The Suez Canal

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been hit by a wave of violence ever since Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was ousted from power. This inevitably puts in danger one of the world’s most significant waterways, the Suez Canal, which supports about 8% of the world’s shipping traffic and whose narrow width could easily be blocked, disrupting the flow of trade.

It is a 163 km long, 300 metre wide canal connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez, a northern branch of the Red Sea. It can accommodate ships with a draft of 19 metres or 210,000 deadweight tons, but most of it is not wide enough for two ships to pass side by side, so there is one shipping lane and several passing bays (completed in 1980). The negligible height difference along the waterway means it has no locks; neither does it have any sea surge gates, so both entrances and exit ports are subject to the sudden impact of tsunamis from the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea. It can handle more ship traffic and larger ships than the Panama Canal, but some super tankers are too large to do the traverse and offload their cargo onto a canal-owned vessel, reloading at the other end. The transit of the canal takes between 11 and 16 hours with typically 3 convoys, 2 southbound and 1 northbound, travelling each day at a speed of around 8 knots. This works out at around 70 ships in 24 hours and their slow speed helps to prevent erosion of the canal’s banks.

The canal was opened in November 1869 after 10 years of construction work, which involved excavation using forced labour of Egyptian workers. It is estimated that over 30,000 people worked on the canal at any one time and that altogether more than 1.5 million workers from various countries were employed. Thousands of labourers are thought to have died whilst working on the project. The British government, disapproving of the use of “forced labour”, were opposed to the project from the outset. International opinion was sceptical about the benefits of the canal and the company’s shares did not sell well overseas. The final cost of the canal was more than twice the original estimate, although numerous technical, political and financial problems had been overcome.

The French Imperial yacht “Aigle” was invited to be the first vessel to transit the canal, with the British P&P liner “Delta” following. However on the night before the canal was due to open, the HMS “Newport”, captained by George Nares, navigated his vessel, it total darkness and without lights, through the throng of waiting ships, until it was in front of the “Aigle”, making it impossible for them to pass. Nares was actually the first to make the transit and although he received a reprimand from the authorities, he also got an unofficial vote of thanks from the Admiralty for promoting British interests and demonstrating such superb seamanship.

The canal’s significance is that it allows vessels to trade between Europe and Asia without having to navigate around Africa. The northern terminus is Port Said and the Southern terminus is Port Tawfiq at the city of Suez. It is owned and maintained by the Suez Canal Authority of Egypt and under international treaty it may be used both in war and peacetime by every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag. It also has a railroad running its entire length, parallel to its west bank. The canal had an instant and dramatic effect on world trade. The American transcontinental railroad had been completed six months before and the combined forces of canal and railroad allowed the whole world to be circled in record time. It also played a significant role in the European colonisation of Africa.

The Canal’s Chequered History

  • 1799 – Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Egypt and commissioned a feasibility analysis which reported a 10 metre difference in sea levels, so the project was shelved.
  • 1840 – A new survey found the first one to be flawed. It reported that a canal link was possible and not as expensive as first estimated.
  • 1854 – Ferdinand Lesseps (former French consul in Cairo) obtained the first license for construction and operation of the canal.
  • 1859 – Construction of the Suez Canal officially started.
  • 1869 – The canal opened – owned and operated by the Suez Canal Company.
  • 1873 – The International Commission of Constantinople established the Suez Canal Net Ton and the Special Tonnage Certificate (as known today).
  • 1875 - Britain acquired 44% of the Suez Canal Company, becoming a minority share holder in the Suez Company, the rest being controlled by French business syndicates.
  • 1882 – Britain, assisted by France, invaded Egypt and began its occupation, taking control of the canal.
  • 1888 – The Convention of Constantinople ensured the right of passage of all vessels through the canal during war and peace.
  • 1936 – Britain pulled out of Egypt but established the “Suez Canal Zone”, under its control.
  • 1956 – The Suez Canal Zone was restored to Egyptian sovereignty following years of negotiations. Egypt nationalised the Company, transferring it to the Suez Canal Authority and closed the canal to Israeli shipping.
  • 1957 – The Canal was blocked to shipping following the Suez Crisis. This war lead to the occupation of the Suez Canal Zone by Israel, France and Britain. It was restored to Egyptian control following French and British withdrawal and the landing of UNEF troops (United Nations Emergency Force). The force’s mandate was to secure and supervise the cessation of hostilities and serve as a buffer between Egyptian and Israeli forces.
  • 1967 – The canal was blocked by Egypt, under President Nasser, following the Arab-Israeli war (the Six Day War) and closed until 1975. As a result, 14 cargo ships, known as “the Yellow Fleet” were trapped in the canal for over 8 years.
  • 1973 – The canal was the site of a major crossing by the Egyptian army into Israeli-occupied Sinai in the Yom Kippur War. Debris still remains along the canal edges from this conflict.
  • 1974 – The US and UK started clearing the canal of mines.
  • 1975 – The canal was reopened and the first convoy made its transit northbound to Port Said.
  • 1979 – The UNEF mandate expired and a new observer force in Sinai was set up – the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO).
  • 2008 – The Suez Canal Authority brought new rules of navigation into force.

Transits By Private Vessels

Private vessels transiting the Suez Canal must go through a multitude of procedures and formalities which can take up to three days to complete. They include visiting the canal’s Small Craft Department, the Port Immigration office, the Insurance Company, the Customs and Quarantine offices, the Red Sea Port Authority and finally the Inspection office, where you will ultimately be issued with your transit permit. It is probably worth investing in an agent to complete these tasks. No visas are required if you are only intending to stay in Port Said to make transit arrangements, but those wanting to stay longer must complete the full Egypt entry procedure. On the day of transit you must collect a pilot who guides the vessel as far as the overnight stay. (No night passages are allowed for yachts and you cannot travel without a pilot.) You continue your transit the next morning and it is highly recommended that you contact an agent to meet you and obtain permission to proceed to your destination port.

The Future

The Suez Canal is increasingly plagued by pirates and political instability in Egypt and Syria. World leaders are constantly thinking of new routes which will make their trading faster and safer.

  • Vladimir Putin is planning to turn Russia into a major transit route for trade between eastern Asia and Europe by reuniting the railway systems of North and South Korea and linking them with the Trans-Siberian Railway. This would give him links to European train networks 8,000 kilometres away and the route would be three times faster than using the Suez Canal.
  • The Northern Sea Route has become more feasible for commercial cargo vessels in recent years due to the shrinking of Arctic sea ice. The route between Europe and Asia, which could be used for 6 – 8 weeks in the summer months, could reduce the voyage by thousands of miles.
  • Israel (with financial help from China), are hoping to construct a railroad through the Negev desert, which they expect will compete with the Suez Canal.

So, will this great canal remain a safe and reliable route for world trade? The increasing trouble in that part of the world and the resulting closures would imply that, if other feasible options could be found, this prominent waterway may become redundant. Only time will tell.

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