It begins with the sand. Even before the Suez Canal the proximity of the desert can be seen in the hazy sky. Sunsets are clouded by a veil of ultra fine dust light enough to float through the air and settle on the water after a shamal blows through. It covers every surface of the ship, irritates your eyes, fills your lungs and coats your teeth. It is not pleasant and I'm convinced I have an allergic reaction to all that particulate matter in my chest. I grow tired, have a hard time taking a full breath and can barely breath through my nose. After a few days I become accustomed to my symptoms but they're always there each time I sail to the Middle East.
The Suez Canal is the first stop on our way to the Arabian Gulf and any ports in between. The canal pilots have earned a reputation here, at least on American ships where baksheesh is taken for granted. Everyone wants cigarettes; the pilot boat, the security inspectors, the agent and the pilots. If they don't get enough there is the honking of horns, waving of hands and incredulous shouts of, "Why!? Why do you do this!!?" The health and quarantine inspectors usually leave the galley with a garbage bag full of instant coffee, syrup, honey, sugar and anything else they might have a harder time getting in Egypt. And you can forget buying them off with Newports or Camels, this here is Marlborough country.
The pilots, whom range from competent to outright negligent are a cast of characters. Most claim to be the "Senior Canal" or "Best" pilot which automatically entitles them to another four cartons of cigarettes. 9 out of 10 pilots take their nicotine ravenously and some will gorge on any sweets or fruit put in front of them. Some of the more shameless pilots will scan every unfastened object on the bridge and politely ask if they may have one "For the kids" or "My wife". Sunglasses, jackets, hats, anything edible, and even soap are up for grabs. These generalizations may sound negative but it's simply the truth from the perspective of our bridge team and not something we look forward to.
Interspersed with small military installations, guard shacks and parade grounds there are several conspicuous war memorials commemorating the hostilities with Israel in years past along the banks of the canal. These sometime spur interesting discussions about the fight for the Sinai Peninsula and politics but one thing remains absolute; Israel is not a welcomed neighbor.
The first time I heard the adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer, chanted on the loudspeakers of a mosque in Port Said the pilot asked for a room in which he could pray. Other pilots will simply prostrate themselves on the deck at the back of the bridge facing Mecca. This past transit the pilot asked for one of our signal flags to use as a prayer rug.
Once clear of the Suez Canal the weather usually gets hot. The seawater temps in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf have been logged up to 90 degrees. With seawater temps like that the engineers are hard pressed to keep the main engine cool enough. When the shamal brings with it the dry desert air the humidity is low and the wet bulb thermometer needs constant refilling. When the air is light and the seas calm the ocean seems to vaporize and at night it can create a fog humid and hot like a steam bath. This time of year though we are lucky to have cool weather which compared to the norm actually feels chilly.
The ports are easy to get into and out of if it was left up to us, few rivers or long channels, but working with the local pilots can be a challenge. Jordan, Bahrain and the Oman have good pilots, some being expatriates from India or Asia. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia however can be a real pain. There seems to be little liability for pilots in this part of the world and therefore little regard for the safety of our ship. Pilots routinely disembark when the vessel is still within the confines of the harbor and raise holy hell if their command is questioned. But at times it must be questioned because at the end of a bad day it's the old man who would be wearing the bracelets, not a pilot belonging to the royal bloodline.
This is one of the reasons keeping it calm, cool and collected is such a necessary skill for interfacing with the locals whether it's on the bridge docking the ship with the Captain or getting cargo on and off. The typical Arabian, in my experience, loves a good argument. The more animated and audible the better. Tantrums are not only for toddlers in this part of the world and if you rebut with like force it will only escalate.
The funniest aspect of this charade is that the typical westerner will take it all personally and start cussing and using derogatory statements but the Middle Easterner will get over it in five minutes. I have taken many a pilots down to meet their boat who were infuriated when he stormed off the bridge but completely over it by the time they were climbing down the ladder. This has led me to believe that this is just their way of communicating and conducting business and has nothing to do with showing dislike for us as American seamen. It's unfortunate that not all Americans working in their waters understand this. Too many assume that freedom of speech and religion is something you pack in your seabag which it most certainly is not.
The abrasive yell talking used by Arabs in authority can also be constantly heard on the VHF radio. Exasperation is easily expressed in Arabic and again if you don't keep it cool things can get testy quick. I try to remain as polite and docile as I can no matter how ridiculous port control or the pilot boat are being. Politeness though won't make the barn yard noises, horrible singing or keying of the mic next to a Mosque at prayer time go away. When there is no more sanctity for channel 16 and you hear these things all night long you know you've entered the Arabian Gulf.
Because I work on a Roll On / Roll Off where the cargo is wheeled rather quickly up and down our stern ramp time in port is limited. Bahrain, Dubai, Aqaba and Salalah would probably be the best liberty ports if we had time to go ashore. The first two being hotspots for Muslims who live in the more culturally restrictive countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and appreciate cold beer and real nightclubs.
The first time I went to Dubai and saw the indoor ski resort, gold suk and luxury island residences in the shape of palm trees being dredged out of the sandy bottom of the gulf the economy was booming. A group of Irish businessmen had just bought the island shaped like their homeland in the "World" residence project and were busy investing their easily gotten money into scale replications of the emerald isle's iconic features. Today the project has slowed and Dubai no longer is growing as fast as it once was but the money is still here. The regions' mineral wealth continues to bring sufficient revenue for all the opulence money can buy in the Gulf States, most of them at least.
That massive wealth, the kind which ensures imported labor to take care of constructing cities and running ports, creates a sharp contrast between the oil rich countries and all the other nations in the middle east. Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq come to mind as places that provide the labor for building the mega malls and palaces of the Arabian Peninsula. They are also the source of some of the most interesting boats I have ever seen.
The common sight in port or in the shipping lanes of wooden cargo vessels big enough to carry a crew of ten but small enough to tuck into the marshes and rivers of Iran would be straight out of the bible had they sails instead of diesels. The hulls are shaped and most likely constructed as they have been for thousands of years. I drove by a fleet just waking up in the port of Salalah a few days ago and watched as the groggy crews brushed teeth and washed faces. On the quarter of one boat was a boxed in outcropping in which sat a sailor taking a dump right through the perforated seat and into the harbor. That is some medieval shit if you ask me.
These boats still call on ports all over the Arabian and Indian oceans carrying cargo from big ports to small. They also constitute the fishing fleet, though not so big but similarly shaped. The only fishing boats that don't look like traditional dhows are the fiberglass skiffs used by Somali fishermen but I hear fishing isn't the business of choice in Puntland these days.
Pilots, port state control inspectors and the shipping agents are the only local Muslims I meet and work with in the wealthier gulf states. Everyone else involved in the cargo operation is from another less wealthy country. Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are prevalent. The differences between nationalities are obvious once you get to know the familiar faces in each port and they get to know you. Some things are common such as the need to meet and greet the higher ups every time the ramp goes down fostering a good relationship and air of cooperativeness. Hand holding is also important for Muslim stevedores with something important to say to you. I've held many a hands for minutes on end in front of large groups of men.
As with all wealth there is a massive contrast between places such as Kuwait City replete with modern skyscrapers and shoreside palaces and somewhere such as Umm Qasr only an hour away by car. Iraq's only deepwater port for dry cargoes, Umm Qasr is every part the opposite of the glitzy air conditioned cities to the south. 60 miles up the Shatt al Arab, a chocolate milk colored river full of silt and poorly buoyed, Umm Qasr is a dusty, trash strewn town with unsecured ports and lots of unemployed men milling about the dock yards.
See the New York Times Slideshow: At Iraqi Port, Chaos and Corruption reign supreme.
I have never been to a country torn by internal ethnic war. While the south of the country has been more or less stable for some time, the British withdrew from this Sunni majority region in 2007, it still is a risky spot for an American flagged vessel for obvious reasons. The 60 mile pilotage up the river was a sobering reminder that not all has been well in this country for many many years. In two spots of the river the sunken hulks of wartime casualties could be seen along the river banks. Much of the munitions, wrecks and mines that had filled the river have been removed by coalition forces but several of the ships were too large to bother. It was a ghostly sight to see the burnt out superstructures and buckled hulls, results of air to surface missiles no doubt and according to our river pilot, fired by the Kuwaitis.
Today the port is filled with stacks of haphazardly placed containers and hundreds of yellow dust covered taxis like a logisticians worst nightmare. Bagged grain was being hand loaded into nets and craned out of two vessel's holds into awaiting dump trucks. A small Iraqi flagged oil tanker was fueling the floating power station, the one and only source for electricity in town which shuts down at night. Despite the bustle it still didn't feel like a secure place and I was happy to have the stern ramp up at the end of the day.
Bagged grain cargoes require ships to remain in port for up to a week
Also unlike other middle eastern ports the labor here was 100% local. The longshoremen were better than expected and didn't steal or ask for anything besides water and a little diesel for the trailer tug. This was a comical event coming at the tail end of the cargo operation as their tug was pulling the last trailer of cargo up and out of the ship. It died from lack of fuel 20 meters from the down hill slope of the stern ramp. Inching it's way on fumes the driver managed to pull up to my fuel hose. I handed the nozzle over to the driver who took one look at the quality of red diesel going into his tank and squeezed the lever as hard as he could. The agent looked at me and in broken English said, "If you leave that with him he will fill the entire tank up. He knows this is good diesel."
I laughed and watched him gleefully top off his rig and jump back in knowing he had scored. He fired up and after a few sputters revved up the engine which promptly died. Scowling he looked down at me and asked "Bad diesel? No good!" He thought he had been tricked. Convinced that he now had a tank full of bad gas he stomped on the pedal and turned the ignition for almost a minute. The engine finally turned over and the pinging of his engine could heard as the old fuel cleared out and he roared off the ship, down the dock on what was the best fuel that tug would likely ever burn.
Iraqi Pilot Boat at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab
Unfortunately for the longshoremen and entire country the port is mired with corruption. A modern, well run port with professional stevedoring and good conditioned cargo handling equipment, such as Salalah or Bahrain, might charge up to $10,000 US dollars in port fees to dock a ship. Here in Iraq the fee was around $70,000 US dollars cash which had to be couriered over the border for payment. I guarantee that virtually none of this money was being reinvested in the Iraq's only two dry cargo terminals. Warehouses, gantry cranes, evacuators and the docks themselves had all seen better days, specifically the one after which they were built. It was told to me that everything in Iraq requires a bribe. Everyone is making something off everyone below them on the social ladder and at the bottom were the group of men with nothing better to do than sit around the bottom of the stern ramp looking up at the American ship.
Port of Umm Qasr
The Middle East is an extreme place. The sandstorms, 120 degree days, frigid desert nights, barren treeless landscapes, jagged towering mountains, wealth, poverty, corruption and religious conservatism. It is also where the cargo is booked for and therefore this ship will be calling here for the foreseeable future. Despite the differences between where my work takes me and where I choose to live my return visits bring with them a familiarity that surprises me.
The smell of curry stuck to the longshoremen's clothes, the sound of "Salaam Aleikum" repeated every time two Muslims meet, the feel of sand in the back of your throat or the parching sun on your neck are all familiar sensations. By choice I might have opted for somewhere with a little greenery or the availability of beer at the airport but for now its my job.
When we first docked our security team called me on the radio saying there was a mate from another ship asking to speak with the Chief Officer. I met the officer, a young man from Bangledesh not much older than myself, who was standing on the stern ramp with his watch partner, an AB from Ghana who I exchanged handshakes with for a solid three minutes while he gushed about the US vs. Ghana game. They were crew off one of the bulkers discharging bagged grain and had been docked for nearly a week. The ship was about to sail but had no antibiotics in their medicine chest. A crew member was very ill with a bacterial throat infection and he wanted to know if we could provided enough medicine to stave it off.
I asked the old man and he agreed to help them out. The second mate was appreciative and happy that he'd be signing off in a few days and seeing his family for the first time in 8 months. When I returned to the holds I felt happy to have lent a hand to another mariner, a sacred tradition exercised for millennia, and thankful to sail under an American flag where antibiotics were kept in sufficient quantity.