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The Suez Canal and Jam Sandwiches

ORIANA - Queen of the Sea - Queen of the Dessert

Last year we made two new friends on Azamara Pursuit, Elaine and Malc. Elaine and I both liked to strut our stuff on the dance floor in the Living Room. Elaine and Malc are also great Hard Rock Café fans. They have recently been on Azamara Quest transiting the Suez Canal which they really enjoyed and got me wondering if I would like to revisit Egypt.

My experience of Suez was in 1978 when I transited the Canal on Canadian Pacific’s Fort Nelson, as purser/chief steward. It was not my favourite experience; in fact, I hated it.

Last week Gary Bembridge “Tips for Travellers” uploaded an excellent YouTube about his recent river cruise with Ama Waterways on the Nile. One thing that he stressed was during the trip he stayed totally within the cruise company bubble and never once did he venture off on his own.

With over 250 ships working the Nile, He also mentioned that some evenings over fifty riverboats were tied up together and often had to pass through four or five boats to disembark.

He went on to explain that on every tour you had to pass through persistent vendors. It would seem that little had changed in 45 years since my visit. And nothing I have seen or heard really entices me back.

Canadian Pacific Ships - Fort Nelson 1978

I have got to say it was one of my worst days that I ever spent at sea. At the time I was serving a spell on a cargo ship as purser/chief steward. Having left Princess Cruises (another story for another day) I was employed by Canadian Pacific Ships on mv Fort Nelson. I joined Fort Nelson in St John New Brunswick in January 78. St John in January did not have the best weather, I have never seen so much snow in my life. However, it was dry snow and totally different from the snow and ice I had experienced in the English Lake District during my childhood. For a start it was dry snow and about two feet deep and although the temperature was around the minus 10c mark it was not too bad until the wind blew. I remember star jumping into the snow on the way back to the ship after a night out.

From the freezing cold of Canada in winter we were heading to the dessert heat of Saudi Arabia via the Suez Canal.

The town of Al-Jubail, on the Arabian Gulf , has ancient roots. Human habitation dates back at least 7,000 year It was a sleepy town, however in 1975 the Saudi government designated Jubail as the site for a new industrial city. We were to transport a prefabricated hospital from Canada to an ex-pat construction camp connected to the oil industry.

Now Al Jubail is home to the largest industrial city in the world but in 78 it was little more than a brand-new highway leading off into the dessert.

In the course of our stay there all booze was bonded which led to a rather sober time. We did however hold a barbeque on board for some ex-pats and some local’s Saudi men who arrived in beautiful white thawbs and colourful red and white keffiyeh headdresses. I thought this very exotic at the time.

Having delivered our brand spanking new hospital I had to take one of our Indian seamen to the local hospital which was like stepping back into biblical times with hygiene to match.

Well back to Suez. Having sailed through the Med we arrive at Port Said. I had been warned by the “Old Man” what to expect, but it was far worst and more corrupt than l expected.

The Fort Nelson was a fairly new ship, compared to my cabin on passenger ships I had a very large suite. Bedroom, large bathroom, spacious living room and my office was attached. I had been told by the captain to lock everything up. So, had locked my cabin and stored a few valuables in the safe.

The officials arrived and filled my office, I’m sure there was a different official for each piece of paper I had filled out for clearance of the canal. My office was very packed with rather smelly Egyptians, and then the bartering began. A carton of cigarettes here, a bottle of whisky there, a bottle of Black Label for the official with slightly more stripes on his shoulder and so it went on, while piles of bacon sandwiches were consumed (yes you heard correctly). One of the higher ranking officials wanted to use the toilet but he would not accept the crew toilet and insisted that he used the one in my adjoining cabin, so l unlocked the door, big mistake, he came out smelling like the perfume counter at Harrod’s. I think he had sampled and sprinkled every aftershave, deodorant and talcum power I had in my bathroom. At least it camouflaged some of the rank BO of his mates.

Eventually after they had cleaned me out of cigarettes and booze they cleared the ship for transit of the canal. I was getting rather uptight and by the time the convoy of ships had tied up in the Great Bitter Lake, I had had enough, with people swarming up the side of the ship and trying to steal whatever they could lay their hands on.

From St. John New Brunswick to Jubail Saudi Arabia via Suez

Meanwhile in the wardroom two Egyptians were entertaining some the officers and their wives and relieving them of their money in the process. In a 4000 year old Egyptian tomb, a hieroglyph seems to depict the Cups and Balls trick. However at one stage this guy managed to produce fluffy live yellow chicks from under his cups. Meanwhile his mate Jock was wearing a kilt and claimed that he came from Glasgow and spoke with a broad Glaswegian accent. He could answer any question about the layout of Glasgow, this street led off that street etc. We had a Scottish engineer from Glasgow on board and he could not catch Jock out, who was of course pocketing the dollars with every question he got right. Jock had never left Egypt and certainly never been to Scotland, he had learnt it all from maps of the city. I have got to admit they deserved every dollar they earned that day.

Meanwhile more guys from bum boats were trying to scale the side of the ship, only to be washed back down into the water with hoses by the deck crew.

Convoys of ships pass though the narrow parts of the canal and tie up in the Great Bitter Lakes waiting for the opposite convoy to pass by. We were due to cast off from the buoys and take up transit again. By this time I was at my wits end, trying to stop the stealing that was going on. Some dirty little man came to my office and demanded

JAM SANDWICHES. At this stage l blew my top, I am normally a very passive person and only ever remember losing my temper twice during my time at sea and this was one of them. I told him to P*** off.

The next thing I knew, the first office was at my door. The Bum Boat men had refused to cast off the ship from the buoys and delay transit until they got JAM SANDWICHES.



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