Suez Canal & the Red Sea

The Red Sea stretches 1400 miles in a northwest to southeast direction and is geologically part of the East African Rift, a fault line that runs from Lebanon through the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba down the eastern length of the African continent all the way to Mozambique.

Captain’s Log by Captain Christoph Schaefer

The Red Sea is characterized by steep shores dropping off to depths of over 2000 meters and shallow coastal flats, which are the home to some of the most prolific coral formations found on our planet and it is rightly considered to be one of the world’s top diving destinations.

The shores of the Red Sea and its hinterland have been witness to many dramatic events in our short human history and Egypt to this day fascinates us with its enigmatic culture. When Napoleon set out to conquer Egypt in 1797 a sudden burst of interest in ancient Egypt spread across Europe. During the 19th century archeology developed and much of our knowledge of Egypt is based on the findings during the last 150 years. Henry Carter’s sensational discovery of the untouched burial tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 was one such find, which sparked a worldwide Egyptomania.

However, much of our picture of Egypt is based on the stories of the Tora and the Bible as it has been told for thousands of years all over the world, where ever Jewish and Christian parents raise their children. I believe that most readers will recall having as a child heard the story of the ten plagues that God sent to Egypt to force the Pharaoh into letting the Israeli people go, their flight from Egypt, Moses parting the sea with his staff and the subsequent dry crossing. Then in the grand finale the Red Sea closed in on the pursuing Egyptians and drowned the Pharaoh and his warriors, complete with horses and chariots. This story of the Jewish people is so deeply rooted in our collective (western) memory that it has been retold not just in religious circles but also has become part of our pop culture and it has been repeatedly made a theme in extravagant Hollywood productions.

As one enters the Suez Canal southbound at Port Said the significance of this location is striking – the meeting of two great continents, the cradle of three major world religions, the very roots of our modern society with its code of ethics and morals lie here. The fertile Nile oasis with the pyramids, the Karnak temple and the Valley of Kings lies to our right side in Africa. Israel, the Holy Land and Mount Sinai where Moses received the ten commandments lies to our left on the Asian side.

While you ponder this, reality strikes swift and hard. As one enters the general bustle of the waterway that dissects Port Said the cries for more Marlboro Red seems to smother any sensation of historic significance. The pilots tug on your sleeve asking for more bak shish, while you dodge the cross canal ferries and the fishing boats. I will not get into any detail and will not provide hints and tricks on how to deal with the pilots and their helpers, some of who camp on your aft deck and open their portable bazar. It is entirely up to the captain on how many cartons of cigarettes, shampoo, deodorant or cash he hands out. That you will need to hand out some, and that it will be substantially more than the commercial ships, that ply this route on a regular basis, have to give is only natural. Do not even try to attempt to get away with giving nothing. It will not only get you into trouble and cause delay but will add frustration to what is decidedly an enjoyable experience. If you are unsure consult your agent what is acceptable and what should be considered as highway robbery. You will soon get a feeling for how it all works.

So much has been written about the Suez Canal, the transitand the procedures that I will refrain from repeating what has been written so often before. My best advice is to relax and enjoy the canal – it certainly is one of the finest nautical morsels to be enjoyed and the general madness that you submerge in for a few hours is just as much part of the canal as are the sand dunes on both sides. The motto of our agent Ibramar greatly amused me: German efficiency and Egyptian creativity. While the efficiency part is probably not readily apparent at first glance one certainly is surrounded by creativity. But as one goes along one marvels just how well this whole canal and the transit really runs. It is a well honed and finely tuned operation and one always has to keep in mind: the yachts are just simply an insignificant part of the traffic transiting this canal daily. The system in place works well, not only for commercial ships but also for yachts, so just relax and enjoy the ride.

One aspect however that I would like to point out, is that the timing of your canal transit is critical. For many years I have repeatedly heard stories of pilots taking vessels aground on purpose and finally found the explanation on my last transit.

Where the northbound convoy does not stop the southbound one does, to let the northbound convoy pass. There are two stops. One in the Great Bitter Lake and the other one in the Al Ballah Bypass. The Al Ballah Bypass is relatively narrow and they tie the ships to shore, which poses no problem for a cargo ship. They just touch the sides of the canal and rudders, props and stabilizers (which they usually do not have) are not an issue for them as both ends of the vessel protrude into the deep water off the canal bank. We ended up with all three hull appendages in the mud – it is soft but it should be avoided for obvious reasons. Our port sea chest also sank into the mud and we required tug assistance to get off the bank. This tug service is provided free of charge. If you transit on the second convoy that departs Port Said at 0700 be prepared to go aground in Al Ballah.

The better option is to go on the first convoy – you get to anchor in the Great Bitter Lake which is no problem at all. The biggest frustration during this incident was that the pilot insisted that the vessel would not touch the canal bank. How do you explain to a pilot that the vessel does not end at the waterline and that not only the shiny topsides are a critical part of the boat? The only other option they gave me rather than going aground was to turn around and pay another time and go south on the first convoy. Once we put a snorkeler in the water to assess how deep we were in the mud and if we could get off under own power the poor pilot just about hemorrhaged. While the locals happily swim in the canal it is strictly forbidden for any one off a ship to be touching the water – maybe there is a deep rooted fear that the waters will part the moment some foreigner touches it – I mean it happened before already so why should it not happen again? The disastrous effects this has on the locals have been well documented.

I have stayed several nights in the canal but do not rate it. Once you pop out the southern end a night sail through the Gulf of Suez takes you to the Red Sea proper. You now have a choice of stopping at several full-service marinas on the Egyptian mainland or turning to the east towards Sharm el-Sheikh and its superb commercial port and its resorts. A trip to St Catherine monastery at Mount Sinai is possible from here but it is a 3 to 4 hour drive. Sailing further northeast through the Straits of Tiran the Gulf of Aqaba takes you towards Jordan and Israel. Halfway up the gulf lies would Nuweiba that offers an excellent anchorage. From Nuweiba it is only a 1,5 hour drive to St Catherine and a 3am start will give you time to climb Mount Sinai to see the sunrise. From the gulf lies Israel to the west and Jordan to the east.

El Gouna and Port Ghalib both feature excellent marinas and are ideal staging areas for a trip to the Nile. Both have international airports and there are several flights daily connecting the coast to Luxor, Assuan, Abu Simbel and Cairo. Private jets for charter are available out of Cairo. It is also possible to do this trip by car. The drive will be somewhere around 3 to 4 hours depending largely on how deranged your driver is.

Ports of entry are Sharm el-Sheikh, El Gouna, Port Ghalib and Taba Heights. At the time of going to press Taba Heights has been closed until further notice as a port of entry, I have however included it in this section for future reference. Check with your agent for an update on the Taba situation.

Clearance Procedures
Clearing in and out of Egypt can be a bit of a drama. There is a huge amount of red tape in the commercial ports, as well as the private marinas that are set up for clearing. One question, that took me by surprise, is that they ask you if you have VIPs onboard. I have learned to say yes. Things run much smoother. But bring with you patience, buckets of it.

And be prepared for some efficient Egyptian creativity. It appears that no matter how well prepared and informed you are, there always is a problem and if there isn’t one it is efficiently created. Ibramar in their efficient way always create a solution. So the creativity and the efficiency work both ways. I always found it quite amusing and the owner and his guests were always taking bets on which direction the problem would arise from next. I feel the most important is to keep your cool. I got yelled at more than once by various officials. The stress they find themselves under is hard for us to comprehend, but it is nevertheless there.

Under Mubarak the entire system was overtly corrupt and the entire country was run on fear. It will change but change will not come overnight. Notoriously underpaid, government officials are afraid of losing out and try to fill their pockets once the opportunity arises. At the same time one false move can spell disaster for them. An omnipresent police, equally underpaid and equally paranoid constantly apply pressure on harbor masters, immigration and custom officers etc. With a population of 60 million and 1,7 million police officers, one in 35 Egyptians is a police officer. Just a few privileged at the top earn enough money to make a decent living. This is the reality of everyday life in Egypt and it is not only us on the yachts who are constantly in trouble. Bullying and corruption are a reality of everyday life one has to live with in this wonderful country. At heart though, the Egyptians are a truly friendly, polite and welcoming people. In all your dealings with officials always keep this in mind.

The following information is geared towards the large yacht, smaller family type yachts will meet with different clearance procedures.
• You need an agent
• Essentially you need to give a minimum of 24 hours advance arrival notification, including a crew and passenger list, certificate of registration. Any thing less than 24 hours can lead to delays and dramas unless they know you from before and procedures have been established. The agent needs to be present in person. You cannot do it yourself – at least not in Sharm El-Sheikh.
• Clearing in when first arriving can take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours. Give them time. You will have to buy entry visas for all your crew. Make sure that you get visas for crew and passengers that need them. I had a Filipino aboard and it was a major drama not having a visa. It was a drama getting her the visa. Once we got her the visa it was still a major drama. Visas on arrival run at 13 USD, multiple entry visas at the embassy cost around 20 USD. I found that with multiple entries it made things easier to have the visa.
• The first time you check in or when they do not know you expect a customs official to search the yacht. It is more of a sight seeing tour, rather than an inspection. It is a pain but they insist; refuse them and they get real weird.
• Make sure all your paperwork is in order. Get a quarantine certificate in Europe otherwise you have to buy one locally.
• In Taba Heights all the crew had to leave the boat and report to the immigration office. The boat was left unattended at the dock. There was no arguing the point. The second time round they were better about it.
• You need to clear into each port you arrive at. Immigration will check all passports, certificates might get checked and copied, certificates of competence of the crew might get checked. So arriving from say El Gouna and stopping in the Sharm area they will call you into port for the procedure and clear you out of the area again. It is not a cheap process. In Sharm it costs around 1500 USD each time. In Port Ghalib and Taba about 300 USD each time.
• Clearing into Egypt appears to be different each time you arrive, even at the same port. However, they usually require anywhere between 4 and 10 crew and passenger lists, 3 copies of captains passport and 3 copies of the registration papers. Best is to have 3 of each ready by time of arrival.

Diving
Diving is of course another not to be missed in the Red Sea. There is some quite decent diving along the shore but the real deal are the offshore reefs and islands such as the Brother Islands, Daedalus Reef and Zabargad in the south close the Sudanese border. Of the numerous shoals lying closer to the mainland we did dive the Fury Shoal. The charts are vague and one needs good light moving around the numerous detached reefs of the shoal. But the diving is very rewarding and well worth the effort to go out of your way a few miles and find the reefs.

There is some confusion regarding the permits needed to visit the offshore islands and reefs. Permits are being sold by the relevant authorities in Hurghada port. It is best to get in touch with one of the local dive shops. The confusion arises as there are strict laws regulating the local dive industry. We were told that we needed the same permits which can take several months to obtain. However what is needed is a permit issued by the navy. It is more of a security clearance rather than a dive permit. Not all dive shops and agents are aware of this arrangement. If you do not manage to obtain one, a small tip to the light house keepers at Daedalus Reef and on Brother Islands will usually fix the problem. Do keep in mind that they will try to maximize their tip. We were asked for 3500 USD, but gave a more realistic 120 USD for 6 divers and 3 non divers. The navy themselves who also came to inspect us were highly professional and polite and did finally offer the first decent explanation on the permit issue. We did not have a permit and as one would expect they did not give us any troubles whatsoever. Just the opposite they made us feel genuinely welcome to this spectacular water world. They would not accept any gift, bar a cup of coffee on the bridge, which they greatly did appreciate.

Anchoring
Anchoring is strictly prohibited within  national park limits in Egypt. The only exception is when there is clearly an all sandy bottom or in case of an emergency. If you need to anchor in coral areas anchor in depths well beyond recreational diving depth (60 meters plus). The danger is however that you might lose an anchor. We lost a reef anchor in 115 meters of water in December 2010 off the Brother Islands.

What is an acceptable method to moor a boat is described below. I also just stood off, for hours on end, when the conditions did not seem right.

Essentially anchoring on the reef is quite straight forward. You drop a reef anchor in shallow water amongst dead or at least degraded coral on the reef top from your tender and run a long line back to the boat. In settled but steady wind conditions one anchor will be enough. In case of stronger winds use two anchors for and aft and lie parallel to the reef. The big advantage is here the loads are split between the two anchors and the wind holds the boat steady reducing roll dramatically. You will also need to use two anchors if you have a number of other boats near by.

Your biggest problem will be however settled conditions with flukey winds and no wind at all. You will need to secure yourself on all four points to avoid ending up on the reef.
Instead of using reef anchors I bought an assortment of cargo webbing straps. These you can use to tie up to coral heads whenever this is possible. This is by far the preferred method as your impact on the reef is minimal. Wire strops will work but they are difficult to use on a yacht.

El Gouna / Abu Tig Marina
Mary Ibrahim is the office administrator at  Abu Tig Marina. Tel: +20 65 358 0073
Philip Jones is the manager at Abu Tig Marina.

The marina has an entrance channel which has been dredged to 3.6m through the reef flat, the channel is approximately 400 m in length and 40 m wide at the most narrow point which is to the seaward end. There are four pairs of lateral buoys and beacons with lights marking the channel. From the seaward end of the channel, the first set are fixed beacons on metal structures placed on the reef edge (Lights: 1 flash every 5 seconds, flash length 0.5 seconds), then the next two pairs are floating buoys (Lights fixed) and the last two are are fixed beacons on structures each side of the marina entrance (Lights: 1 flash every 5 seconds, flash length 0.5 seconds).

Taba Heights
Taba Heights Marina is the preferred point of entry into Egypt in the northern Gulf of Aqaba. Nuweiba is another possiblity but is entirely run by Egyptian government officials. Checking in and out could turn out to be a long drawn out procedure. At Taba Heights the private investors of the development have a positive influence on the officials.
Nikki Priestly is the public relations manager at the Marriot Taba Heights. She was the initial contact at Taba. She also has a mail contact at  Sindbad the tour operator in Tala Bay Nikki at Sindbad Jordan.

Osama El Hawary is the manager at Taba Heights Marina. He needs to be informed 48 hours before arriving at the marina to arrange for clearance.
Emad El Sharouny is the operations manager of the Pro Tours office in Taba Heights. He can arrange for any travel for guests or crew, he can set up activites such as golf at Taba Heights, supply you with anything you need in terms of drinks or food, an address for packages, etc.

Tarek Rihan is the general manager at Taba Heights +20 12 312 2473.

Port Ghalib
Captain Sherif Fawzy is the marina manager at Port Ghalib Marina It is important to establish a good relationship with him as he has a lot of clout at the development with the hotels and the airport. He has opened up more than one door for us.
We have had good luck with the staff at the  Intercontinental Palace Port Ghalib. As the staff changes frequently I am not including any contact details. The Executive chef provided fresh vegetables and fruit through his contacts on the Nile River. The hotel gets supplied twice a week with fresh produce. It is a bit of a pot luck to get good stuff. The first time round they were at the end of the cycle and the selection was very sad. The second time round it was fresh supplies, and we got good quality produce at a reasonable price.
The hotel can also arrange for airport transfers in nice cars. I tried to use the marina office for this and got a Bedouine Taxi which was not up to the standard. They charged an arm and a leg for a Mercedes they got down from Hurghada. The hotel has at least one 5 series BMW but of course it is not always available so book early.

Waleed from  ZAS Z Aviation Services is the ground handler for private jets arriving at  Marsa Alam Airport. His cell phone contact is +20 106 577 589. There is no special VIP terminal at  Marsa Alam Airport; private jet travlers exit through the normal arrival gate.

Sharm el-Sheikh
The commercial port at Sharm has a great dock. Security is good at the port. Clearing in was easy enough with the agent taking all the papers and returning a few hours later with everything processed. While the clearance is much easier than Taba Heights the price is about 5 times more.

Charlie Parker is the manager at the Four Seasons Hotel. They have a large mooring buoy installed in front of the hotel. It is a private buoy and you need to ask for permission to use it. The cost is 500 USD for a 24 hour period.
Ahmed Askary is the man in charge of the mooring. Mail him you arrival details once you have cleared it with Charlie Parker. Ahmad’s cell is +20 10 388 7565
The hotel phone contact is +20 693 603 555. Charlie’s cell is +20 10 004 5070

Tiran Islands
The two lagoons in Tiran are perfect anchorages. The way the light conditions are the  north lagoon is a best entered after 1200 and departed before 1200. The entry into the lagon is at 142°T. It is a tight entry and you have strong currents. I had about 1.5 knots setting north as I went in. There is enough room but it is tight.

The  south lagoon is straight forward. Set a parallel index of 027°T at 0.62nm port onto the FL(2) green marker in the Grafton Channel. It is set in concrete. I set another parallel index of 027°T on the cardinal mark at 0.35 nm but it is on a chain and moves. The green lateral mark is the one to choose. The shallow coral patches are easily spotted even from a distance. There are also a number of mooring buoys that make identifying the reef easier. The bommies just to port on your way in are difficult to spot – they do not even show up on the satellite picture. I am not sure of the depth over them but consider them a real hazard.

Nuweiba and Dahab
Both Nuweiba and Dahab offer excellent anchorages with the possibility to tie up to large mooring buoys. Expect a visit from the local authorities, who are super polite. Nuweiba is a commercial port and a port of entry. Ferries connect to Aqaba, Jordan and to Saudi Arabia. I have never attempted to check in there as the only agent there was not interested in dealing with us.

Both Nuweiba and Dahab would make an excellent staging point for a trip to St Catherine.

Soma Bay Marina
I have not been into  Abu Soma Bay, however the Soma Bay Marina looks good. They have one dock of 45 meters and have confirmed that they can accommodate large yachts, shore power is not yet set up. Soma Bay Marina is an ideal staging point for the reefs and east of Safaga. Contact Jamil Saad for reservations.