Aramco is an oil company, not a shipping company, but the men who work and live around Ras Tanura on the Arabian Gulf sometimes wonder. Ras Tanura, site of an Aramco refinery, also serves as home port for one of the largest fleets of working vessels in the Middle East, a motley collection of strong, squat craft which no one will ever confuse with the Cunard Queens but which can nudge giant tankers around like plastic sailboats, fight fires, tow cranes and drilling rigs up and down the Arabian Gulf, tend deep-sea divers, service offshore wells and haul cargo. There is even one that can provide a floating, air-conditioned hotel for 126 men.
Some 30 years ago the ships that Aramco had most to do with were the lateen-rigged dhows of the Arabian Gulf and a herd of camels, then known, in what would become a well-worn cliche, as "ships of the desert." The dhows, sailing from the coast of Bahrain Island, helped carry to the coast of Saudi Arabia a mountain of supplies and a small party of geologists who had theorized that since there was oil in Bahrain there might well be oil in Saudi Arabia too. They landed at a town called al Jubail, loaded the supplies on the waiting camels and set off to see how valid that theory might be.
The geologists, of course, did find oil and not many years later ships from all over the world came steaming up the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, some seeking oil, some bringing supplies for the Eastern Province's booming communities and for the booming oil industry. Meanwhile, since there were no deep-water ports to take those ships and since lateen-rigged dhows could neither handle the vast amounts and weights of material and equipment nor provide platforms for offshore drilling, Aramco found itself with the beginnings of a marine division and a mushrooming fleet of launches, barges and tugs with which to haul provisions, lay pipelines, and, among other tasks, nudge tankers into place at the new Ras Tanura pier. In the meantime, too, Aramco's quest for oil had pushed into the Gulf, creating a demand for drilling barges, tenders and launches to transport men, tools and supplies.
Since those days some 75 vessels have joined Aramco's fleet, served their hitches and retired—some to honorable but less demanding service elsewhere, others to a sandy grave at Ras Tanura where their rusting hulls are buried in the sand to reinforce the sand spit that links the shore with the loading area. Today, according to a recent inventory, Aramco's Marine Division can deploy up to 36 vessels, each with its own special duty to discharge, but all designed to cope with the variety of unusual and demanding tasks required by the export of petroleum arid the constantly growing offshore production operations. They include two 292-ton, 2,000-horsepower tugs used for docking; two 570-horsepower tugs to tow pile drivers, cranes and barges; eight other tugs of 165-250 horsepower (some of which are fitted with powerful hoses and pumps with which to fight fires, others with the compressors necessary to tend divers); 11 barges, 10 launches, one drilling workboat, a high-speed, aluminum-hulled launch, and—the pride of the fleet—Barge 136.
Barge 136 is the biggest and hardest-working vessel in Aramco's fleet. Because of her size she was, inevitably, tagged the "Queen Mary"—to the annoyance of her captain and 14-man crew who insist that Barge 136 is a perfectly adequate name for their rugged craft. Although she displaces only eight feet of water, her deck is as big as a football field and she requires the combined power of two to three tugs to move her around to her various assignments. With the apparently chaotic, but in truth extremely efficient, jumble of equipment aboard, she can manage a number of important jobs. Her 500-horsepower engine can generate tremendous amounts of power. After a fire at Safaniya several years ago, for example, Barge 136 anchored offshore and supplied the camp with power 24 hours a day for more than 40 days. She has enough space and a big enough galley to house and feed 126 men—as she does when there are no shore facilities for drilling crews working near the coast. Her sturdy decks have also been used for drilling and well "workover" and can be adapted for laying pipe. The "Queen Mary's" principal job, however, is heavy lifting. With a crane at the stern reaching up 130 feet above the water, and four hocks extending forward 44 feet, the barge can reach down under water to a depth of 35 feet and then hoist a 250-ton load 85 feet in the air. During one test she raised 320 tons without settling more than 17 inches into the water. Not long ago, while anchored at the Ras Tanura West Pier in the tug and barge maintenance area in Tarut Bay, she lifted a 66-foot tug right out of the water and set it down on the timber supports for its annual scraping and painting, thus saving a trip to dry dock.
To man the fleet and direct its operations requires a 309-man force of which 288 are Saudi Arabs—all of whom must be ready, night and day, for the emergencies which always must be anticipated around an oil port—like the call that came in a couple of years ago from a barge working off Safaniya.
The barge, which belonged to a contractor, had been drilling in 75 feet of water. Suddenly a storm swept across the Gulf. In minutes 12-foot waves began to break over her decks, threatening to swamp her. The barge radioed for help and Aramco's Captain Ahmed Bin Nasser and his crew set out aboard the Dammam #13 and, while the contractor's own barge stood helplessly by, moved in and picked up 22 workers.
When you're moving tankers and their inflammable cargoes about on a regular basis, of course, the element of risk is never far away. Ras Tanura's 10 berths at the piers, and two at the Sea Island, service more than 2,100 tankers a year—including giants up to 150,000 deadweight tons—which must be moved to and away from the piers and islands as swiftly as possible. But whether their duties are routine or hazardous, the marine employes of the fleet are usually ready. Their ships are registered with the American Board of Shipping and meet the board's stringent maintenance and safety standards. Equipment is new and efficient. Masters, officers, harbor pilots and crew men are well-trained, experienced men. For example, Captain Ahmad Kudaisi, harbor pilot at Ras Tanura, studied at Aramco's Industrial Training Center, spent six months aboard Mobil Oil Corporation tugs in New York's Hudson River and five months with captains of tugs operated by the Standard Oil Company of California in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He took courses in radar and seamanship and sailed on a tanker from Denmark to Iran. The results of such training are men who are familiar with all the tricks of a demanding trade and who can meet any of the challenges that this valuable and versatile fleet is so often called upon to face.