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Canal Pilot Training Takes Years

"War has cost us heavily," he began, "not just in the physical sense but in terms of people and experience. Officially we have 234 pilots on our rolls, but the majority have been on leave since the canal closed in 1967. A good many found jobs abroad, for Suez pilots are welcome anywhere. Merely to apply for a canal pilot's position you must have a shipmaster's certificate, and further training takes two to three years."

I had heard that all Suez pilots now were Egyptian, and Captain Hamza confirmed the fact. "But before the war," he said, "we were an international team—Egyptians, Russians, Americans, Poles, Dutch, and a good many Greeks and Yugoslavs. We hope some of the foreign pilots will return once the canal is in full operation."

On the subject of salaries, Captain Hamza said they depend largely on the individual. "A senior pilot in 1967," he explained, "earned 250 Egyptian pounds a month, or nearly $600 in your currency. In addition, he received $30 for each ship he piloted, and a good man could make as many as 25 trips a month. Top salaries averaged about $16,000 a year.

"Of course," he added, "the fees are bound to increase, for pilots are the heart of the system. In the old French-run Suez Canal Company, there was a saying: 'Le pilote, c'est un bijou; it faut le proteger—The pilot is a jewel; he must be protected.'"

Even today visitors along the canal are cautioned to respect pilots at work. Beside the waterway near Ismailia stands a request to motorists in both Arabic and English:


Talk turned to expansion of the canal and future traffic. Recalling that in the last full year of operation more than 21,000 ships had passed through the waterway, I wondered how the figure would increase once expansion was completed.

To my surprise Captain Hamza replied, "Almost not at all. Expansion is aimed strictly at tonnage, to accommodate larger ships, but the number will change very little. Traffic, you see, is organized by convoys with a system of bypasses en route, so that no two ships ever pass each other under way.

"However much we widen the channel, we cannot change the pattern or increase the number by more than a few. The canal will never become a two-lane thoroughfare, for the risk of collision—and therefore blockage—is simply too great.

"You have seen what it takes to raise one 6,700-ton ship at Port Said. Imagine the nightmare of two 300,000-ton tankers sunk side by side in the canal!"

Even lesser damage to a single ship can paralyze traffic. Such a mishap occurred in 1954, and incidentally gave Suez pilots a rare holiday.

"It happened at the end of the year," Captain Hamza recalled. "We were heading north in a nine-ship convoy when the Liberian tanker World Peace rammed the railroad swing bridge near El Firdan and drove a span of the bridge into her superstructure. I was piloting one of the ships astern, and we all followed standard emergency procedure, instantly tying up to the bank of the canal.

"With a freighter," he continued, "the problem would have been bad enough, for the only way to free the ship was with cutting torches. But World Peace carried thousands of gallons of crude oil in her tanks; one spark in the wrong place would have meant a holocaust."

With infinite care a team of welders cut the tanker free, leaving a section of the bridge extending outboard on either side, enabling World Peace to limp north to Port Said. The job took several days, and during that time traffic came to a virtual standstill along the 100-mile canal.

"The accident occurred on the morning of December 31," Captain Hamza concluded. "There was nothing for the pilots to do, so we all went ashore. Normally, the canal operates 365 days a year, with a percentage of pilots always on duty. I think it was the only time in nearly a century that all of them celebrated New Year's Eve ashore."

The bridge near El Firdan no longer threatens ships, for it was extensively damaged in the war of 1967. The rail line running from the canal across Sinai was abandoned following the 1967 hostilities. The only canal bridges remaining were pontoon structures maintained by the Egyptian Army. Despite the inconvenience to ships, which were forced to wait while the bridges were slowly opened, the army refused to give them up for strategic reasons.

Three Conflicts Left a Sea of Debris

One morning, with a group of other journalists, I crossed a pontoon bridge under Egyptian military escort to inspect the east bank and the desert of Sinai beyond. It was here that three wars had reached a crescendo of fury and that the intermittent exchange of artillery fire and aerial bombardment had resulted in appalling destruction.

Although bare of deserted villages and colossal ruins such as the cities of Port Said and Suez, the east bank nonetheless bore fearful scars of conflict. Where the Bar-Lev Line's continuous ridge of sand once dominated the canal, there remained only shattered bunkers, empty gun pits, and great slabs of reinforced concrete strewn about like piles of discarded shingles.

Fire Hoses Become Surprise Weapons

Unable to breach the line by conventional means, Egyptian assault engineers hit on a novel technique. One early morning in October 1973, they slipped across the canal with pumps and ordinary fire hoses, and washed away the rampart of sand between Israeli strongpoints, allowing tanks and infantry to pour through the gaps. Demolition teams later destroyed the abandoned defenses to prevent their reuse against Egypt.

At the time of our visit the United Nations buffer zone lay some ten miles east in Sinai, but for security reasons we were permitted a look at only the first six. The view was nonetheless grim, a sweeping panorama of rolling dunes endlessly flecked with the debris of combat. On every side stood clusters of burned-out trucks and troop carriers, the tortured shapes of wrecked artillery, and nearly a hundred charred and disabled tanks.

The sight called to mind Harry Jensen and his problem with rust aboard the freighter Marit. Under the lash of desert winds, Egyptian sand does a highly efficient job, scouring not only paint and rust but also the steel beneath it to a dark luster befitting the forlorn remnants of war.

Several members of our group were anxious to photograph a disabled tank, and our Egyptian hosts became strangely solicitous. Time and again a likely prospect was rejected for fear of surrounding minefields, for poor composition, or simply for "security reasons." It dawned on me slowly that the tanks in question were all Soviet-made and therefore Egyptian losses. At length our army officer escort stopped the bus and with a sweeping gesture indicated his choice of an appropriate subject—a battered U.S.-built Israeli tank conveniently positioned in the middle of the road.

Glimpsing the Canal of the Future

Slowly, amid fragile hopes for peace, tanks and artillery were giving way to other machines in the canal zone. The new lords of the desert were the bulldozers and draglines of Osman Ahmed Osman. Formerly chairman of the Arab world's largest construction company, Mr. Osman now serves as Egypt's Minister of Housing and Reconstruction. In fact, he is the country's chief developer.

During my stay in Egypt Mr. Osman was constantly abroad, conferring with fellow Arab ministers on plans for development of the entire canal zone. I talked one day with one of his advisers, Ali Salem Hamza, no relation to my friend the chief pilot.

"We are thinking in terms of the next 25 years," Mr. Hamza began, unrolling a schematic diagram of the canal region. At first glance I hardly recognized it, for there was little to suggest present conditions.

Where thousands of square miles of desert now fringe the waterway, the diagram bore large areas shaded in green, representing land to be reclaimed or irrigated. The canal's three metropolitan centers—Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez—appeared trebled in size, with housing, new industry, free-trade zones, and tourist facilities to match. Finally, the army's cherished pontoon bridges had been replaced by five modern two-lane tunnels beneath the waterway.

It was an ambitious scheme and obviously an expensive one. Mr. Hamza acknowledged the high price.

"We estimate costs between seven and eight billion dollars," he said. "Financing will be provided partly by our own government, and the rest from abroad. Some of our Arab allies have already offered a share of their growing oil revenue, for the project will benefit them as well as Egypt."

With the Middle East then precariously balanced between peace and war, I brought up the matter of risks. What guarantee did Egypt have of launching the plan, much less of completing it?

"None," Mr. Hamza replied bluntly, "but we feel that the plan itself is an incentive for peace. No country would make such an enormous investment if it were convinced that another war were inevitable.

"Then, too, with the scope of modern weapons, the canal zone has lost some of its strategic value. When rockets can deliver warheads hundreds of miles with pinpoint accuracy, Cairo has become as much a front line as the Suez Canal."

Builder's Dream Again Seems Possible

I left the canal zone soon afterward with Mr. Hamza's words in mind. On a final flight aboard a U.S. Navy helicopter from Ismailia to Port Said, I had a superb view of the northern half of the waterway. To the west there were still the ominous silhouettes of the Soviet-built missile sites and occasional concentrations of tanks and mechanized infantry ready for instant action.

Eastward in Sinai the forlorn remnants of past wars darkened the gleaming slopes of dunes like a faint sprinkling of soot. One could only wonder whether their number would swell in the future with tragic additions by both sides.

We reached Port Said then and began letting down over the broad harbor, cleared at last and astir with the arrival of four new ships beside the remains of those that had been scrapped.

They were small Egyptian vessels preparing for a trial run through the canal, a peaceful transit after more than seven-and-a-half years of hostilities. It was a heartening sight, symbolic of Ferdinand de Lesseps' original concept of the Suez Canal.

Envisioning the great waterway as a historic link among nations, the French builder and engineer had adopted a Latin motto whose message still expresses a measure of hope:

"Aperire terram gentibus—To open the world to mankind."

Dredges, cranes, and minesweeping helicopters help reopen one of the world's crucial ship channels.
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