Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.74.4: SUEZ AND BEYOND (20-21.10.2011)

An aft view of the convoy in the Suez ©2011, UrbisMedia

An aft view of the convoy in the Suez ©2011, UrbisMedia

After a few failed attempts in the past to make a passage through the canal that knocked about 5K miles off the route from Europe to the Far East the event was somewhat anticlimactic. We lay off Port Said at the Mediterranean entrance for most of the night awaiting assignment to a position in the convoy South. By dawn we were well into the 17-mile de Lesseps ditch that consists mostly of a level ride through a sandbox—it is a sea level canal—interspersed with lightly-manned military outposts and a few towns. Here and there some rusting remaining wreckage from the 6 Day War adds a little interest.

No matter. The point of the Suez Canal is its defiance of the geography that was ordained by plate techtonics. The quicker passage to India and the spice islands was left to the hand of Man. The journey consist of three parts: first the canal itself, then the relatively narrow Gulf of Suez, and finally the Red Sea, before squeezing past Djibouti and Yemen and making a hard left (port) turn into the Gulf of Aden.

These days most people are (or should be) reasonably familiar with this area because of the goings on in Somalia and pirate activity in these waters. Anyone on the ship who was not must have been extra alarmed when the captain gave a lengthy presentation on the precautions we would be taking so that Somali pirates would no get the idea of capturing a few hundred superannuated souls to ransom for their Social Security checks and 401ks (maybe we should have hung out a sign saying that Wall Street has already divested us). Still, the captain was adamant about our reducing our light signature at night, keeping our drapes closed and staying off our balconies. Deck lights would remain off all the way to Mumbai, security staff would patrol the decks with night vision binoculars, and we should be prepared for violent zig-zag maneuvers to avoid being boarded. There was also a high intensity sound device that was briefly tested. Even smoking on the decks was prohibited. This was getting more exciting than me trying to get my breakfast buffet plate back to my table in that NE Force 7 gale going through the Strait of Messina.

The ship calls at Safaga so that those who have signed up for the excursion to see the pyramids can make the long drive to Giza. Outside the ship I hook up with six Canadians to hire a van for a forty-kilometer ride through the desert to Hurghada, a bustling town on the Red Sea known for its great diving. Mustapha, our 20-something driver is handsome, engaging, and not untypical of people who deal with foreigners in the Middle East, eager to show us the new, the modern and the expensive, pointing out the new Marriot, Kempinski, and other high-end resort hotels. “More that 100 new hotels,” he announces proudly, but we insist he drop us at a local market, or souq, area. This is obviously good business for him, but he considers the parvenu Russians who come here to be boorish drunks.

Along the way we pass several small Bedouin camps. They are the true indigenous people of this area and the ship even offers an excursion to have a meal at a Bedouin camp. The emphasis is on the folkloric and the scenic, the opportunity for a National Geographic photo. But I later learned later that there is an ugly dark side to this area of Egypt, and particularly the Sinai. Immediately South lie the failed states of the Horn of Africa—Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, arguably the most dangerous and disastrous territory on the planet. A CNN documentary, “Death in the Desert,” (the CNN over here seems better and bolder that the US version) traces a perilous migratory pattern of refugees from these states to the most immediate “promised” land of opportunity–Israel. But as these present-day escapees try to follow the exodus of the Hebrews over two millennia ago, they risk being robbed, kidnapped, forced into slavery, raped, and even having body parts removed (and left to die) by Bedouin organ traffickers along the way. Moses must have had it easier. These atrocities almost make the mistreatment of illegal aliens across America’s borders, or even the ransom ship-nappings of Somali pirates, tame by comparison.

None of this seems to deter passengers from the normal rhythms of the ship. But for my part it provides a diversion from the cycle of eat-read-nap-eat-read-nap-eat-read-nap. We are not only sailing through the territory of immense political unrest ranging from civil protest to the most odious repression by authoritarian regimes and ridiculous monarchies, but no one seems alarmed that we might be a Ship of Fools, or a Voyage of the Damned.

S’melly Pirates

As I write this we are approaching the Dahlak Archipelago where the red Sea begins to narrow and squeeze between Djibouti and Yemen. The captain has reiterated his precautions because this is the sea lane where the pirates can operate most closely from land bases. I take to hanging out on the Boat Deck (the open deck where the lifeboats and tenders overhang, and closest to the water). If the pirates are going to board us it will likely be here, which is why there is a security guy at each end.

It’s dark, and if there is no moon, blind dark. The security guys don’t seem to mind my plopping in a deck lounge and squinting into the darkness. One of them even strikes up a conversation and tells me the clever way the pirates might use to board us. It goes like this. They use two high-speed boats with several armed pirates in each. The boats are connected with a long line. The front boat crosses perpendicular to our bow and the line is caught by our bow (it has a bulbous below the waterline protrusion) and, as the ship moves forward it draws the two speed boats along each side of our hull and holds them against so the pirates can grapple their way aboard. It is easy to see how this could be done quickly in the dark.

I like the idea of lounging on the Boat Deck with a good book, watching the sea and catching a cooling breeze. So the prospect of these sea-muggers grappling onto my deck, shoving an AK-47 in my face and demanding my Kindle and camera really pisses me off.

Officially, the ship’s posture with regard to pirates is defensive. That defense (not holding up one of those dumb signs one sees at NFL games “D” and a fence) appears to mean that firearms are not permitted by maritime law or the prospect of a maritime arms race. Hence, the security cameras, the audio weapon, maybe water cannons, and dodge and run tactics. One can only hope that the ship’s security people are not from American Homeland Security.

Yah, well that’s not quite my style. My uncle Marco, who used to teach us kids some boxing used to say, “be first.” In other words, if you know you are going to be in a fight, take the other guy out as soon as you are sure he means the same for you. Most fights, like some feel about life itself, aroe short, nasty, and brutish.

So I think there are ways passenger ships might be able to strike (at then risk of becoming too Bushian) a pre-emptive posture towards these pesky sea muggers. Cruise ships are not without offensive resources if you are just a little creative about it. For example, piped into many parts of the ship is some of the most awful disco or hip-hop garbage, that cranked to sufficient volume might send the pirates off in search of a nice, quiet tanker. We could also broadcast those annoying announcements about the bingo jackpot or the jewelry sale in the boutique by the cruise director who speaks through his sinuses.

But, admittedly, these measures might not be effective if the pirates are determined to acquire a booty of sequined cocktail dresses, dorky tuxedos, and god-awful paintings they call “art.” “Arrrrr, maties, and just look at this treasure chest full of hearing aids, canes, walkers, and enough medication to open a string of pharmacies in Mogadishu.” Then again, they might be after our food. There is plenty of it and we eat enough of it at each meal to feed about fifty starving villages in Darfur. But I suspect that our beef Wellingtons, Coq au Vin, Chicken Kiev, Poached Salmon in Dill sauce, and assorted desserts would more likely end up stuffed in some fat-assed warlord.

Our superannuated compliment of passengers probably would not fetch much on the ransom market either. We have put our assets in trust for our heirs, and are used to having the rest of our 401Ks and pensions stolen by Wall Street pirates.

Still, we just might want to what is rightfully ours and not be pushed around by a bunch of sea muggers. And so, since our ship is not allowed to have a nice 50 caliber cannon that could destroy the pirate boat motors, or even sink them, I propose we deploy what could turn out to be our most powerful weapon that falls within the rules of engagement—Fecal Force.

Right, we produce a lot of you know what on this ship. And we have the power hoses to weaponize that stuff. Fecal force has at least two additional advantages: it places and “odor signature” on the pirates that provides detection in the dark, and, it is damned embarrassing. So, when those pesky pirates pull themselves alongside—at least those approaching from the leeward side—at the right moment: Ka-Poo! S’melly Pirates.
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.21.2011)