Une Année Sans Lumiere: Encounters before Suez Canal

7 February 2015


Last night I was invited by the Filipino crew members to one of the crew members’ birthday party. He is an engine -fitter and he will be turning 40 tomorrow.  The crew recreation room unsurprisingly had a karaoke machine playing soft-rock versions of already soft rock songs. There were big bottles of wine (this isn’t a dry ship after all) and crisps and what looked like Filipino version of torshi.  Most of the people there were crew members, but the Filipino ship’s officer was there, and so was the boson with whom I had the longest chat.  Their karaoke-singing was quite sweet.  Slightly out of tune and with an unapologetically sentimental attachment to soulful saccharine soft rock.  But the accompanying laughter and the clapping and raised-arm waves were raucous, especially by the three younger crew members, all probably born in the late 1980s and possibly even in the 1990s; including the beautiful younger crew member whom I met while on my gander along the upper deck yesterday.

The birthday boy used to work on the QE2 (which was bought by the Dubai royal family and permanently docked in port Rashid) in the same capacity, but apparently working on containerships pays “a little bit” better than cruise-ships.  And he was apparently there when the QE2 was decommissioned and sold off to Dubai.

The boson has been a seafarer for 20 years; and he initially signed up because he wanted to see the world and couldn’t afford to do so otherwise.  Now, he says, he feels like he is “imprisoned” aboard the ship and only when he is home, he is free. He has a 17 year old, a 13 year old, and a 6 year old daughter (apparently he was trying for a son, unsuccessfully), and he is from northern Mindanao.  He said something about the Muslims in southern Mindanao that I thankfully didn’t hear over the sound of the karaoke and the raucous laughter of the youngsters. The boson mentioned that he takes 9 month contracts because thereafter he can take 6-7 months off at home.  He will be home in May and will stay there until January.  I suppose being higher in the hierarchy of the crew gives him privileges that the ordinary crew members do not have. He also mentioned that he Vibers with his young daughter daily.  The crew members have internet access that we passengers are not privy to.

Just as well. I am quite happy in my sense of disconnectedness, and the already shifting feeling of time, with its slower movement, and its markers set by our meals and my own anticipation of my frequent visits to the wheelroom to check the Admiralty charts and chat with whichever officers are on duty. Or to the upper deck with its proximity to the sea and to crew members who are happy to chat. Thus far, there is only the other second officer with his tall dark piratical good looks who has been somewhat reticent; all the other officers and crew members are happy to launch into conversations if you just ask a question – and I have so many questions about what appears on the map; and on the monitors; about the meaning of nautical miles; and the strange markings on the charts; and the day to day and hour by hour activities that go on in the wheelroom, in the engine room,  in the ship’s office, in the ship as a whole.


This morning one of the ship’s officers gave me my safety instructions, including showing me the ship’s citadel –in case of piracy.  It is in a metal cathedral in the ribcage of the ship under the bow, with enormous metal wells through which the ship’s anchors –on port and starboard sides- descend to the seabed.  The citadel is stocked with a kind of emergency toilet, and seats, and blankets and high-energy concentrated meal rations, and water and medicine, and playing cards even.  And a satellite phone connected to some British official entity.

While waiting for the ship’s officer to come down, I talked to the Montenegrin chief officer – he of the massive arms and beautiful sceptical smile.  He is the first to admit that he doesn’t understand why passengers would want to come aboard a containership.  Why not a cruise-ship he asked?  I told him all my reasons: it feels silly to say it is an adventure to someone whose job it is to work aboard this steel behemoth, but he seemed to understand – and he even understood better when I told him about my love of machines and the technological sublime. But not entirely persuaded.  In fact, everytime I mention my love of technology, they all say I must visit the engine room.  So, I will be asking the Captain and the chief engineer for permission to visit the engine room…

When I asked the first mate about different ports, he told me that on previous ships, when they arrive in Jeddah, if there were Muslim Indonesian crew members, they often organised a quick pilgrimage to Mecca whereas other crew members were required to remain shipboard.  He compared this with Israel and arriving in the ports of Ashdod or Haifa, where Muslim crew members can’t disembark, but the Christians often organise quick trips to Jerusalem or Bethlehem.  When I was in the wheelroom and heard over the radio the rather abrupt call from Haifa, I was a bit taken aback.  I suppose we are very close now.


In a few hours, we are going to likely arrive at the waiting area for Suez. I am not quite sure what the deal is at the moment with convoying south in the canal.  Can’t remember if one of the ship’s officers told me that we wait until morning or whether we go through at night.  But I am also beginning to see ships – now that we are hours away from Port Said, and the Admiralty charts warn of well-heads sticking 6 metres above the sea level and of all sorts of other dangers we are to watch for.  The surveys of the seabed were last completed in the 1980s.  I would say new surveys are due, given all the new gasfields discovered in this corner of the sea since then. But also it is fascinating to think of the sea not just as this corpus of water anymore, but as layer upon layer of congealed labour and potential capital.

I have finished Braudel –having cheated and not really read the more tedious histoire événtmentielle and am now skipping my merry way through Capital vol. II, about which I agree with Engels that it reads like a “scientific” (read: technical) manual.  Its beginning is dull and repetitive, having needed editing (but being preserved as prophetic scripture), and at least the earlier part has very little of Marx’s gorgeous, at time coruscating at times corrosive humour, and only occasionally displaying his erudition and vast readings.  But as it goes on, it has flashes of brilliance, and bits that remind one of an extended treatment of Chapter 10 of Grundrisse. I have to confess that I am looking forward to blowing through it so that I can then retire to a leisurely reading of Moby Dick, which promises to be the pleasure of all pleasures.  I have been a bit ill since yesterday, with my throat feeling scratchy and a bit rough.  Hilde has lent me a soft little scarf to wrap around my neck and I have been drinking endless warm teas and hot water with honey, and I have the grand and wonderful sachets of Lemsip in reserve for when the symptoms leave my throat and invade my head or sinuses, or the rest of my body.

I have only just seen my first well-head passing so close.  I can’t be bothered to run to my cabin to get my camera, but its proximity tells me that we are beginning to get closer to that congested heaving southeastern corner of the Mediterranean. I can’t be bothered to get the camera because at this moment, sitting here on the starboard deck, listening to Arcade Fire on my laptop, writing this in the sunshine, with the faint smell of diesel in the air, and the sea a deep blue, except for where the cloud-dappled sunshine makes the skin of the sea look like crumpled silver, I am again flooded by this cataclysm of happiness, of contentedness, of the sense that this, this moment, this ephemeral moment of feeling alive, is that thing I shall carry back with me for all the times that I shall be exhausted, frustrated, wounded, after. But I am also aware that my transcendent moment, secured in leisure, with music and the sea, is also when the 30 crew members are working below deck, above deck, in the various bits of the ship – in danger of burns, falling, fracture, exhaustion, tedium. And this is a “good” ship, flagged to Britain, with unionised seafarers and a captain who seems sympathetic and kind.

And there is me, with my moments of ecstasy, and there is the wellhead, its metal body protruding through the sea, bereft of my metaphysical joy, but instead layered again and again with residues of human labour, of the resources of the earth being drawn up through the crust, through the body of the sea, there in that silvery sea, so utterly lonesome, and yet such a clear marker to centuries, millennia, of humanity devouring itself.  Perhaps it is time for a walk on the upper deck.


7 February 2015


We are in a sea of ships at anchor in the darkness.  If ordinarily the merchant vessels travel at night only lit by a scant few lights to make them visible upon the “brooding darkness on the face of the deep” (in Melville’s words), tonight they are ablaze with lights along their lengths and with spotlights atop their bridge, more than a dozen of them, maybe even two dozen of them, awaiting the signal to go through Suez.  It is hard to tell if the string of lights to our starboard is the lights of Port Said or the lights of dozens of ships at anchor.  We are in the Northern Anchorage Zone for ships with draughts deeper than 12.8 metres.  There are still two other anchorage zones further south of us; and looking at those Admiralty charts (again!) it seems like the mouth of Suez Canal at Port Said is unbelievably shallow.  There are in fact dredged channels of about 20-something metres deep we have to go through. Otherwise, I can see us getting grounded on depths of less than 15 metres; some little expanses as low as 12 metres.

Already by 15.00 it was obvious that as we were rushing to the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean, that we were no longer alone in the sea. We passed a couple of bulk carriers, and a Maersk ship kept up with us on our portside until much later when it sped in front of us in our lane. And a massive MSC ship sped alongside us for a while until it fell back and got in our lane.  Rushing towards Suez seems to be a thing you have to do. The tradition of Suez (which has been disturbed, about which more below) requires that if you miss the convoy in the evening you will have to wait for the next day; and of course this can cost your ship a great deal of money, and so ships rush to arrive at the “qualification line” before 17.00.  We passed a warship of a sort that looked like it had been built from dark and light grey Lego.   It had no flag or other discernible markings and the officers mentioned that “military ships never give you any data.”  Certainly this one floated there slowly and anonymously and we soon overtook it.  Its only marking was L801 on its forward hull, which I shall have to look up when I have access to internet.

From about 16.00, the captain and a number of other officers all arrive in the wheelroom. It is the busiest I have seen it there.  There are two able seamen at watch; and a number of officers; including the second engineer who is off-duty and comes to watch the arrival at Suez. The activity is extraordinary. The radios are all going and the range of different accents calling “Port Said Port Control” – and asking for either passage or anchorage permission.  And the irate though efficient Arabic-accented English of Port Said port controllers (some of them women) directing the ships hither and tither.  There were a few of the ships that got quite a few pro forma questions from the Port Said Port Control: maximum and minimum speed; length; draught and cargo.  One particularly crystalline-voiced American captain had a cargo of wheat.  Another had a dangerous cargo of category 3.  Around 2.5 tonnes of it, whatever it was.  One was going to Aqaba; one had just come from Gibraltar.

By 18.30 the ship had dropped anchor – so silent and still that we didn’t feel it at dinner.  We are now gently swaying on the water, with our bow shifting slightly in the surprisingly strong cold wind.  We are there with a lot of very large containerships, the biggest “our sister ship” in size, a Hapag-Lloyd ship I think.  I don’t know when we will move again and although Hilde, my co-traveller, plans on waking up at mid-night to see if we have moved- I think I am a bit too ill to actually do the same.  I have just had my Lemsip and will soon crash and hope that when I wake in daylight that we will be crossing through Suez.

They tell me that before the works General Sisi’s government has undertaken at Suez in his fantasy of being a second Nasser, there used to be a clear schedule of passage: you arrived by 17.00; by 21.00 the convoy of ships would enter the canal southbound; would arrive at the Great Bitter Lake at some point in the middle of the night and anchor there, while the northbound convoy crossed and headed out to the Mediterranean. Then the southbound convoy would heave anchor and would be out of the canal by 13.00 the next day.  Not so now.  Now, they have to wait for vast northbound convoys to come out before they can go in and then 17 hours through the canal.  The officer on duty called up CMA CGM Magellan which is heading northbound at around 19.30 and they said that they still had another 30km to go in the canal.

When we are in convoy, we will be boarded by 2 or 3 Suez pilots who hand over to 2 other pilots just before the Great Bitter Lake, 3 or 4 crew members and an electrician.  The crew members are there should we need to be moored.  The electrician to plug in a spotlight.  The pilots to pilot us through the canal.  They all apparently bring onboard souvenirs and SIM cards and various other necessities: the informal economy working alongside, hand-in-hand with, the formal state-controlled economy. As much as I want to chat with them, I am also a bit apprehensive about the heightened “security” in Egypt and hesitate to reveal that I can actually understand Arabic while onboard a massive cargo ship going through the strategic Suez Canal.