Transiting the Suez Canal: a lovely video

March 31, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Since the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal (it’s now freed), a lot of us have been looking up the Canal, and asking questions like “can ships go both ways at the same time?” (Answer: yes, if they use the bypasses, but ships usually travel in convoys, two southbound and one northbound.)

What does it cost to go through? It’s expensive: an average of $250,000 (US) per vessel.

You can learn everything you need to know from the Wikipedia article on the canal, including when it was built: surprisingly long ago, between 1859 and 1869. A few essential facts:

 It offers vessels a direct route between the North Atlantic and northern Indian oceans via the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, avoiding the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans and reducing the journey distance from the Arabian Sea to London by approximately 8,900 kilometres (5,500 mi), or 8 days at 24knts (JAC: “knots”) to 10 days at 20knts. The canal extends from the northern terminus of Port Said to the southern terminus of Port Tewfik at the city of Suez. Its length is 193.30 km (120.11 mi) including its northern and southern access-channels. In 2020, more than 18,500 vessels traversed the canal (an average of 51.5 per day).

Here’s a satellite photo of the Canal.

And a diagram of the complex setup. I always wondered if there was a bridge over it, and there is one, as well as a tunnel.

This is all an excuse to show this lovely 2½-minute GoPro video of a ship going through the canal in real time; a passage takes 11-16 hours because low speeds are mandated.

The music is a bit annoying, so you might want to turn the sound off.

You can see a similar transit of the Panama Canal (11 hours) here. I actually did half of this while lecturing on a Sci Am cruise to the Caribbean. We went through the locks, guided by those powerful “mule trains” that serve not to power the ship (it steams under its own power), but to guide it and keep it centered in the locks. After going to Lake Gatun (I got off to visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in an island in the lake), we turned around and went back out to the Caribbean.

Lagniappe: Burger  King put out an ad showing a Double Whopper blocking the Canal, presumably because of its size. Predictably, some of The Easily Offended got upset, and gave several reasons for their distress.

20 thoughts on “Transiting the Suez Canal: a lovely video

  1. Nobody killed ; no reported injuries. The salvors at Smit and the masters of the various vessels involved in the recovery can put this one on their CVs and maybe even look for a better paying job.
    On the upside, the Egyptian government will probably use this as an excuse to hike the transit fees and get the financing for “dualling” the remaining 2/3-odd of the Canal. Which, as a large construction job in the “developing world”, will be very unlikely to complete without a number of funerals. Let’s guess – breaking ground in 2023, completed in the mid-2030s.

  2. I wonder what they’re lowering over the sides with the cranes near the end. The pilots I’m guessing?

    1. Line handling boats. Every ship is required to take a couple of them aboard for the passage. If there is a need to pause the transit, they run ship’s mooring lines ashore.
      The line handling boat crews set up a little bazaar on the stern during the passage, selling trinkets and souvenirs to the crew, and stealing anything not welded down.
      Every transit I have made we had to have the boats onboard, but we never used them. Most of the time it was because we were carrying sensitive cargo, so they did not want us loitering.

  3. People don’t realize that around 70% of everything moves around the globe by ship. There are some good views of the Panama Canal operations on You Tube as well. The invention of the container ship was one of the big breakthroughs in the shipping business. It has made a huge difference in the trade. Gantry Cranes for loading and unloading also made a big impact. The slow RPM giant diesel engine was another turning point allowing for these huge vessels plus fuel economy. You can load your product in Chicago, put it on the train to Oakland or LA and have it arrive in Tokyo all in about 15 or 16 days. Maybe 18 to 20 days to be safe. It is called intermodal in the transportation business.

    1. Correct. That (along with yellow fever and malaria) is why it was so much harder to construct the Panama Canal. DeLesseps, who did the Suez Canal, tried and failed to do a sea level Panama Canal; the Americans succeeded much later with one involving locks, and after the role of mosquitos in yellow fever and malaria was known.

  4. Nice movie, and informative to read the comments above.
    Have to admit to finding the whopper infarction amusing

  5. Very cool post – I HAD been wondering about that stuff – the wiki article is helpful and the memes of course….hahhaaha
    I’ve visited Egypt twice going to Lebanon but I spent my time in CRAZY Cairo and the incredible Pyramids, etc. so never saw the canal. And I’ve never visited a place more crowded than Cairo and I’ve been to India and Bangladesh even. Cairo tops them all. Worth a trip when we can travel again.


    1. I had sort of the opposite experience. I have transited the canal many times, but the first time I went to Cairo was sort of magical. I was a very junior officer, and we were waiting in the anchorage at the south end, for a planned passage in a couple of days. This was during a time of conflict, and Egypt was generally closed to tourism. But I was not there as a tourist.
      Anyway, the Captain had promised his granddaughter an “Aladdin’s lamp”. He gave me some money, and sent me with a driver to Cairo to get one. It was a neat experience, topped off with a big Ramadan dinner in a public square. I got the lamp, saw the Pyramids, and met the ship on time.

  6. Well, Burger King might yet regret that ad. If the metaphor it shows of a heart artery blockage due to poor diet/fat was to ‘go viral’.

    1. Yes, quite a lot. In fact, “Lessepsian migration”, a category of trans-oceanic migration via human-made conduits has been defined as result, named after the guy who masterminded the canal’s construction.

      The biological traffic is mostly from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, with very little going the other way.

  7. I worked on the industrial and agricultural planning of the Suez Canal Zone for UNDP after it was reopened. All of the cities and industrial installations had been destroyed during the 72 war. The Israeli military breeched the canal south of Port Said and filled it in from both sides to make a roadway, and drove their tanks to the outskirts of Cairo in 40 hrs. It shows that if the Suez Canal Authorities wanted, they probably could have mobilized enough construction equipment to physically dig out the Ever Given, instead of waiting for sea going tugs and high tide.

    The satellite shot shows the city of Cairo sewage canal as a thin line going north towards Lake Manzala, a brackish water lake which is west of Port Said. The lake shows up as black on the picture. Most of the green is agricultural development utilizing the sewage to irrigate industrial crops like cotton and food crops like foule and berseem.

    The lake is separated from the Mediterranean by as little as a 200m of sandbar. But since it is a very shallow nutrient rich water body it supports a very high fish density. There is a large artisanal fishing industry on the lake. The lake is no more than about 2-3m deep at its deepest.

    A biblical note, Lake Manzala is thought to be the area in which Moses walked across the waters, as the shallow waters parted due to a storm. It is also thought to be the location of the baby and the bull rushes story. The lake is full of Roman and Greek antiquities, coins, pottery, in addition to WWII and Arab Israeli war remnants shell casings, German and British guns, Russian built jets, and of course some still active land mines.

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