Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Arabian Gulf

When referring to the shallow, hazy, hot body of water surrounded by desert sand, monarchies and dictatorships be careful when choosing your words. If, for example, you're in Saudi Arabia using the term "Persian Gulf" is sure to piss off any Arabian Port State Control Inspector. This is not too surprising given the prevalence of surface to air missile batteries lining the entrance to ports here which happen to be aimed in the direction of Persians.

There is something unique about this body of water and unfortunately familiar. Six years ago after a hectic first transit through the Strait of Hormuz I remember stepping onto the bridge wing at two in the morning. The silent water through which we glided was, save for the wake, without a ripple. A steam of saturated air shrouded the after mast light and obscured the stars. It must have been 98 degrees outside, at night. The windbreak was hot to the touch and the single AC unit shoved through a bridge window was hardly keeping the bridge electronics dry.

That steam bath stuck with me and while I've returned to the gulf many times since then, often during more pleasant seasons, the heat is something I will never get used to. Sitting in the Captain's office yesterday waiting for our pilot and tugs to leave the U.A.E. we called the bridge and engine room to compare temperatures. The dry bulb on the bridge read 98 in the shade, the engine room 104 by the boiler. It sucks the life out of every one on board turning a twelve hour day into what feels in your muscles and parched throat like a 24 hour day. Constant hydration, cargo hold ventilation and keeping every accommodation door shut and curtain drawn is the modus operandi. But the heat is just one unique aspect of this hot and dusty place.

Getting in and out of the Gulf as I said means a passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Usually falling on a single watch one of the mates will get stuck with the three course changes needed to pass from the Gulf of Oman, around the north east tip of the Arabian Peninsula, into the Gulf. This time I was on the bridge and the fishing boats were thick.

As long as you zoom in on the radar and focus on the vessels close by the pace isn't too crazy until the sun comes up. Having all ready passed several dozen small skiffs getting an early start on the day casting single nets into the middle of the traffic lanes I saw an armada of small craft screaming towards us on the starboard beam. The sun was just up and they were all teenagers coming from Iranian side of the strait in light aluminum skiffs with big outboards.

Whether fishing or smuggling the lookout and I didn't really care as we diverted our attention from the ship we were overtaking to the approaching swarm. After appearing as if all 20 or 30 skiffs would pass astern a half dozen fell under the bridge wing where I no longer could see them. A few moments later, much to my surprise, they reappeared running almost perpendicular to the hull intent on, as they say in Asia, "Cutting the dragons tail."

To the fishermen flying towards us at 30 or 40 knots I'm sure all 200 meters of the ship looked as if she was standing still but from the bridge with the helm in hand steering and my finger on the horn there is little consolation in relative motion. When a vessel crosses into the blind spot ahead of any ship taking action could result in the opposite intended effect.

In such a situation of extremis when making twenty knots reversing the engine is impossible. Risk of collision hinges on whether the speed boat's motor will keep going. The urge for small boat operators to take chances befuddles me but for a ship in heavy traffic and operating within an IMO mandated traffic separation scheme the watch officer is limited because the fishermen are going so fast and making such abrupt course changes.

Why not call them on the radio as one might back in other regions? Even if they did have one, which none did, it is a special form of communication reserved for singing, chanting, howling, whistling and my favorite, Arabic scream talking. It's unlikely these young Iranians would neither speak English nor have it turned up loud enough to hear over their roaring outboard engines.

Communications, not so common in the traffic lanes, are essential in port once the ramp is landed and I'm trying to figure out exactly what the game plan is for getting our cargo off the ship. Most foremen speak English though I recently offended one in Jordan trying to communicate with English and hand gestures. "I don't speak English!" he shouted highly irritated that I might assume as much. At least he had four more words in his English vocabulary than I did in Arabic.
Arabic isn't the only language one would need to know to speak with the "local" labor. The longshoremen come from all over the East. Indians and Filipinos are the predominant stevedores. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal supply most of the grunt labor. They all come to the Middle East for two or three years at a time and then return home for 4 or 5 months before beginning another stint in Oman or Saudi Arabia or the Arab Emirates.

Being foreigners in a Muslim land they are easily replaced and this prevents their ability to problem solve and think independently. Any small problem such as moving a container out of the stow if the forklift cant scoop it up straight on or jacking up a car to fix a bad tire is met with consternation. The mates here are often summoned as the first option to provide the laborers with the tools or solution to their trivial problems. The longshoremen are reluctant to make waves with their seniors and will only enact an unconventional approach once implicit permission has been granted.

They also are incapable of giving a straight forward answer. This is more of a cultural trait than anything else I think and it's shared across several south Asian cultures. Whether a question, a suggestion or an order the response is almost always the no problem head shake. Nodding up and down or back and forth is physiologically impossible. Instead the head is quickly rocked side to side two or three times with a beguiling smile. Whatever might have been the issue or question is thus quickly irrelevant. "No problem my friend" is a commonly heard phrase.

But there are so many problems in this part of the world and it amazes me how interconnected my own country is with this distant parched land, a place that has so little in common with where I call home. Still we Americans are here. Navy bases in Bahrain and the U.A.E., Air Force bases in Oman and Saudi Arabia. Massive hubs of material support for the ongoing operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Civilian contractors, expatriates, business people and mariners from all over the U.S. find work here. There is a massive amount of commerce taking place but why anyone would want to build a half dozen emerald cities in such a hot and unsustainable place is beyond me. Yet the more I come here the more familiar it becomes and I'm not surprised to find so many people living and working near so much mineral wealth, the only product of the region worth exporting in large quantities.

Nor am I surprised when pilots let you take the ship down the channel and right up to the breakwater before boarding or port control towers needlessly put ships in compromising situations. There's just a different almost haphazard way of doing things yet piles of paperwork and photocopies and signatures and ship stamps to get it all done. Every time a car is driven ashore in Jeddah I have to sign an exception list stating that it was discharged in a "dusty condition" and it always makes me laugh. "Dust?" I like to ask the foremen. "But this is the desert!" It only became covered in fine brown powder after turning the hold ventilators on. But that's just how it is.

An aircraft carrier and her escort caught up to us as we passed through Hormuz. A fitting reminder of how much is at stake here for so many. Her flight deck was crammed with warplanes bristling in the morning sun, a show of force surely directed at the homeland of those Iranian fishermen. In front of the the fortress like ship a destroyer ran interference and above three helicopters were constantly employed dusting off unwary skiffs. Beneath the strait a submarine was surely lurking as I turned over my watch and wondered how long America will be here.

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