Modern ships and ancient ships
I was not a stranger in the Red Sea. One of my jobs during our time in Singapore was skipper of a seismic survey ship prospecting for oil in these parts. I was bemused then by glimpses of Egypt’s antiquities from the deck of a vessel in search of black gold where Moses had parted the waters. We sailed back and forth over a grid drawn on the chart by a couple of oil company geologists. We towed a cable that periodically sent out a burst of pneumatic noise. An instrument on board recorded echoes from the bottom and the geologists pored over a print-out seeking evidence of cavities that might hold petroleum. I regarded myself in the same role as the Portuguese explorers like Magellan, Serrano, Abreu and others in search of cloves and cinnamon. The quest for trade and commerce continued. Only the commodities had changed.
I’d had some dealings with a freelance shipping agent known as the Prince of the Red Sea but he didn’t recognise me a year or so later arriving in Suez by yacht. The Prince was everyone’s fixit man. For anything you wanted around Suez, you asked the Prince. Within an hour after we secured to a jetty in the non-commercial part of the port he arrived wearing a white suit, a gold bangle on his wrist and a huge smile.
“If I’d known you were coming, lovely lady,” he said to Robin, “I would have brought you a bunch of roses.”
If we needed groceries the Prince could get us a discount. If we needed help with Customs and Immigration he had an uncle who was well-placed in that department.
“Fuel? No problem at all. I can get it delivered right here to the dock.”
And of course a visit to Luxor and a ride on a camel was absolutely essential. He was the most exhausting man I ever met, including Don Windsor in Galle, and also one of the most amusing.
The Prince organised the mandatory canal pilot, a very different personality. He sat in the cockpit and took no interest in the navigation, which was straight-forward under motor in calm weather. We had to anchor a few times to allow convoys of ships to pass, alternately north-bound and south-bound.
At the end of the transit, in Port Said Yacht Club, we met up with old friends Samba, Magdalena and L’Affaire, which had been suffering engine trouble every time we met them. Tom, the skipper, bewailed his fate as owner of a fancy $300,000 boat filled with space age electronics that were useless without a reliable engine to charge the batteries. I consoled him with a picture of a replica of a style of boat that used to ply Egyptian waters about 3,000 years ago.