Dredging the Suez Canal
Brantz von Mayer and The Writers for Hire
The date the Mediterranean joined the Red Sea represented the culmination of 10 years of labor and marked one of the most notable dredging accomplishments in the world. On November 17, 1869, the completion of the Suez was celebrated by fireworks, weeks of festivities, and a ball attended by 6,000 VIPs, including the Emperor of Austria and the Prince of Wales. 1
The entire project involved excavating about 2.6 billion cubic feet of material 2, most of it sand, although solid rock between two and three feet in thickness was sometimes encountered. 3
According to John Pudney, in Suez De Lesseps’ Canal, the canal began with forced human labor and ended “as a highly mechanized job in keeping with the progressive techniques of the century.” The initial excavation was accomplished by forced laborers who first used picks and shovels, and then transported the material away from the work site via camel. In some areas, native workmen even used their hands to scoop out soil and throw it on the banks. 4
Once the ditches were deep enough, steam-powered bucket dredgers were floated into the waterway to deepen the canal. These dredgers were primarily of two types: 1) Large couloirs which stood stationary in deep water, dredged the bottom material via a bucket mechanism, and disposed of its contents into a large iron pipe which emptied out onto the bank. 2) Smaller moveable dredgers, which also dredged via a bucket mechanism, but which discharged their sediment onto barges for disposal. 5 A fleet of 60 dredgers, working simultaneously, was employed to finish the canal. 6
Deepening the Suez Canal.
The Suez Canal was originally 25-feet deep. Since 1869, as ships’ drafts continued to increase, the canal has been deepened many times. In fact, currently the Suez Canal uses a fleet of several dredgers – including six cutter suction dredgers, three hopper suction dredgers, one bucket-wheel excavator cutter-suction dredge, and one barge unloading dredge – to maintain and improve the canal.7 In the 1960s and 70s, however, the Suez suffered a major blow to its ability to accommodate modern vessels. During the Arab-Israeli war, the canal was closed for eight years. When it closed, most of the world’s tankers could pass through the canal. By the time it reopened, only one in four could make the crossing. 8
Over the last three decades, to recapture its lost traffic, the Egyptian government has committed to a major expansion to deepen the canal from 58 to 72 feet. 9 In the 1970s and 1980s, the Suez Canal Authority recharged its fleet with several cutter suction dredgers built by Mitsubishi Heavy industries in Japan. 10 Yet even with the help of some of their largest dredgers – such as the “El Seddiek” with a capacity over 19,000 HP and a maximum depth of 30 meters 11 – their dredging fleet was not able to keep up with maintenance as well as further the deepening effort.
In the early 1990s, the Port Authority contracted with IHC Holland to build the largest cutter suction dredge in the world, the 30,000 HP “Mashour.” 12 With the help of the rest of the fleet, the “Mashour” helped the canal to reach 66 feet by 2010. 13 However, although in 2011, the canal supported 8% of the world’s shipping traffic, 14 it still could not accommodate some of the largest vessels. Ongoing dredging will be required to maintain the waterway, as well as to continue to deepen the waterway to keep pace with modern ship depths.
1 Building the Suez Canal, 1859-1869, GlobalSecurity.org: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/egypt/suez-canal-05.htm
2 RitchieWiki Entry, Suez Canal, http://www.ritchiewiki.com/wiki/index.php/Suez_Canal
3 Building the Suez Canal, 1859-1869, GlobalSecurity.org: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/egypt/suez-canal-05.htm
4 Classic Encyclopedia Entry, Suez Canal: http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Suez_Canal
5 Building the Suez Canal, 1859-1869, GlobalSecurity.org: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/egypt/suez-canal-05.htm
6 RitchieWiki Entry, Suez Canal: http://www.ritchiewiki.com/wiki/index.php/Suez_Canal
7 Suez Canal Authority (http://www.suezcanal.gov.eg/sc.aspx?show=25)
8 Graves, William, New Life for the Troubled Suez Canal, National Geographic, June 1975, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/1975/06/suez-canal/gates-text/2
9 Mekay, Emad, Suez Canal suffers crisis of confidence, The Middle East, Sept 1997, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2742/is_n270/ai_n25024480/
10 Offshore Tool & Energy Corporation press release, Mobile Pulley & Machine Works Receives Another Large Order From the Suez Canal Authority, July 2000: http://www.otecorp.com/pr/suez_canal_new.htm
11 Suez Canal Authority (http://www.suezcanal.gov.eg/sc.aspx?show=25)
12 Offshore Tool & Energy Corporation press release, Mobile Pulley & Machine Works Receives Another Large Order From the Suez Canal Authority, July 2000: http://www.otecorp.com/pr/suez_canal_new.htm
13 Maritime Information Center, Lloyd's List, Suez Canal dredging delayed further, April 2008 http://www.micportal.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=433%3Asuez-canal-dredging-delayed-further&Itemid=66
14 Dredging Today, Suez Canal – History and Overview of Egyptian Treasure Path, June 2010: http://www.dredgingtoday.com/2010/06/23/suez-canal-history-and-overview-of-egyptian-treasure-path/