Getting stuck in Suez Canal due to language barrier

Last month I sailed through the Suez Canal with the VO65, a special trip. Our last port before arriving in Egypt was Valletta, the capital of Malta. A nice place with many facilities where we could prepare well. Our plan was to sail on to Port Said in Egypt in one go. We prefer not to stop on the way.

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Jelmer van Beek columnist

Because of our draft of almost five meters, stopping is difficult. We certainly wanted to avoid stopping on the African coast because of immigration. That is why everything on board was checked extra carefully and we took a lot of diesel and fruit with us. Fresh fruit is a real luxury on board the VO65. During competitions we only take it with us to a limited extent because it is difficult to keep it well. Because we don’t put all the weight on the high side during every maneuver during this delivery, we can place the fruit in such a way that it doesn’t get bruised from the impact of the boat on the waves.

The delivery is going very well. Unfortunately no tailwind, but even with wind force three to four against, we are running around ten knots and it remains dry on deck. Pleasant for a change. A few weeks earlier we sailed from Sint Maarten to Marbella and the boat was almost completely submerged at times.

Tension on board

Halfway through the trip, when we cross the imaginary border of Libya and Egypt 100 miles off the coast, we are startled by two fighter jets that fly super close over the boat with a lot of noise. We don’t know whether this is an Egyptian welcome or a show of force. Everyone on board feels a certain tension, we are getting close to an area where sailing around with a sailboat is not the standard.

Zeilen Suezkanaal vrachtschepen
Large cargo ships go in convoy through the Suez Canal

and not at anchor but are allowed to the side. We are escorted in via the VHF radio and a pilot comes on board for the last bit.

Agent and walteam are gold

The next morning we want to sail on at five o’clock. Communication on the radio is only in Arabic and no one responds to our requests for information. The shipping agent, who accompanies us through the canal, is also not sure. Later it turns out that we can only show a copy of the documents and not the original. Two days later we have all the documents in order, we feel we have been checked by everyone and we can leave. A good agent and our good shore team in the Netherlands are worth their weight in gold in these types of areas and situations.

A pilot guides us through the canal. We also see the first local ‘sailing boat’. Not just any boat. These are clever fishermen who raise a sail in the air with their oars. It’s uncomfortable to see how the local fishermen, paddling because they don’t have an outboard motor, share the channel with the megaships full of containers to satisfy the consumerism of us Westerners. Rich and poor side by side.

“Frustration on board, I am able to pull the tip out of his pocket immediately”

After seven hours of sailing, the pilot sends us to Port Ismaelia and the local yacht club there. The chart says that the draft should be just right. We doubt and several times we show the map to the pilot. Via Google Translate, an Arabic voice tells us again that our draft is five meters. He is convinced that it can be done easily. We slowly set course towards the shore and get stuck a few boat lengths before the shore.

Egyptische loods
Jelmer with the pilot who got the VO65 stuck

Frustration on board, I am able to pull the tip, in this country everything is a lot easier after handing over dollars or cigarettes, from his pocket. As a pilot you only have one task, don’t you? Especially in the Suez Canal. Fortunately, with the VO65 we can turn the keel 40 degrees to the side, so that we eat dozens of centimeters from the draft. The pilot had not expected this slope in the boat. He is afraid that we will perish and panics. We laugh into our fists, reverse the boat to a mooring and turn the keel back.

Sailing Suez Canal is sailing across the gift to the world

When we continue the trip the next day, we get a new pilot on board and everything goes smoothly. This time an enthusiastic young man who also speaks good English. We learn a lot about the canal’s history. Egypt also calls the canal their gift to the world. The remaining three days also go well, every day it gets warmer.

With the wind at our backs, we are welcomed in Jeddah, the first ever sailing boat in this port. Here we participate in Jeddah Season. A major event aimed at promoting the sport of sailing. When this is over we sail the boat back to the Netherlands before starting the refit of the boat to prepare it for The Ocean Race.

Team VO65 Janssen de Jong Suezkanaal
The team for this delivery: Flynn Hiddes, Jorden van Rooijen, Rutger Vos and Jelmer van Beek (left to right)

Jelmer van Beek

I am skipper on the JAJO VO65. The boat will participate in The Ocean Race VO65 Sprint Cup in 2023. On this website you can read my adventures and experiences towards The Ocean Race.

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