As a young seaman on ships trading between Europe and the Persian Gulf I always enjoyed the Suez Canal passage. It broke up the routine sailing, and I have never before or since seen such beautiful sunsets as those over the Egyptian desert, nor have I seen such blue water as that in the northern Gulf of Suez.
The period I am remembering was after the Second World War; the period that up until the mid fifties represented the sunset of the Passenger Liners, the well kept General Cargo Liners and the last vestiges of the British, French and Dutch colonial eras.
The passenger ships were taking emigrants to Australia, British forces home from the Far East and Foreign Legionnaires out to Djibouti and Indochina. The Dutch ships were bringing people from Indonesia to Holland including sick former POWs and civilian internees from the Japanese concentration camps.
Port Said harbour was a busy place with ships working cargo, taking bunkers and water. In those days few diesel ships made their own water. Fresh provisions grown in the Nile delta, and locally caught shrimps were supplied. There were visits from the Quarantine Doctor, and all manner of officials, customs and canal inspectors each in a smart launch with flags and a canvas awning. Tugs towed barges with transhipment cargo.
Ships had to carry a searchlight for night navigation in the canal. Most ships hired one that was suspended over the bow and worked by the “Electrician” usually a Maltese who was regularly cursed by the Pilot for not obeying orders, or just for practice. The Pilots had plum jobs with good pay and living conditions in a pleasant climate. They were French, British, Dutch and Yugoslavs with a sprinkling of Greeks. The Egyptians were generally friendly, at that time towards seafarers, and even towards the remaining British forces in their country.
The passengers went ashore in droves, visiting the shops, cafes and bars, and so did we whenever we got shore leave. Some of the shops were quite impressive. One of the biggest in Port Said was the Simon Artzt store with a Jewish owner. Many of the passengers left the ships for a visit to the Pyramids and rejoined in Suez.
As apprentices on tankers we loved ship visiting, usually with the Radio Operator, who could make up an excuse to visit his opposite number. The passenger ships were our favourites like the stately Orient Liners, and I still remember some beautiful French ships belonging to the long gone Messagerie Maritimes and Chargeur Reunis lines. Among the Dutch passenger ships there were two I remember one with a short name, Oranje, and the other with a long one, the Johan Van Oldenbarneveldt, both belonged to the same Nederland Line. The Masters on these two ships while trying to give the passengers a thrill in the Red Sea passed too close, causing damage to each other.
Officers on the passenger ships were hospitable and so were the apprentices and junior engineers on the British cargo ships. We liked to swap yarns and drink beer with the boys on the tramps and general cargo ships. Among the regular traders from the US were American Export Line vessels and the Isthmian Line Steel boats belonging to the then mighty US Steel Company taking pipe to Saudi Arabia for the Trans Arabian Pipeline, but they were dry, or supposed to be.
Many ships did boiler cleaning, small repairs and scaling and painting in the canal in those days and the contractors were characters. One was called China Mitchell, a big black Sudanese with one eye. He had a gang of husky watchmen who he claimed would keep your ship safe. They usually did, but it was said that they would raid other ships to persuade their Masters to hire them.