply.
No further argument.
Great Bitter Lake
We begin our run in the middle of the night. At dawn we are anchored in the Great Bitter Lake, which smells of damp ashes. It’s as a passing place – we wait for the north-bound convoy, which appears mid-morning, led by a Spanish warship. Around us are feluccas with white fin-like sails, and fishing boats. Two boys, no older than 12 or 13, haul in a net, hand over hand. It takes an age, heavy work and harsh without gloves, while their adult captain holds the boat steady with his oars. They get about twelve fish.
Just here, just there
Our Suez pilot is Major Chief Pilot Captain Roshdy. He tells me war stories from 1973. When he talks about Israel he points northwest, when Saudi, southeast. Everything is close here – looking at the map you understand that the conflicts of the Middle East have the terrible bitterness of intimacy.
Not that Captain Roshdy is bitter. He has met the entire world on the ships he has piloted. His conclusion? Nationality is nonsense, flags are nonsense, countries are nonsense. “I believe ony in humanity, not nationality,” he says. “But how many of us think like this?”
How to solve it
“One year after we get a just settlement in Egypt you would see Saudi change,” he prophesies. He has great fears for the future of his country. No one is in control. He would not vote for them, but he says we are wrong to fear the Muslim Brotherhood: they are reasonable people, and organised. The problem is the militants. If we refuse to deal reasonably with reasonable Muslims we will empower the unreasonable.
When it is time for afternoon prayer he aligns his mat on the bridge at a precise angle – a compass bearing to Mecca. He breaks off once in his prayers to instruct the helmsman: “Steer one-six-zero!”
“One six zero,” echoes the helm.
Steaming through sand
The desert unrolls on our port side; starboard is irrigated and populated. We pass an appalling place, a deserted dictator-chic palace: you have to spend a lot of money to create something so hideous. It has its own parade ground. In the distance are a slum of huts where the soldiers must be billeted. The soliders are filling sandbags in forty degree heat.
Chris, the mate, and a man of surpassing phlegmatism (how romantics hide their souls!) nods at a large concrete cake in the water. There are a stream of them passing us by. “If something goes wrong with the engine that’s what we get,” he says, “That piece of concrete. To moor a billion dollar ship.”
“It’s not really worth a billion dollars?”
“A billion Danish crowns, I think.”
Your Help Welcome
Billion Crown Ship would make quite a good title for my book about all this, though it will not be based solely on this voyage. I am currently seeking suggestions for titles. No payment, but fulsome acknowledgement, champagne and literary immortality practically guaranteed. The front runner is my own Down to the Sea in Ships. I also like Ben Crystal’s suggestion Sea Fever – when in doubt, steal. Do send yours in, please. I’ll post them in this (incredibly, mystifyingly) popular blog.
Get off my boat
A line of blue appears at the head of our procession of great ships – the Gulf of Suez. “You have 15 minutes,” Captain Roshdy says. My bag is packed. I tried everything short of bribery but Maersk Group control were implacable – their final communication included a map of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean with a thick red line around them. In this area we will not carry you, ran the substance, so you will get off. Stop trying to change our minds, it’s becoming irksome, said the subtext.
Pirates – How to deal with them
The crew will have a safety meeting to prepare for pirate waters. They will double the watch and increase the speed: the Gerd Maersk can do twenty knots and more easily; no pirate has ever attacked a ship doing 18 or over. They will be in touch with NATO. They will keep constant visual and radar watch. If they are boarded they will call for help and lock themselves in a secure part of the ship. They say they are completely unworried, and seem it, too. The freeboard is too high for any pirate to climb, they say.
Serious, serious ship
I hate leaving them, it’s doing a runner in their hour of danger, when another pair of eyes might actually be useful. The gangway is lowered as we break out of the canal into open water. A small – it looks tiny – launch approaches as I go down the aluminium steps. The ship is vast above me, the waters boiling away from her sides below. Finally, an impression of her gigantic size and power – huge furls of water, ridges of blue and white are shoveled away from her as she steams. She’s quick, too; the launch is fighting to keep up.
Bag in one hand, camera in pocket, tape recorder stowed – I am committed to radio, but not sufficiently so to die while trying to do a commentary on this. “Have you got a passport?” hails a young man on the launch. ”Yes!” He signals his helmsman and they come up. The gangway is too high – I cling on as Prashant, our cadet, lowers it. I call him Captain Verma because he will be one, one day, unless he drops me in the drink. You would be spectactularly dead.
Step across, jump down, and we’re peeling away. The Gerd rushes on as we circle and make a run at the ship behind us, another Maersk vessel. A young man in shades is having help manoeuvring his trunk down their gangway. “Have you got a passport?” the agent hails. He has. His trunk is strikingly heavy but we don’t quite lose it over the side. We smoke celebratory cigarettes. Khalid is a Bangladeshi engineer. He claims a lot of seafarers have even heavier luggage. That’s one thing about ships – no baggage allowance. His was carrying a yacht and a truck, as well as the usual containers. “I joined to see the world,” he says, “And I’m in the engine room!”
Welcome to Egypt
Suez is flocks of rambunctious house-crows all shouting, packs of dogs roaming, a hoopoe on a post, litter and detritus and spotless military and customs types in white uniforms, braided gold. Our passports are stamped by a man in a wood-pannelled office, sitting beside a huge chest of tiny drawers that must have been here when the British were.
Conflict of interest (resolved)
Maersk’s operation here is seamless – I am beginning to get used to their efficiency. The Suez agent gives me three telephone numbers to call in case of problems, but what problems? We have a vehicle and a driver to Cairo, and reservations at an hotel, which include dinner and breakfast. I have a momentary crisis of conscience: can I take Maersk’s hospitality ashore and remain an objective observer? Convene an emergency meeting of the Internal Ethics Committee which decides I most definitely can.
Hands where we can see them
We hurtle to Cairo across the desert, passing army checkpoints. All the police are hiding, I have been told. The army are certainly not: their British, American and Russian armour is everywhere, barrels pointing at the traffic. The soldiers stand guard with bayonets fixed to their AK47s. The fact that the bayonets are sheathed only underlines the menace.
Pirates – how they deal with you
“On one crossing we heard another ship, a tanker, on the radio. They were being attacked by pirates,” says Khalid. “We could hear the crew screaming.” The pirates tend to shoot at the bridge and accomodation block as an opening move, to disorientate and disable resistance. ”That ship was hit by RPGs. The crew are still in captivity,” Khalid says, quietly.
Civilisation, of a kind
Our ships and our friends will be fine, we tell each other. They will. We haul Khalid’s trunk out at the airport and say goodbye. He’s going home via Dubai and worried about the smoking situation in the airport. I am driven to the Le Passage hotel. There are British mercenaries and Egyptian hookers at the bar. The local beer is called Stella and it’s much better than the Belgium brand. The barmen keep the glasses in ice. Ah, dry land…
In the next edition – Rejoining the ship in Malaysia – Singapore Strait at night (not for the faint-heated) – North to Vietnam – Close encounter with a Typhoon – China and Hong Kong.