Dhow

Who can forget those fantastic dhow trips out to the islands? I particularly remember the ones I went on before they turned Jubail into a super-port - when was that? Somewhere before 1980, I would guess. Back then, Jubail was just a little fishing port and the dock for the fishing dhows was quite tiny and set behind a group of old custom buildings. Heck, I remember clambering around on a white rocky headland just a ways down from the fishing port, and when I first visited Jubail after the huge new port was built, I was staggered to notice that the rocky headland and the old port were about half a mile inland.

The old port was quaint and old-worldly as one would expect to see on the Arabian coast. However, it had a major flaw – it was open to weather when the current was in the right, or should I say, wrong direction.

On this particular return from Jurayd, the little craft tossed about quite alarmingly as we entered port. With our sea-legs intact from the trip, there was no immediate concern; that is, until the dhow was drawn up to the dock. It was then that it became apparent how big was that swell, even in port. The dock was alternately a couple of feet below the dhow’s gunwales and then a few seconds later, an equally large distance above them. And, obviously because of the danger to the craft, it was tied up so that there was about five or six feet gap between the rising and falling ship's side and the dock.

I know what went through my head, and I guess everybody else on board had the same foreboding - how the heck were we going to get onto the dock? The solution was even worse. They were placing a loose board from the dock to the gunwales. This thing about eight inches wide at the most was not tied in any way, and it immediately started to rise and fall, sliding in and out with a slow sawing motion on the gunwale timbers, as the see-saw motion changed the distance between the ship's side and the dock. It would have been some feat for most people to balance across the board if it was stationary. But this one was rising and falling a distance of at least four feet, and at the same time, as I said, sliding in and out on the gunwales.

We stood aghast. Nobody moved. It was worse than that. We had dive gear. We had huge ice chests. We had tall water coolers and large bags containing considerably more accoutrements than was ever necessary for a day trip. There was not one person on that dhow who had any doubts that he or she would come to grief on that board while negotiating it with arms full of heavy cargo. That is, there was not one landlubber...

The "captain" of the dhow was a character that got your attention from the first time you laid eyes on him. He was five feet tall, perhaps if he stood on tip-toe, and he must have weighed less than most of the Spanish Mackerel that graced the hold when he wasn't taking landlubbers out on day-trips. But it was the face that caught the attention - a classic Arab hook-nose graced a sun-blacked, wizened face. This man had stared at the glistening Gulf for more than a few decades and his likeness had stared back at all who had seen those wonderful sketches that artists do to portray the real character of old Arabia.

On seeing the reluctance of his passengers to walk that plank, he leapt up onto the thing muttering something that only a master of the Arabic language could have understood. But anyone could hear the tone and snarl of impatience.

This tiny man, balancing bare foot on this board that was rising and falling quite a few feet, hitched up his thobe and proceeded to hand all the cargo from pressing hands on board to the dock helpers on dry land. He handled things like big ice chests, water bins, and scuba tanks, some of which must have almost equalled his weight. He didn't put a foot wrong and in fact he didn't move his feet at all. It was like they were planted in that board. This meant that he had to lean a considerable distance one way, and swing heavy objects a similar distance the other way. He didn't stop until what seemed like a ton of cargo was sitting on the dock. This was a gymnastic feat that defied belief.

With no stuff to carry off the dhow, we now had no excuse to shy away from that plank. However, the reluctance was still great. The little captain and his crew must have been inwardly laughing as we gingerly lined up at that see-sawing board, a look of horror in our eyes.

Most of us cottoned on pretty soon that the best time to cross that board was either at the top of the swell or the bottom - at those points the board was stationary for a split second, and it was fairly safe to dash down the board to the waiting helping-hands. That worked well for about a dozen of us. But then one lady got on the board, and mistimed her run. Having realised this, she just froze in the middle of the board. We all held our breath, convinced that she was going to end up in the heaving water between the dhow and the wharf, as she see-sawed up and down, pop-eyed with fear. Luckily, one of the helpers on the dock took a step on the board and grabbed her hand.

We all survived that, albeit completely humiliated by a tiny dhow captain. Landings were much more eventful in that old dock. I also remember a time when we arrived back in a particularly low tide and had to disembark over the side of the dhow with all our gear. What made this unforgettable was the thigh-deep mud we had to get through to the dock. All expats will have had times when the Saudi heat became a nuisance, but this experience, on a day of high heat and humidity, to be smothered in hot mud and be several hours from a refreshing shower, was about the worst such experience for me. However, I would rate it preferable to walking that see-sawing plank.