Feluccas, Egypt's Traditional Sailboats

Feluccas, Egypt's Traditional Sailboats

by Heba Fatteen Bizzari

Covered feluccas parked for the evening along the Nile River

Feluccas are the traditional sailboats of Egypts Nile. Egyptians and foreigners alike enjoy a relaxing felucca ride, as they are perfect for catching the breeze on a hot summer night, for brisker sails the rest of the year and watching the sunset anytime. They are ideal for an impromptu party after work, a romantic evening, and for soothing the tots on the weekends. It is not unusual for friends to get together and rent a felucca for an hour or two for a small social gathering. Such gatherings, frequently after sunset, may not do much sailing at all, but simply sit in a quiet cove where everyone can enjoy the lights on the banks and the river traffic.

The felucca has remained, over the centuries, the primary transportation of the Nile. Its ancient form still graces the river as it has done since the time of the Pharaohs. Motorized barges transport bulk material and modern cruise ships transport tourists, but the felucca remains despite modern alternatives. The felucca rarely has any form of engine and relies entirely on the breeze which builds during the day and usually subsides at night, and the Nile River's current. Egypt is blessed with a predominant southerly wind that pushes sailboats upriver, while allowing them to return on its current downstream.

A felucca captain sails his small boat on the Nile River

Some of the craft today are used to carry tourists who wish to enjoy an eternally peaceful journey carried along by the gentle breeze and the currents of the river. In fact, a felucca ride is very often included in many standard tours. Some feluccas even carry passengers for longer voyages of several days, but only the most adventurous tourists usually take part in these, as the accommodations are rather primitive.

Friends about to enjoy a pleasent evening aboard a felucca

Few feluccas are now made entirely of wood, but the basic layout has barely changed. They don't have a keel as such, but a heavy center plate which can be raised in the shallows. The sails are seriously low tech affairs made of native cotton and other natural fibers.

Feluccas are usually furnished with cushions around the circumference and a table fixed in the middle; where one can surely enjoy picnic style lunch or dinner while enjoying a different view of the metropolis. Your captain tucks his Galabeya (tradition Egyptian male dress) about his waist and steers with his feet, while busily drawing and letting the sail to and fro as the vessel tacks up and down the Nile.

There are several places in Cairo available for those who enjoy felucca rides. They are usually parked on the side of the Nile in very unique spots. There are places near Sultana Boat in Maadi that allow more varied and longer rides as no bridges obstruct the feluccas cruising, but the ones in town near the Helnan Shepheards and the Grand Hayatt are also fine. Felucca rides can also be enjoyed in most other tourists towns along the Nile, especially at Luxor and Aswan, where they are easy to find along the main riverfront streets.

Tourists enjoying a felucca ride at Luxor

Taking a ride with Rayes Saeed, or as they call him El Rayes el kibeer (the chief), the 57 year-old captain of a boat named El Malika allowed me to enjoy a perfect sunset one day. We had to bargain with the captain on the price of the hour and settled on LE 30 (about $5.00 US). Rayes Saeed chose one of his favorite old tapes for us to relax.

A felucca capttain operating his felucca on the Nile at Cairo

I havent been a captain all my life. Once, about twenty years ago, I sailed with a friend who owns a boat, and I was very pleased by the experience. I can still remember that day as if it was yesterday. Well anyway, that day I decided to get a boat and learn how to be a captain. With lots of practice I did it, said Rayes Saeed.

To the people of Egypt, the Nile is everything. They drink it, wash in it, cook with it, fish in it, water their animals, and use it for irrigation and transportation. Life along the river has changed very little since biblical times. Thats why the captains seem to have an intimate relationship with their feluccas.

A felucca passes by the Temple of Luxor at Luxor.

Now, I live my entire life on the Nile, from the moment I wake up until I fall asleep, and I never get sick of it. Its always new in a way. God created the natural beauty of the Nile Valley, so do you think that there is something better than watching this all of the time? Take, for example, the view of the sunset or the sunrise. You see colors and shades that can never be found elsewhere, added Rayes Saeed, "and at night there are always the dinner cruise ships, the party boats and all of the other life that runs along the Nile".

Generally speaking, Felucca rides cost about L.E. 30-50 per hour. Its a fantastic Egyptian experience, which most tourists greatly enjoy.