| Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2016
World Cruise Sector - Dubai to Southampton
The clocks moved back one hour again which was useful because we were expecting to enter the Suez canal at 0600 local time. We woke early and everything was quiet and we were stationary. It was just light and to our surprise we saw the Queen Mary 2 in front. She was going through the Suez canal one day earlier than scheduled. We heard that she had been refused entry to Oman and Jordan because of norovirus on board so she was one day ahead. Hopefully it is all under control so she can go to her next port in Cyprus. This was our third trip through the Suez Canal, the last on the Queen Mary 2 in 2010 and we thought we knew what to expect but it did not turn out that way. There have been tremendous changes undertaken since 2014 and much of the canal was unrecognisable.
From Suez at the southern end to Port Said in the north is 173 kms by road. This is very similar to the ~164 km length of the Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The very first canal was said to have been dug in the reign of Senusert the Third, also joining the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Then in 591 BC a canal was dug between the Nile and the Red Sea. Only in the 19th century was it considered possible to try again and link the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Ferdinand de Lesseps, who later built the Panama Canal, started work in 1859 and the canal was completed in 1869. It was jointly held by the Franco British Suez Canal Company until nationalisation in 1956. As a result of the Middle East discord, the canal suffered blockage and closure in 1967 but reopened in June 1975. The Suez Canal is simpler than the Panama Canal because it does not need locks. However there needs to be regular dredging and maintenance to keep the channel open. When it was first opened big ships could not pass each other for much of its length. Up until very recently there was just one shipping lane with passing areas in Ballah-Bypass near El Qantara and in the Great Bitter Lake. On a typical day, three convoys transit the canal, two southbound and one northbound. The passage took between 11 and 16 hours at a speed of around 8 knots, the low speed helping to prevent erosion of the banks by ships' wakes. The average number of ships per day was 49 but even so the annual income was ~$5.3 billion (2014 figure).
That was the situation we had in 2010 and expected to find this time. What we had not realised was that the new President had in 2014 started a new initiative to construct a new canal section from km 60 to km 95 combined with expansion and deep digging of another 37 km of the canal. This now allows navigation in both directions simultaneously in the 72 km long central section of the canal. The work was started on 5th August 2014 and finished on 16th July 2015 - the first ships transited the new sections when the they were formally opened on 6 August 2015 by President Al-Sisi on time. This was a huge civil engineering achievement which involved 250 million cubic metres of 'dry' excavations for the new channels and 260 million cubic metres of dredging by 45 dredgers whose output went into 20 sedimentation basins. The canal is now capable of taking ships of up to 66 foot draught and 254 foot beam and 240,000 tons with a capacity up from 49 to 97 ships per day and transit times reduced to under 11 hours. This task completed under one year has to be contrasted with the original works which used over 35,000 labourers and 10 years for a much smaller cross section. This may not be the end of the story as some of the largest supertankers still have to unload some of their cargo into a 'canal' tanker and reload the other end to get their draught down to 20 metres (66 feet). Currently 9% of world trade goes through the Suez canal and tonnage is expected to increase at between 3 and 9 percent/year. Maritime trade is of great importance, for example 95% of all UK trade is by sea.
Now what does all this mean to a passage through the Suez Canal. We were travelling in a North Bound Convoy from Suez to Port Said so we were using the new cut in the middle and the freshly dredged channels. The spoil from the new channel was almost as high as the ship and restricted the view from 6 deck where our cabin was considerably and one could only just see the tops of vessels in the Southbound convoy when we passed it. The new channel no longer passes close to the town of Ismailia where several of the the memorials we took pictures of in 2010 are sited. We no longer passed the impressive railway swing bridge which is now a bridge to nowhere as the railway line is severed by the new cut.
The other major difference was that we saw few of the army encampments with their extensive armarment and tanks although we did see plenty of the military pontoons and floating bridges and their seems to be a new wall all down the western bank. Given a choice of direction to travel a Southern passage probably has more to see on the shore if it is your first time. We will include in the pictures below some of our pitures taken in 2010 from the Queen Mary of the better known landmarks such as the railway bridge, the two major war memorials and Ismailia that we could only get glimpses of from a North Bound Convoy. If you have been through before or have an interest in the civil engineering then the North Bound convoy is definitely the one to take - I can scarcely believe it was all planned and completed so quickly. To minimise confusion I have therefore decided to add pictures of places you only see fully from a Southbound Transit here
I will now describe our actual passage in 2016 on the Queen Elizabeth. We were told that we would start moving and enter the canal at about 0600 so we got up at first light (~0520) and looked out and could see the Queen Mary 2 was in front of us and got a couple of pictures from the balcony which was on the Port side. We also went down to check that the front of deck 6 was also open up for the passage and went up to the Commodore Club which is the whole width of deck 10 at the front to watch what was happening - it was too cold and windy out on the front of deck 6 even in Rohan jackets. Such a contrast from the 34 deg in Petra and steady temperatures of 28-30 of the previous days. We started moving shortly after we got to the Commodore Club and it became clear that the Europa 2 was first in the convoy followed by the Queen Mary 2 then ourselves on the Queen Elizabeth then we could see a large number of big container ships moving to follow us. The ships are accompanied by tugs and obviously there are pilots on every ship. The spacing is about one and a half miles for safety and the speed would be about 8 knots. The Europa 2 entered almost exactly at 0600 followed by the QM2 and ourselves at 0620. By now the sun was up and we had a good look at Port Suez - the Canal had changed little here from what we remembered so far.
We continued to follow the QM2 until we reached the Small Bitter Lake at about 0815 where one followed a buoyed channel and shortly after entered the great Bitter Lake passing a big military airfield with camouflaged and reinforced hangers on the Port Side. The Great Bitter Lake now has two channels to allow ships to pass following the construction of the new 27 km long bypass on the western side of the existing channel which continues out of the end of the lake.
Shortly afterwards one gets to the newly dug cut which is on the east side of the old channel. Initially they run close together with a number of cross cuts so one can see through to the original channel. They new cut the proceeds straight on whilst the old channels went past Ismailia which one got glimpses of over the sand banks and through a more major cross cut. We also could see the tops of the two major war memorials which were on opposite banks of the original channel. We passed the new buildings of the Suez Canal Authority and a statue commemorating the workers that created it. We could see glimpses of the South Convoy at various times through cuts through the sand banks where roads led across to the vehicle ferry points.
We could also see the railway bridge to nowhere and see the old tracks. The El Ferdan Railway Bridge was completed in 2001 was the longest swing-span bridge in the world, with a span of 340 m . Once we were back on original channel we could also see the huge sedimentation basins where the dredging were left to drain. The biggest dredgers could extract 230,00 cubic meters a day and pump it to the shore via floating pipes. The last of the classic landmarks was the Suez Canal Bridge also called the Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, a high-level road bridge at El Qantara. In Arabic, al qantara means "arch". It has a 70-metre (230 ft) clearance over the canal and was built with assistance from the Japanese government. It also seems to be a bridge to nowhere as we have never seen any traffic on it.
Entering Port Said one can see increasing irigation and cultivation on the West bank including a huge canal presumably from the Nile. There also appeared to be large areas of salt pans. Once one is close to Port Said there are a number of parallel bypasses to allow efficient access to the port and the sea for the last 10-15 kilometeres. We followed the QM2 on an Eastern channel whilst the Europa went left into Port Said.
After leaving the canal it was planned that the two Queens would greet each other. Coming alongside the QM2 at 1700 in order to exchange greetings and take photos we realised now why the ships clocks had changed back to Suez time - often the clocks do not change if we are not going ashore. But that would have meant the two ships met at 1800 when half of the passengers were in dinner and that was not a good idea. The disadvantage is that the clocks have to go forward before we reach Istanbul. We ran in parallel for a few miles giving a perfect photo opportunity with the low sun onto the side of the QM2 facing us.
Our dinner reservation in the Verandah restaurant was for 1830 tonight so there was plenty of time to get ready. We had arranged for our half bottle of pinotage to join us, and then added the sauvignon blanc from the same CWC wine tasting. We also added a glass of dessert wine to accompany the foie gras course. As usual we chose the degustation menu, $35, which was as excellent as always. The only disappointment was the cheese trolley but it must be very difficult to get proper French cheese at the end of a World Cruise. There is always a good selection on the cruises from Southampton.
The next major interest was our approach to Istanbul through the two Turkish Straits namely the Dardanelles and the start of the Bosphorus with the Sea of Marmara between them. They are the boundary between the continents of Europe and Asia. These narrow waterways have been strategically importance since the Trojan War was fought near the Aegean entrance. Both Straits are International Waterways and the treaty controlling them is still the 1936 Montreux Convention which gives Turkey control over warships entering the straits but guarantees the free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime.
The Dardanelles is unique in many respects. The very narrow and winding shape of the strait is more akin to that of a river. The strait is 61 kilometres long and varies between 1.2 and 6 kilometres wide, averaging 55 metres deep with a maximum depth of 103 metres. It is considered one of the most hazardous, crowded, difficult and potentially dangerous waterways in the world. The currents produced by the tidal action are such that ships under sail had to wait at anchorage for the right conditions before entering the Dardanelles. Water flows in both directions along the strait, from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean via a surface current and in the opposite direction via an undercurrent.
The Dardanelles have often played a strategic role in history. The ancient city of Troy was located near the western entrance of the strait and the strait's Asiatic shore was the focus of the Trojan War. Troy was able to control the marine traffic entering this vital waterway. The Dardanelles were the scene of many other conflicts, perhaps the best known being the Battle of Gallipoli during the First World War. We then proceeded through the Sea of Marmara.
|Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Content revised: 11th May, 2016