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The Agony of Our Agents

More and more international ports are demanding cruising yachts use a "mandatory" agent to clear through customs and immigration. The reason for this bureaucratic shift is simple: it facilitates graft and streamlines corruption. The agent, while pretending to act in the best interests of the vessel that hires him, is, in reality, in cahoots with government officials to rip off the visiting sailor.

I'm currently in Egypt, where they've perfected ripping off the visitor into a fine art. Actually, it is more than merely a fine art – it has become part of the national consciousness. An astounding number of Egyptians have based their "public service" careers on solely ripping off the passer-by, not on doing any useful bureaucratic work (or even pretending to).

Example: the notoriously corrupt Suez Canal.

Hiring an agent here isn't an option, it is a requirement. The government likes to pretend that there are different ship's agents, competing with each other in a free market place. This is not the reality – basically it is all one agent-group in conspiracy with the myriad government officials to maximize corruption while minimizing their public exposure.

The government forces you to hire the agent and, for that, the agent agrees to kick back a sizable amount of the money he charges back "under the table" to the government … so that all the petty bureaucrats making $10,000 annually are able to drive foreign SUVs or live in fancy houses.

Now, this wouldn't be so bad if this was where it stopped – one guy (called an agent) who rips you off and shares his ill-gotten gains with his fellow co-conspirators. But it doesn't stop there. Once such unmitigated greed is unleashed and the foxes are feasting in the chicken coop, there's no logical end to the exploitation.

Here in Egypt, the agent is in charge of everything. You can't do anything (even go ashore) without his consent. You are his victim, continuously. He has, by finely formulated rule and reg, the sole right to rip you off and disperse your money in the generous quantities he sees fit.

I "elected" to hire a well-known agent for the sum of $80. He immediately came out in a dinghy and took $340 US (in cash) from me – without issuing me a receipt of any kind. If I refuse or question this, he does not allow me tie up to the Suez Yacht Club and I'm forced to endlessly "circle" my vessel in the turning basin for a day or two until I come to my senses. ("Coming to your senses" or "being reasonable" in Egypt is asking, in a docile manner, how much you should pay to whom – and then paying it without a whimper.)

I repeat: I cannot tie up or transit the canal without immediately paying this agent any-and-all-monies demanded – and he is a very creative guy when it comes to dreaming up new and imaginative fees.
In many international ports, a vessel can get "duty-free" fuel as it clears out – not so in Egypt. Here I have to buy the fuel (which costs less than 20 cents a liter at the gas pump) through my agent – who charges me 90 cents a liter for fuel from the same pump and ADDITIONALLY shorts me on the quantity – so my 20 liter jugs are only partially full. (See what I mean about greed-without-limits?)

The Suez Canal transit fees are based on a complicated tonnage formula – so they can both confuse and cheat the victim easier. A measurer comes down to your vessel – not to measure it but to communicate he won't measure it incorrectly if you are "reasonable" to him. (He wants a bribe.)

I'm not sure exactly how the minutiae of this scam works – but I suspect he and my agent "say" the tonnage fee is one thing, charge a too-high fee without issuing any receipt, and then pay a far smaller fee – and everyone is rich and happy except the-poor-victim.

Of course, the Rolex-watch-bearing measurer comes out in a very large, very heavy fenderless craft. It has a well-muscled skipper who holds it alongside to prevent it from beating your boat's topsides to death in the greasy harbor swell. Somehow, the corrupt measurer is in subtle communication with the bicep-blessed sadist-guy outside – because whenever he wants … the waiting vessel starts smashing into your vessel, doing severe gel-coat damage in the heavy chop.

Your first impulse it, of course, to rush on deck to fend off – which would leave the grinning measurer down below (my, what big trouser pockets you have, sir!) unobserved in your main cabin … surrounded by your easily picked-though possessions.

So you don't completely fend off nor do you completely stop watching for "shoplifting" either – you attempt to do both, while the measurer grins and the dinghy guys grins … and everyone waits for you to be "reasonable."

Going through the Suez Canal without killing anyone is the hardest thing I have ever done.

At any moment, the capricious agent can (and does) appear, demand various sums of money, gets it without issuing a receipt, and disappears while muttering how hard he is working for your benefit.

Every time you meet your agent, he expects to be lavishly, slavishly thanked for ripping you off. If you refuse to do so, you suffer, suffer, and suffer some more.

Of course, many different agencies want to join in on this highly-profitable, very enjoyable, "let's torment the rich Westerner" fun. Since Egypt can't raise the canal fees hourly or every day, they just "discover" new fees to be charged.

Example: you have to have insurance to transit the Suez Canal. "I'm all set," you might think – because you already have extensive insurance. "Sorry," says the agent. "Your insurance is not good with us here in Suez, only OUR insurance counts … which is a tad pricey!"

See how reasonable the agent you hire is?

Occasionally, a bunch of yachts will desire to transit at the same time. They are sometimes mysteriously held back for a variety of vague reasons: a warship is transiting, President Mubarak is waterskiing nearby, the desert crosswinds are too high, or the astrological signs are wrong. Finally, when the pent-up desire to transit is at a fever pitch, the truth is revealed – there are a few slots for yachts available. And just maybe – just maybe – with the proper incentives …

Wait, it gets worse – much worse.

I've sailed around the world a time or two – across the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Suez Canal is a large drainage ditch between the Red Sea and the Med. Canal navigation is fairly straightforward. Basically it boils down to "don't hit the sides." Duh.

I have to bring a pilot aboard (actually, two different pilots on two different days) to make the tedious transit. This wouldn't be so bad if it was just a do-nothing job for some rich spoiled Egyptian kid – but it is fair worse than that.

You are expected to bribe the pilot … or, oophs, your vessel might be run aground or hit a large iron buoy by "mistake."

In essence, you're doomed if you do and doomed if you don't.

There are two horrible missteps you can make with your pilot – one is if you elect to bribe him. There's no end to his ever-expanding demands. He not only wants a hundred dollars (US) and cartons of cigarettes for himself, he demands money and cigarettes for his numerous friends along the way. He will keep making you stop at various dangerous "transit stations" along the route to pay off an important person … which is just a friend he desires to throw some graft to. If you readily pay him and his numerous friends – you'll also have to pay the entire boat's crew which drops him off and picks him up too.

Ultimately, the number of people you pay is only limited by his imagination and how many people he can get to crowd around with their hands out – which is plenty in a poor country like Egypt.

Of course, you can elect not to bribe your pilot – after all, he is already well-paid to do nothing on your boat all day long. But this means he will spend hours and hours and hours whining & threatening you for greater and greater sums of money – a demeaning process which often culminates with the angry pilot telling you that your vessel will be rammed and intentionally damaged by his giant steel pick-up vessel unless you pay him a large bribe immediately.

This is not an idle threat – just ask the German skipper of the Bavaria 38 Blue Pearl who was intentionally and severely damaged in a "pay dispute" with a pilot boat of Port Said.

If you are outraged at this "gloves off" attempt at extortion and attempt to report it to the 'Suez Canal authorities" via your VHF radio – the Canal officials won't respond to you – while nonchalantly chatting to everyone-else-and-their-brother on Channel 16.

The systemic corruption of the Suez Canal is this blatant.

Don't forget that the pilot is sharing your home – is aboard your actual residence – for many, many hours. It is difficult to navigate your vessel AND keep an eagle-eye on him. If there's an "emergency" in the Canal – say, a potential collision, for example – you better not take your eye off the grinning pilot!

Of course, not all Suez pilots are thieves or extortionists – but enough are that the entire system is designed to protect the guilty. (Both our pilots didn't appear to be the thieves – but the first one nearly struck a large nav aid within minutes of grabbing the tiller – I had to knock him aside to avoid collision – and the final one wasn't content with his generous bribe. He wanted shirts, shoes, sunglasses, too … even the ship's binoculars!)

One brazen Suez pilot, who crushed his vessel's stem by hitting a giant, highly-visible fixed nav aid, was completely outraged when he didn't receive his customary tip for "services rendered."

Yes, the Suez Canal authority is justifiable known throughout the world for the way it conducts itself.

Is this the way of the future? Are yachtsmen the new "perfect victims" of greedy Third World scammers? Will the inability to graciously-accept being blatantly ripped-off disqualify sailors from enjoying their circumnavigation? Are the Somali pirates actually relatively honest and benign Red Sea players in comparison to the out-of-control Arab governments? Will Egypt ultimately be known for what it is – a government of greedy thugs – or as imaginative, creative role-models of "modern marine services?"

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of "Chasing the Horizon" by American Paradise Publishing, "Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies," "The Collected Fat" and his newest, "All at Sea Yarns." This article is based upon Fatty's two recent canal transits, plus brief interviews with 24+ other 2010 Suez Canal users. For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com.

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