19 November, 2021

A day on the Suez Canal

It is daybreak on the Suez Canal and I can see from my vantage point at Inchcape’s offices at Port Said the long queue of 32 ships snaking its way into the distance as the sun rises on the horizon of the Mediterranean Sea.

This is one of the two convoys that set out at around 4am each day to make the demanding 12-hour passage in both directions along the narrow waterway - one travelling southbound and the other northbound from Suez on the Red Sea.

As many as 70 ships a day pass through the 193-kilometre canal, which became the shortest trade route between Asia and Europe after being opened in 1869 to avoid the much longer voyage via the Cape of Good Hope.

But shipping has changed a lot since then, both in size and number of vessels. Few sailing ships now ply the waters of the canal but rather it is huge containerships, tankers, bulkers and cruise vessels that mostly make up around 20,000 vessels traversing the route annually, carrying about 12% of global trade.

This heavy volume of ship traffic poses big challenges in finalising paperwork with the authorities and sorting out logistics for timely delivery of supplies such as spares, provisions and bunkers so that each vessel can meet its allotted time slot to enter the canal for the convoy to proceed smoothly.

Inchcape is well-versed in arranging the required approvals documentation and co-ordinating logistics, as well as crew changes, and rebates with a dedicated Suez rebates and transit team working out of Port Said and Suez to provide an efficient end-to-end port agency service along the vital trade route.

Once a vessel requests a transit, there is also close daily follow-up with the ship’s master to iron out in advance any operational and technical issues such as bridge visibility or draft, as the latter may need to be adjusted to avoid costly use of tugs on the canal.

Approvals process

An Inchcape boarding officer will then board the vessel from a launch boat while at anchorage to complete document formalities. The complex approvals process with multiple parties can be expedited quickly thanks to our good working relationship with the Suez Canal Authority.

Fast turnaround and detailed follow-up are essential to avoid delays that can prove costly, as missing the vessel’s time-slot can incur a heavy fine. Any mishap en route can also risk a vessel with its high-value cargo not reaching its destination port on time.

Inchcape, which presently handles around 120 vessel transits per month along the canal, therefore carries out constant monitoring of each 12-hour transit via VHF radio to enable instant response in the event of an incident.

Our Inchcape colleagues in Suez can report another safe transit as our vessel exits into the Red Sea at the end of another routine day on the canal.

By Aziz Nabil, operations manager for Inchcape Shipping Services Egypt.

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