Finally we enter the Red Sea proper! Hoorah! No more ungrateful pilots. No more cargo ships passing our beam a stone’s throw away. No more shabby, dirty Suez Authority-run extortionate marinas. The only downer was leaving Roam II behind with some engine problems. As we slipped the lines we left Terry and Fiona looking on forlornly, tasked with the job of finding out exactly why their water cooling system was blocked. The prospect of either being stuck in that marina, or making their way to Hurghada without engine was not one bearing consideration.
Dome Marina wasn’t a spot we chose to aim for but it was a necessity in order to extend our boat’s cruising permit from one month to three. As we approached our destination 30 miles south-west from Port Suez we had the sun in our eyes: in the distance was a rusty coloured mountain and we could see vortexes of sand thrashing the horizon. In front of these mini sand storms were ploughed hills, bulldozers and a lot of half-erected buildings. In front of this was an almighty, S-shaped hotel complex that must have contained well over 1,000 apartments. It was certainly the most swanky building we have seen in Egypt thus far and to see this thing dominate the otherwise solitary coast line was a strange thing indeed.
Despite no response on the VHF a pilot came out to meet us and guided us in to a spot that made me double take: on one side was Colin and Tricia on ‘Moody Time’ but on the other was a monstrously ugly, steel motorboat with fenders the size of a small adult. As we approached Colin was shouting that there was no mooring line (the line one takes to tie to the front of the boat to stop it moving backwards) and that the one mooring line in use was tied to his boat at an angle, thus blocking our entrance. In order for us to reverse in Colin had to loosen off his line whilst young Egyptians ran about on the deck of the motorboat, adjusting the big fenders for us to bounce off. Once in position we had to cast lines to the boats either side of us to tie off in place of the missing mooring line. There was no chance of us lowering the paserelle for us to get off so we had to step on to ‘Moody Time’ any time we wanted to go ashore.
Once off the boat one then had to contend with the comedy pontoon, something taken straight out of the Fun House. All that was missing was the Hall of Mirrors. As one walked down the pontoon so it tipped and dipped from side to side, and then there were the warps (lines) tied to the large motor boats that one had to climb over, further complicating the trip ashore.
Did I mention plugging in to electricity? It required two people, one by the boat to toss the cable across the water and one on land to catch the cable. Once on land it was possible to wander round this unfinished marina and pop in for an expensive beer in the club-house, the one completed building that was actually quite well appointed.
And what did the owner want for our presence in this nonsense of a marina? Forty two dollars per night! Oh yes. Fortunately the first person to arrive in the marina was ‘Divanty’ and her owner, Anthony, an astute businessman, managed to negotiate a ‘half-price’ rate for the Vasco Da Gama rally. Even so, are you seriously telling me all those other Egyptian-flagged boats in the marina were paying $42 per night? I think not.
Although I didn’t meet the owner of the marina, Colin and Tricia did and they spent some time with him. He was very accommodating, apparently, and ensured the cruising permit paperwork was executed efficiently. It transpired that he owns every building in the one mile strip of this coast, including the hotel complex, the shopping mall, the marina and the holiday camp. A man with some foresight who bought a plot of wasteland and developed it into a small village. You have to give it to him: if he can get away with charging $42 a night for an unfinished marina he’s clearly a very canny man.
Since posting this page we received communication from Per who has sailed these waters. He wanted to set the record straight on some of the points we raised. Here’s his email:
Many yachties have as Jamie says “been primed” about Egypt and the canal when they arrive, and often this is based on exaggerated and negative opinions. We were primed in a positive way by a French sailor and loved the canal from the first time. We have been through both ways three years in a row now.
Pilots. They are generally not ungrateful, scheming, lying b@stards. We have now had 12 on board, and the majority have been nice guys just trying to do their job to their level. Some yachts treat the pilots with contempt from the time they step on board, and will then have a miserable 8 hours in the canal. It is also helpful to know what their job is. They are there to make sure the yachts stay on the edge of the canal and do not present any danger to the ship convoys, as well as coordinating the communications with the many control stations along the canal via VHF (some will use the VHF non stop to chat with their buddies so be warned). They are not there to helm the boat, and are not trained helmsmen. Most do the piloting as a second job and although some work on tugs and other boats, not all do. Because each stage of the canal takes about 8 hours they don’t really have much to do and so most of them are keen to helm your boat. I normally chat with them first to get a feel, and then if I am comfortable I give them the helm. We always have someone in the cockpit to keep an eye on the helming. Remember that whatever happens it is your responsibility. It is true that the canal fee includes the service of the pilot; just as a restaurant meal normally includes table service. The custom is however in both cases to give a tip, which here is called “baksheesh”. I agree that some act childish and seemingly ungrateful when receiving their tip, but it’s only a game, their game.
My tip: Give the pilot a chance, most are nice guys, and remember that they are not professional commercial pilots.
Rip-off transit fee. This is of course a matter of opinion. The canal is 90nm long, the transit takes at least 2 days, and it is a unique world experience. The return trip is free within 6 months, and rallies often get good discounts. We have a 54’ boat and paid €440 last year, whereas we paid €277 in the Corinth Canal, which is only a 20-minute trip. The canal is not a tourist attraction and mainly intended for merchant or army ships who will pay up to 1 million USD for one transit. The canal authorities would rather not have any yachts, and it is thanks to the Felix and Prince agencies that we can transit with relative ease so I regard the agency commission as more than well justified.
My tip: Prepare yourself by knowing your SCNT (Suez Canal Net Tonnage) in advance (explained in The Red Sea Pilot) so you have a ballpark figure. Make sure to ask the measurer what he came up with, and check with your agent that the actual canal fee (“expenses due” or something like that on the bill) is your tonnage multiplied with whatever the price per ton is at the time ($9 in 2008). The real SCNT (established by the French/British canal company) is higher than your registered net tonnage, in our case 43 versus 36, but the tonnage we got in the canal was 50. My guess is that they typically just take your registered tonnage and add an arbitrary percentage, but I may be wrong.
The “sudden” mooring price increase. This must have been a misunderstanding or misinformation. The prices were raised in 2008 and had not gone up for several years prior to that. Considering that inflation increases mooring fees everywhere (not the least in the Med.), and the fact that the price is in USD, which has depreciated substantially the last few years, I can’t see anything wrong in the increase. For a 10-15m boat the price went up from $14 (€10.80) to $21 (€13.60) in 2008. Not in any way extortionate in my opinion.
My tip: Save some money by anchoring in Ismailia. It is very well protected and good holding, you can still use the marina as a base, and it is free.
We appreciate Per’s comments and it is always useful to hear of other yotties’ experiences. In defence to the points he has contradicted us on we should emphasize:
1) Our transit fees for the canal were more than any other boat of the same length. We asked for clarification of this calculation and they said it would take another day to get the details, meaning another $21 in marina fees and us missing the rally transiting the canal. That aside Per gives a very valuable tip by using the Red Sea Pilot to estimate net tonnage.
2) We did give our first pilot a chance and indeed involved him in our podcast. It was his ungrateful behaviour at the end of the day that irked us. If the pilot’s job is to keep small boats to the edge of the canal then I would suggest a number of other boats on the rally would have something to say about that! Listen to our first Suez podcast as our pilot shouts down the VHF at the other wandering pilots!
3) The marina fees were more than we anticipated. This is probably because we are on a rally and had been informed of marina fee estimates before we joined. Perhaps our expectations had not been managed correctly.
As stated elsewhere in our blog we thoroughly enjoyed the canal, Port Said, Ismalia and Port Suez. We’ve also emphasized how much we love the Egyptian people. As Per states, some people have been misinformed on Egypt and the Egyptians. Aside from our gripes, above, we’re confident that this comes across in our blog and our podcasts.
Thank you to Per for taking the time out to offer some useful tips for anyone looking to undertake the same trip.
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