The Colombo Bay: At Sea in a Dangerous Universe

The Colombo Bay: At Sea in a Dangerous Universe

by Richard Pollak


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743200738
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 12/30/2003
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 10.12(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Colombo Bay

By Richard Pollak

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2004 Richard Pollak
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-0073-X

Chapter One

"Come in, Colombo Bay," a radio voice squawks. "Ignore it," says Shakeel, who has just arrived on the bridge at noon to relieve Simon. "Come in, Colombo Bay, do you read me?" The two mates smile and continue to disregard the insistent pleas, which offer no official identification and likely come from an Egyptian vendor trying to drum up business, probably by selling us some stores. At 1230, Suez harbor control makes contact, and Peter, who has come to the bridge finishing his sandwich lunch, responds that our ETA is 1400 and our draft is forty feet. We are heading for the collection anchorage on the east side of the Bay of Suez, where ships gather to form the convoys that the Suez Canal Authority requires for passage in either direction. The chart shows twenty-nine spots in this marine parking lot, and Peter is hoping for one on the outside so we can make a quick getaway when entering the canal. We reach the bay right on schedule, with eleven hours to spare before the 0100 deadline that ships must meet to be included in the next morning's convoy, the only northbound transit of the day. Just a half dozen large vessels have arrived at the anchorage so far; nonetheless, harbor control directs us to a slot in the middle. Qué sera¡, sera.

I go up to the fo'c'sle to watch the anchor drop, the proper word, a somewhat testy Conrad advises. "Your journalist," he writes, "... almost invariably 'casts' his anchor. Now, an anchor is never cast, and to take a liberty with technical language is a crime against the clearness, precision, and beauty of perfected speech." He says cast is an "odious word" used by "benighted landsmen" who think an anchor is something thrown overboard, when in fact it is already overboard hanging against the hull and is simply allowed to fall. Thus, "the order is not 'Heave over!' as the paragraphists seem to imagine, but 'Let go!'" When will we be letting go, I ask Simon and the cadet, who have come to the fo'c'sle to oversee the drop but for the moment are preoccupied by the Mahmood, a small boat that has just chugged across the harbor and is now idling below our rail. A canopy covers the stern deck, where four men are eating lunch at a makeshift table. Do we have any rope or wire for sale? one of them shouts. Simon shakes his head and waves them away, and to his surprise, they shrug, return to their meal, and motor off. "Usually they're more persistent," he says of these approaches, a regular feature of the anchorage. At twenty-one, he already has passed through the canal more than a dozen times.

We are dropping just the starboard anchor, all that is needed to keep us from floating free in the calm waters of the bay. Ernesto, the bosun and top-ranking member of the crew, has loosed the gear of the starboard windlass and now awaits the order to release the brake, which comes at 1420 by walkie-talkie from Peter on the bridge. An explosion of clanks follows as, pulled by the anchor's twelve and a half tons, the chain's endomorphic links rattle over the windlass and down through the hawsepipe in the deck, throwing off a sirocco of rust that blankets the fo'c'sle as mud stirred up by the plunging iron swirls about the bow like an animated finger painting. The cadet now raises the symbol of a ship riding at anchor, a round wicker basket that when it reaches the top of the foremast looks like a homemade version of the ball whose descent in Times Square marks the new year.

The fo'c'sle is once again the most tranquil place on the ship, and we are about to take our reluctant leave when Peter reminds Simon via walkie-talkie to screw the covers on the hawsepipes. Last year at this anchorage, Peter didn't bother with the covers, and the next morning there were footprints in the dew on deck, signaling that thieves had shinnied up the anchor chain in the night and squeezed through the hawsepipes; they broke into a container and made off with a boatful of woolen garments.

In the morning the crows are gone, apparently having decided after nine days and almost 4,000 miles aboard the Colombo Bay, that the town of Suez and environs would provide them a more varied diet than bread crumbs. We weigh anchor and begin moving toward the canal as another hot, cloudless day dawns, a full moon casting a wan eye on the sunrise. We are number nine in the convoy; number ten, now maneuvering in behind us, is the Al Salamah, a sleek white yacht with four decks raking up to the bridge. The speculation at breakfast is that she belongs to a Saudi prince bound for sybaritic indulgences in the Mediterranean. Subsequent investigation, however, reveals that her owner is the aged King Fahd himself, and that the 482-foot vessel, built by a German shipyard in the late nineties at a cost of $250 million, is the world's largest "megayacht." Though she is less than half as long as the Colombo Bay and weighs a fifth as much, she is manned by sixty more seamen, none of whom seem to be stirring as I sweep her decks with the binoculars.

The harbor pilot, who arrived on the Colombo Bay's bridge just after we left the anchorage, explains that Al Salamah means "peace" and assures me that the vast majority of Muslims want peace and hate terrorism. He offers his condolences for the 9/11 attacks, observing that everyone suffers from fanatics, including the Egyptians, whose peace-making president Anwar el-Sadat fell to the bullets of extremist Muslim soldiers in 1981. His point made, he returns to his navigational duties and is soon gone, replaced by the first of three canal pilots as, at 0725, we enter the 132-year-old waterway, which stretches some 100 miles to Port Said on the Mediterranean and under normal conditions like today's takes about fourteen hours to transit. "When the girls were small," Peter says, "we had contests to see who could spot the most camels. Chocolate was the prize."

The canal has been Egypt's prize since 1956, when the country's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized it. Up to then it had been run by a private company with an international board of directors and was open to all shipping, under the 1888 Convention of Constantinople, though after the 1949 armistice between Israel and its Arab opponents, Egypt had denied use of the canal to Israel and any country trading with the new nation. Infuriated by Nasser's canal policies and by continuing raids by Arab terrorists, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, then Britain and France attacked Egypt after demanding without success that the country evacuate the canal zone. Nasser retaliated by sinking some forty vessels in the canal, closing it for several months until, in 1957, under international pressure, the three invaders withdrew and a UN peacekeeping force stood guard over the reopened waterway.

Egypt again shut down the canal after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and this time it stayed closed for eight years, becoming a fortified ditch in a war of attrition between the belligerents. Sadat, who had succeeded Nasser after he died of a heart attack in 1970, saw reopening of the canal as central to any détente with Israel, and - after Egyptian forces aided by the United States, British, French, and Soviet navies cleared the zone of mines, bombshells, and the other military detritus that had accumulated during the standoff - traffic resumed, on June 5, 1975; still, the canal was not opened to all nations, including Israel, until 1979, when Sadat signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state.

By then Egyptian leaders had recognized that shutting down the canal was like pulling a sustaining intravenous drip from their own arms. The government doubled the transit tolls when the canal reopened, in part to make up for revenue lost because the large tankers that had been constructed during the shutdown to carry greater volume around the Cape were too big to pass through the canal. Egypt began harnessing the waterway's economic potential with an ambitious modernization program, installing radar stations and other electronic navigation systems, and ultimately widening the canal to a maximum of 1,200 feet and dredging it to 68 feet, permitting passage of ships with drafts of up to 58 feet. When the canal opened it was 26 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom, and 300 feet wide at the surface; in 1870, its first full year of operation, 468 ships passed through carrying 437,000 tons of cargo. By 1967, more than 20,000 ships were moving through, loaded with a total of 267 million tons. By 2000 the number of ships transiting had decreased to 14,000, but their much larger average size enabled them to carry cargo totaling 374 million tons, bringing Egypt some $2 billion annually.

The government-run Suez Canal Authority levies tolls based on a ship's net tonnage, the gross tonnage minus deductions for the space occupied by the accommodations, machinery, navigation equipment, and bunkers but not by cargo and passengers. The charge is highest for the first 5,000 tons, then decreases as the tonnage rises. Add-ons are plentiful, including pilot and port fees, pay for an electrician to operate a searchlight on the bow at night, surcharges for deck cargo such as boats, and penalties for showing up late for convoy formation. I was disinclined ever again to complain about the $6 toll on the George Washington Bridge after Jeremy reported that the cost of getting the Colombo Bay's 45,429 net tons through the canal was roughly $250,000 per transit, not including today's $25,000 war and terrorism insurance surcharge.

We are proceeding down the center of the canal, the banks on either side an easy swim through the barely ruffled water. It is tantalizing to see land this close after more than a week at sea since Colombo, and I'd welcome an hour's stroll among the houses, gardens, and palm trees on the west bank, perhaps with a quick stop for some fresh mango juice and foul medames, the stewed fava beans in olive oil, lemon, and garlic that the Egyptians make so well, or even a short, nutritionless walk along the arid east bank, from which the baking desert of the Sinai Peninsula stretches to the horizon. But as always, moving the boxes comes first, and there will be no chance for anyone aboard to stretch his or her land legs until we get to Malta in two days.

At regular intervals we pass signal stations on the west bank, posts where the canal authority monitors our speed and the distance behind the vessel in front, which happens to be another, larger P&O Nedlloyd container ship, the Rotterdam. Regulations require that we stay one to two miles apart and travel at between seven and eight knots; pilots can be fined for speeding. A two-lane road hugs each side of the canal, the civilian traffic interspersed with armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles. We are less than an hour into our transit when we pass three lookouts atop a dune on the west bank where armed soldiers stand sentry around mounted machine guns. I wonder aloud if the entire length of the canal is fortified, and the pilot, looking up from the breakfast tray just brought to him from the galley, says no, what we have just passed is an army training camp.

His name is Ashraf Emam, and like the harbor pilot he looks a bit like a hospital orderly in his neat uniform of long pants, untucked open-necked shirt, and shoes - all white. He is in his mid-forties and has done this work for fifteen years, now commuting two hours by car from Cairo, where he lives with his family. He is voluble and friendly, revealing between drags on his cigarette and apropos of nothing that Moses parted the Gulf of Suez and not the Red Sea. "It is not known exactly where, but they were going to Sinai," he says. I do not challenge this revisionism, mostly because I am no biblical scholar but also because parting the waters, wherever it may have taken place, has seemed to me something of a doubtful achievement ever since I saw Charlton Heston do it.

I ask if any naval vessels have come through the canal recently. Yes, says Ashraf, seventeen British and U.S. warships transited south about two weeks ago; they are likely the flotilla that had set Katherine Davies to worrying, in the email she sent her father a week ago, about our safety during this passage. My question opens the gate for a polite but firm lecture about the United States' behavior as the most powerful nation in the world. "I love the American people," Ashraf says, "but your leaders are very bad. They only recognize terror when it is on your shores. Besides, you are responsible for bin Laden because your CIA supported him when he fought with the Afghans against the Soviet Union." Ashraf abruptly abandons this criticism and, echoing the harbor pilot, offers his sympathy for the 9/11 attacks and stresses that the Muslim religion does not condone terrorism. He punctuates this change of tack with a good-natured smile and returns to his breakfast, which he finishes while reading a newspaper, occasionally looking up through the haze from his cigarette and ordering the helmsman to give the Colombo Bay a tweak to keep her within the flanking channel buoys.

By 1000 we have reached Little Bitter and Great Bitter Lakes, so named because of their extra salinity; on the chart, their contiguous bulges make the canal look like a python that has swallowed but not yet digested a rabbit. Floating moorings on the west side of the lakes accommodate thirty-six vessels, and some two dozen are now tied up, part of a southbound convoy, the first of two that leave Port Said each day, one at 0100, the other at 0700. Despite considerable widening over the decades, the canal is too narrow to handle two-way traffic in ships the size of the Colombo Bay, which is by no means the beamiest of the vessels that regularly make the transit. Northbound convoys leave Suez only once a day; once the last of our twenty or so ships passes beyond the lakes, the southbound convoy will leave its lay-by and continue toward the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. On our port as we pass between the two lakes is El Kabrit, site of an airfield used by the RAF in the World War II battles of El Alamein and by MiGs when Egypt was a Soviet client in the 1960s; now, on a spit of land jutting toward us, a collection of grand whitewashed houses stand amid an oasis of lush greenery, a compound of second homes to which Cairo's elite repairs on weekends. At midday we arrive at the halfway point, Ismailia, on Lake Timsah, where a beach, like a taunting tongue, sticks its carefree bathers almost in our path. They suggest - as does the local museum devoted to the papers of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French diplomat who oversaw the decade-long construction of the canal - that a pleasant and instructive twenty-four hours could be spent here by somehow going over the rail and catching another New York-bound container ship tomorrow.


Excerpted from The Colombo Bay by Richard Pollak Copyright © 2004 by Richard Pollak. Excerpted by permission.
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The Colombo Bay: At Sea in a Dangerous Universe 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A good history of the past and now present container shipping industry. Author uses book as a soapbox to inject his liberal view as part of the blame American business crowd.