"I'm like a fish. Take me out of the water and I can't breathe."
Navigating the Nile
The cruise from Cairo has been three days of relatively easy sailing -- no great obstacles, no miscalculations. As the sun sets on day four, and the cool zephyrs of the night envelope the deck, chatter in the pilot's cabin grows.
"I need you with me," ray'es (captain) Abdel- Sabour tells his crew. "We're going to have to go in like this," he waves with his hands. "You'll secure over there," he mutters, pointing to a metal buoying pole on the shore and sending his nine sailors in different directions.
As the Assiut drawbridge opens the ship angles itself. The engines slow to a murmur and MS Amarco I -- on her maiden voyage to her dock in Luxor -- glides gently to the Nile shoreline. From the bedroom cabins the view becomes a seeming fortress -- a single wall towering three metres, almost the height of the ship herself. The rock wall is just two hand-widths away from the glass of the cabins.
Within a few minutes the entire crew is at the front of the uppermost deck. The tension is high and grumbling stomachs are suddenly forgotten.
"He has 25 centimetres on either side," says one of the owners, pointing to the barricades on either side. "When he's in the right position they open the bridge, and the ship rises by three metres," he continues. "At that point we begin to cruise again." The passageway was built in 1817, he says, by way of explanation of its relatively constrained width. The 15.5/16 metre passage was made to take boats two, four metres wide. The MS Amarco I is 15 metres wide and 72 metres long.
The manoeuvre is tricky, requiring meticulous navigation and calculations correct to the centimetre. On shore and on deck the tension is palpable -- instructions from ground patrols begin to escalate, and harsh words are hurled left and right.
Amid the friction the ray'es remains calm. To him it's simply a matter of concentration; far from the daunting task those gathered perceive.
"I was born in the water," he explains later, as we cruise through easier waters. "I'm 74. If you take away six years of childhood -- during which I was in Minya -- that's 68 years in the water."
He knows the waters like most people know the street they live in.
"The difference between driving a car and steering a boat on the Nile is a lifetime of learning," he says, sitting in the high wooden chair on the pilot's deck and absently steering the high tech equipment. "Every traffic system in the world has signposts and signals. On the Nile there aren't any. And you can't steer based on what you see on the surface. You have to know at every point what's underneath."
The surface looks deceptively the same -- gentle ripples, the occasional bunch of weeds bobbing on the surface, bus-size islands scattered in the wider expanses of water.
"Spending years in the water is a necessary school for this profession. Our profession has no books. I learnt from my father. You have to grow up with it -- that way you grow into it and you acquire an instinct, a sense for the Nile."
On a stretch of water that is wide and unobstructed the journey continues to be one of constant meandering.
"Look over there," he says, pointing to a line of diminutive petroleum-blue ripples to the left. "There are sand dunes there -- it's shallow. Up until that point the land is flat, but once the water gets there, it hits the dunes and ripples up. So I know to steer away from that area."
"You mark the good and bad points in the Nile like you do a street," he says, explaining how he knows that a point fifty metres away is too shallow for the ship to move closer. "You mark a street with a grocery store, a pharmacy, a shop. But my markers are a palm tree, a village, a hut, a light post. Maps, compasses, radars -- they do nothing on the Nile."
"And it's teamwork," he says, nodding his head. "Teamwork," he repeats, smiling at one of what he calls his "cocktail" of English words. "The maritime element of the boat is my two assistants, myself, and the nine sailors. It's a 13 man team. Not just navigation, but security, safety, cleanliness."
The team extends beyond the ship, details of the Nile being shared by all those navigating the waters.
"If someone is going to Cairo today they will think 'who has just come from there', and they'll come to us and ask about the waters."
The week before the ship was scheduled to cruise. Abdel-Sabour's first assistant, Mohamed, took an empty ship on the same scheduled trip from Cairo to Luxor.
"I've been working between Luxor and Aswan. The Nile is constantly changing so we needed to reassess the waters and the route we should take."
The weeklong re-assessment ended with the pilot and his first and second assistant discussing the route that MS Amarco I would take on her maiden voyage with the owners and their families. "Like I said there's no book. It's recorded in the computer," he chuckles. "The computer of God," he smiles. "The mind."
The book, however, is not a bad idea.
"Yes, they need a book of the Nile. We need to make music between the profession and instinct. A cocktail," he laughs. "There should really be a school so we can raise the next generation to understand the Nile."
Abdel-Sabour proceeds to point to various spots in the water.
"You see that little whirlpool," he points to a small circle of water. "I know there are rocks there. And you see that line over there," he says, pointing to a downward moving ripple after which the water looks smooth. "That's where the land ends. So I know now that up until that point I can go."
The winds, too, tell of change.
"The wind is like a guest. A nice wind is like a nice guest -- you welcome him into your home and want him to stay. But when the wind comes with force you see the skies change and the water gets rough. You don't want to let that guest into your house -- he is too disruptive."
The ray'es chortles at the thought.
"It's the wind and the current that change the Nile. A dune that is here today may not have been there a year or two ago," he says. "The rocks," he continues, "are more or less stable. Rocks stay put. But sometimes artificial rock banks that have been built are eroded and the rock is carried into the water. That's why we need to constantly revise our knowledge of the waters. When you navigate there can be no such thing as 80 per cent. You are either 100 per cent sure or you're nothing."
Nearing the "nothing" point is when the stick comes out.
"It's called the 'medra'," he says. "It's a long wooden stick that we use to measure depth when we're unsure. With a boat like this, which is 1.75m under the water, I need a depth of 1.80m." The shallower the water, he explains, the harder the navigation.
"We turn our motors off and slow down. When you're cruising at depths of 1.80m, a 2000 tonne load on the ship feels like a 3,000 tonne load."
Night time cruising is another story.
"At night the sky and the Nile are white, and the banks on each side are black, and they all reflect off each other and you can't really see. I can't use my headlights like I do with a car because they show a metre in front. They don't show what's underneath."
Like the road there are rules and expectations.
"There's 'right of way' on the Nile," Abdel- Sabour explains. "The boat going with the current gets right of way because they have less control over the boat. And it's also courtesy to blow your horn to a passing boat -- to acknowledge them as a colleague in a way."
The next morning, a couple of hours up from Assiut, and the ship's three engines come to a seeming halt. MS Amarco I slows to float. The Nile at this point is wide, the banks a blanket of green fields and trees. A small brick house stands alone amid the sea of growth.
"You would think that I can go fast here because the Nile is so wide," Abdel-Sabour says as I pop my head into his cabin. "I knew," he laughs, "that you would come and ask why I've slowed down."
He takes his time to answer, spending a few minutes gazing at what appears to be just sky.
"It's shallow," he finally offers. "So I need to slow down, and gently nudge the ship along by turning, using one engine at a time on very low power. Cruising shallow waters is hard work, especially since I need to be very careful that customers don't feel disturbed in any way. They need to feel that it's smooth sailing all the time."
It is far from that, however, with some areas requiring three pairs of eyes.
"And sometimes my assistants are not well, or something happens, and I have to steer for 16 hours at a time. It's not easy but I do it. Circumstances are circumstances. Each cruise has a schedule it must stick to. If it means sailing for 24 hours to get my people to their flight on time, then I need to do that."
While Abdel-Sabour does not mind the long hours and intense concentration, he made sure that his son did not learn the profession.
"It's a lonely job," he says. "When you work on a tourist boat you work 45 days and get 15 off. That's a lot of time away from the family. I have six girls and one boy. I want to make sure they'll be home with their families when they have them. For me, though, this is my life."
It is his life, and childhood and memories.
"If you ask me about my childhood I will tell you about boats," he says. "I used to sail a steam boat before," he begins. "Now there are only two left; Karim and Excelsior. The Excelsior was built 100 years ago in Sudan. I sailed it. The Amarco I is a diesel boat -- that's why it's called MS. The steam boats have SS before them."
His history did not quite start the 100 years ago though he talks as if it does.
"In the 20s it was only pasha's that took cruises on the Nile. In the mid-1930s there were tourist cruises -- mainly pasha's, the big families and British lords," he says. "I started on cargo boats. At the time they used them instead of trucks to transport goods up the Nile to villages and provinces. Groceries, cement, wood. The Nile was like a main street -- there were lots of boats going up and down."
Including that of King Farouk.
"Over there," he offers, pointing to a large area of trees. "That's Shandawili," he says, pausing, as usual, before offering more. "It's named after Shandawili Pasha -- a Cairene pasha, one of the big 'lord-dat'," he says.
He smiles knowingly.
"I use English words with a bit of Arabic too," he chuckles. "Why not? They say that the Internet and computers and all this have made the world one big village. So in this village English and Arabic can be used together."
"So this Shandawili Pasha gave the land as a present to King Farouk, and in winter you would see him sailing from here to Esna," he says. "Between Esna and Edfu is one of the most beautiful parts of the Nile, because it's at its widest there. I used to see the king a lot," he continues, "He was a good looking guy," he says, lifting his chin into the air as if to imitate him. "He used to go like this," he says, picking up a paper and waving it in front of him to depict the king with his horsetail fly swat. "And he used to wear his shirt with the top buttons open, and you could see his chest hair sticking out.
"Anyone who has seen the king has seen his chest hairs," he laughs. "Anyway, the king is gone, and his boat drowned, and now the land has been given to the falaheen for agriculture."
The cargo ships too, have dwindled.
"There are about 250 boats left on the Nile," he says. "If you think how many cars there are in Egypt, and how many people there are, that isn't a lot of boats. That's why this book is important, so when people like me die the profession doesn't fade and die too."
As the boat approaches Sohag, some 24 hours later, Abdel-Sabour begins to slow down.
"We're ahead of schedule," he says. "The bridge only opens twice a day."
The opening of the bridge, it is announced, will be delayed.
"A road accident has the place upside down," one of his sailors explains. "The authorities will be a few hours late letting boats through."
The delay drags on. The ship eventually passes through eight hours later.
"We'll have to dock for the night," Abdel- Sabour announces to the owners. "We'll set sail again tomorrow morning."
The delay, and another one later the next day, do not faze the ship's owners -- all of whom have flights to catch and meetings to attend in accordance with the boat's expected arrival in Luxor.
"He's a master," says co-owner Mounir Wissa. "Right Sir?" he smiles to him.
Abdel-Sabour smiles back.
Many hours later he starts honking the horns. The crew gathers on deck and all the ray'es team gather at the front of the boat, by the pilot's cabin. As he continues to honk the horn everyone begins to wave and clap. Ships moored in Luxor honk back to greet him and a gathering of small motor- powered boats form a procession around MS Amarco I. In one of them a team of drummers and whirling dervishes cheer and dance.
"Get them on board," Wissa shouts out. "Let's celebrate!"