What’s a felucca, anyways?

Sailing on the Nile

After arriving in Egypt via the overnight ferry across Lake Nasser, we spent three very relaxing days in Aswan. Compared to the Sudanese desert and Wadi Halfa, our accommodation in Aswan was pure luxury: our room had A/C, an ensuite washroom with shower, a fridge, clean sheets, good mattresses, a rooftop swimming pool, and even cold beer! On reflection, that description might be misleading to some: if, for example, you’d booked 2 weeks off of work to travel across an ocean and live in high style in Aswan, you would likely have considered the hotel a little shabby, maybe rough around the edges, or just straight up disappointing. But after a week spent camping in the desert in 47¬∫C heat, believe me when I say that it was a palace in our eyes. Welcome to Egypt indeed!

Feeling recovered and somewhat less cooked, we departed Aswan not on the big yellow truck, but on a felucca. For anyone who has never heard of a felucca before, it’s a sailboat, and there are hundreds of them on the Nile in Egypt. We had two boats for our group, each one big enough to hold about 12 people plus a crew of 3. What was in store for us was two days and nights of sailing on the Nile. It was something we’d been looking forward to for some time, but it well exceeded our expectations.

Sail repairs on the fly

I should start by describing the boats a little bit. They have a single mast, which is set quite far forward. The boat uses a retractable keel rather than a fixed one, allowing it to be lifted as it pulls into the banks of the Nile. The sail is huge, and is made of strips of fabric canvas sown together. It’s not the type of high-tech sail fabric we see in North America — it actually looks a lot like something you could make yourself, given enough bedsheets and time. It’s very prone to damage, and every sail we saw was rife with patches and repair jobs. In fact, our sail developed a sizable rip along one of the seams on our first day of sailing. But don’t worry: the upside of having a sail that looks like it was made by hand at home is that it can be repaired exactly that way, in place. Our crew simply hopped up on the mast with a length of string and a needle, and with a few deft strokes, the sail was as good as new. Well, maybe not new — but now it certainly looked as if it would have no trouble lasting at least another 6 hours before more repairs would be needed.

The sail itself is suspended between two lengths of wood, which I will call (for lack of better or perhaps more proper terms) the upper and lower booms. When the boat tacks, the sail doesn’t flip around the mast. Instead, it simply rotates it’s angle against the mast and collects wind on the other side. It was very interesting to watch our crew sail the boat, especially since it was so different from other sailboats that we’ve been on. The major bonus of having a boat setup with such a forward mast is that the cockpit is huge, and since the sail doesn’t require any cockpit work for tacking, all that space is dedicated to one purpose alone: relaxing. It was covered entirely with a comfy foam mattress, and there was a canopy for shade sheltering the entire area. This is where we got to spend most of our time, lazing about as our awesome crew did all the hard work of sailing, cooking, serving and cleaning up for us. In fact, about the only time we left it was when we decided to go for a swim.

Livin' the hard life

Swimming in the Nile was not something that we’d really contemplated before this point. When we’d rafted at the source of the White Nile in Uganda, the water had been fairly clean, but since then most of our encounters with the mighty rivers had done anything but inspire a quick dip. The Blue Nile is a reddish muddy colour for most of its length, and the White Nile quickly becomes dirtier as it flows steadily north. In Khartoum (at the confluence of the two Niles) the water not only combines to form an opaque brownish sort of colour, but it picks up all kinds of lovely garbage and debris from the city itself. By the time the river encounters Lake Nubia/Nasser, it’s not too appetizing. But something amazing happens between the point of entry on Lake Nubia and the river’s exit through the dams at Aswan: it gets clean. I don’t know how else to describe it. Perhaps the lake is so large that the water has time to settle out its debris and sediment, or perhaps it’s filtered at the dam. Whatever the cause, the result is water that is surprisingly clear, and incredibly refreshing when jumped into off of the deck of a felucca.


Our crew were competent sailors, took good care of the boats, and cooked us some excellent meals each day. At night, we pulled over to the bank and tied up, and we slept out on the deck mattresses. Being near the water made the heat much more tolerable, and the sailing itself was exhilarating. By the second morning, I’d reached levels of relaxation that I’d never previously thought possible.

Spending the night on the banks of the Nile

We disembarked early on the third day and boarded a bus headed for Luxor. Along the way we’d be seeing our first Egyptian temples, but that’s another post.


    Incredible, you lucky duckies!

  1. Vanna White

  2. Sounds nice… especially the fact that you were able to totally relax… very nice!

    Yes, we are lucky duckies. We were in much need of relaxing. Ahhhhh.

    Ooooo! Ooo! Miss Miss (hand up waving) Agatha Christie wrote in the hotel on the shore behind the Feluca. <3 AL

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