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Volume 16, Number 6November/December 1965

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Through The Reefs

Written by William Tracy
Photographed by Sa'id Al-Ghamidi

From the bow of the tiny boat bobbing up and down in the shadow of a large, white passenger liner out of Karachi, Muhammad Ibrahim Salamah, chief harbor pilot of Jiddah, pointed to the largest of three ships anchored outside the reefs that bar the way into Saudi Arabia's largest port. "She's a British ship," he said. "She's here to pick up Malayan pilgrims. She goes 12,000 tons and she's a half mile offshore in 15 fathoms. I met her six miles out this morning and now we're going to take her through the reefs."

As he spoke he waved vaguely at the placid green waters of the harbor. It was a casual gesture and yet implicit in it was a graphic description of some of the most dangerous reefs on the Arabian coast—three overlapping ridges of jagged coral big enough to open a steel hull the way razors cut silk. The ships that inch their way through those reefs—nearly 1,000 every year—have to execute a 180-degree turn to get through the first barrier, cautiously pick their way through a middle channel while a strong current and uncertain winds vie with the helmsman for control, swing in a tight S-turn through a gap in the reef where the edges are no more than 30 feet from-the hull and, finally, pivot sharply backward to the pier, a ship's length from still another sharp coral spine. For the pilots it is a constant challenge to their experience, a repeated test of their ability and a constant strain on their courage.

On this fall day, however, the day on which visitors had come to observe him in action, Muhammad couldn't have been more at ease. He plumped himself down on the deck of the small boat with the confidence of a man who not only knows his job but knows that others know he knows it—like the United States Navy admiral who skeptically watched him guide a 680-foot cruiser to the pier and later wrote him a note praising his "vast knowledge of the narrow channels in the coral reefs," and calling him "a credit to himself and the profession he represents." Or the other American naval officer who said: "I have yet to meet, in a long and world-wide experience with pilots, one in whom I have more confidence than in Muhammad Salamah, Chief Pilot of Jiddah."

Muhammad is a short, energetic man with a close-cropped gray beard, a huge, white-toothed smile and thick eyebrows. When he talks his face is in constant motion. He wrinkles up his eyes, strokes his beard, throws back his head to laugh, mops his brow and adjusts and readjusts his white creased Javanese cap at jaunty angles on the back of his head. On the deck of his small boat, in the midst of the cries from boys leaping into the water after coins, the shouts of vendors selling fruit and biscuits, the occasional deep whistle of the ships out beyond the reefs, and the murmuring of pilgrims filing up the gangplank of the ship from Karachi, he seemed completely and happily at home.

"Here! Sit right down here," he told his guests and slapped the deck with his palm and pulled a straw mat closer. "My grandfather built this boat," he said as he waited for his son to bring tea from the Primus burner sputtering on the stern. "That was six months after Hussain bin Ali revolted against the Turks. When was that? 1918? The whole boat came from one piece of teakwood from Singapore. It was a gift from the steamship line that Grandfather went to work for. Worth ISO English sovereigns, then."

When the tea came Muhammad sipped it judiciously, smacked his lips approvingly and resumed a story he had begun to tell the night before in his home high in a building overlooking the harbor—the story how he, like his father and his father's father, had become the chief pilot of Jiddah.

Four generations ago, Muhammad had begun, his great grandfather was one of the last of the Red Sea captains who sailed their great dhows from Arabia to the shores of India and Africa, riding the winds of shamal and monsoon in search of cargoes to trade for gold. As was the custom, Muhammad's grandfather sailed with his father and, in the natural course of events, would have become a dhow captain too. About that time, however, Ferdinand de Lesseps finished the Suez Canal and the Red Sea suddenly became a waterway of the world, crowded with fast steamships flying flags from countries everywhere. No match for these huge competitors, the sailing dhows began to fade in importance and it seemed that Grandfather's career as a seaman was at an end. Along a dangerous coast, however, a reef can puncture steel as quickly as wood and the Arabian coast is as dangerous as they come. To lessen such hazards, the steamship lines began to search for pilots with experience and knowledge of the winds, reefs and tides in the Red Sea and soon former dhow skippers began to pop up on the bridges of Western steamships all the way from Aden to Suez. One was Muhammad's grandfather. A few years later his reputation was such that three steamship lines that transported pilgrims from the East Indies, Malaya, Siam and the Philippines—the Blue Funnel, the Netherlands Line and the Rotterdam Lloyd—engaged him as their man in Jiddah, the man who would be responsible for guiding the big steamers through the treacherous triple barrier that guards the harbor.

And his son, my father, succeeded him," Muhammad had said, "and I succeeded my father and As'ad there" —he pointed to his son—"will succeed me." As'ad, he added, is an apprentice pilot who has already spent three years in Liverpool with a steamship company. Two other sons—Muhammad has 11 children in all—will also study in England and become seamen when they are of age.

The succession does not occur automatically, Muhammad explained, but only after many years of study and training. And, squatting cross-legged on a rich red rug beneath a fan hanging from the high-timbered ceiling of his home, his charts of Jiddah's harbor spread out before him, Muhammad had gone on to describe how that training is managed.

"The first thing is to teach a boy to swim. From the start he must learn to love the sea, not fear it, and so swimming is essential. Then, he must learn how to handle a small boat with a paddle. Someone goes with him for a few days but after six weeks he should feel at ease alone in a choppy sea. We have a canoe about 12 feet long called a ghoury. My father learned all this at 10, but I was 16. He wanted me to finish secondary school first. I went to the first one in all Saudi Arabia, the Falah School."

The third step in the making of a pilot is sailing. When a boy feels confident he goes out in a wooden dinghy without ballast and tips it over. The pilot boat crew circles around and watches how he manages to right it. Next, although he continues sailing, come a few years of lessons and hard work, making rope, tying knots, mending sails, repairing fish nets and so on.

As he talked, Muhammad had seemed to relive the pleasures and drudgeries of his own apprenticeship. In the cool, carpeted room, surrounded by a cluster of his children, puffing on a cigarette, his face glowing with pride and years of exposure to wind, sun and sea, he alternately trod the water, pulled an oar and forced thick needles through salty canvas.

"After a time," he continued, "I begin to teach him the reefs. Not from a chart; that comes later. I say, 'lying this way, that way, so many rocks, depth this side and that; where is the shallow water?' It takes four years. He learns it so, so; easy, you know? He stamps the bottom of the harbor on his memory."

Meantime, the boy is allowed to steer the pilot boat in and out of the harbor, especially at night, but he's never allowed a compass. He has to learn to trust the sky and the stars. When he finally gets to use a chart and a compass they are simple to him and only extra tools for what he can already do well. There's no danger if the compass goes wrong or a chart is lost or is inaccurate.

The young man goes with the pilot on the bridge every day for at least one year, and is encouraged to ask about anything he doesn't understand—the anchor, the engine, the rudder—and Muhammad always makes sure that his son comprehends every order because some day he will have to give them. "A young man looks to you. What you do, the next time he will do the same. But you must let him know. My father did the same thing with me. He used to say, 'Boy, I teach you this, and here's the reason.' '

If he shows promise at this point, the learner might be allowed from time to time to bring in small ships under the watchful eye of a licensed pilot.

"You watch him closely six or seven times," Muhammad continued. "You tell him, 'Now this is a secret between you and me,' but of course the captain knows he's learning and he'll say, 'I'm very pleased, but next time you'll do better.' Then you ask the "captain later, 'What do you think? Can he handle 200 feet?' and the captain might answer, 'Yes, but not with a strong wind.' '

The apprentice is kept on a small ship for two years and watched closely during the first, when the captain always reports to the chief pilot whether the new man seems to have caught the "feel of the bridge." Gradually, in fine weather at first, he works up to ships of 300-500 feet length.

"This," said Muhammad, "is the real school."

Muhammad himself was 28 years old when he finally became a pilot. And when, four years ago, he became chief pilot, he had spent 35 years under his father's tutelage. It takes almost that long, he added, to feel completely at ease bringing the biggest ships into the Saudi Arabian harbor in uncertain weather.

"Sometimes in the winter we see the clouds coming from the south shift unsteadily, and others coming from the north. We have about one hour's warning before the two winds attack each other. We always take care. As you will see tomorrow."

All that had been the night before. Now, sitting on the deck of the pilot boat, Muhammad finished his story, adding a detail here, an anecdote there, his voice rising above the raucous noises from the docks. "We are not the only piloting family in Jiddah," he concluded. "There are two, mine and Sa'id Ragabon's. We have been brothers since my grandfather's day. Not just brothers—good brothers." Both hands came together in a firm clasp. "If one is sick the other helps him out."

At that point one of the ships sent a blast of its whistle across the harbor and Muhammad rose. "It's time to go out," he said.

He moved to the bow of the boat and washed his hands. The helmsman started the motor, eased the boat out of its berth and pointed the bow toward the jagged black volcanic mountains on the horizon which marked the site, 40 miles inland, of Mecca, the holy city. Muhammad bent to his prayers, his silhouette a reverent shape against the sky and the three ships in the haze beyond the reefs. When he had finished, his second son As'ad took the helm and the little boat headed for the largest of three ships in a cluster. As the boat gathered speed Muhammad began to describe the terrain that lies hidden beneath the quiet water. "That shade of green there is maybe three to twelve feet deep ... There are two reefs over there under that ripple; see the crease in the water? ... That wreck over there we put on the reef so as not to lose an anchorage if it sank in the harbor; it caught fire in 1929."

As he talked he gestured at the large white ship which the pilot boat was approaching. Black smoke poured from its green and yellow stack and its festive pennants and its flags stood out stiffly in the breeze. On the starboard side, in Arabic and English was written "Kuala Lumpur" and on the stern was added "London."

As Muhammad, his son and the visitors came aboard and began to climb the ladder to the bridge, the commanding officer, Captain A. Watson, stepped forward to greet them. He was a short, good-looking man with a full reddish face set under hair the color of surf. He wore wide white shorts, knee socks, an impeccable cap, and a faint air of impatience.

"Take us in now, please, Mr. Salamah. Much too risky if I it gets dark. We'll load tonight and sail at dawn. We're a day late from the weather now and we've had a hundred men waiting five hours for that other ship."

With that he gestured to the first officer and spoke into the voice tube connecting the bridge to the engine room. "Okay, engine room. Righto. We'll take the wheel from here now."

In the bow, two bells clanged and the rattle of the anchor chain vibrated through the ship.

"How is the chain leaning?"

A sailor with a portable electronic megaphone called back: "Up and down."

A buzzer sounded. "Hello? Pardon? Right you are." The engine room was ready and Salamah's voice called out quickly, confidently. "Half astern starboard."

The Malayan helmsman cranked the engine room telegraph and Captain Watson gave what was to be his last command until the ship docked: "Have the port anchor ready. We'll need two on the windlass." He moved to the side and the ship was Muhammad's.

Imperceptibly at first, as the horizon revolved slowly past the mast, the ship began to turn, smoke from the stack billowing off to the side. In the harbor the ship from Karachi, loaded now and its lines cast off, began to move seaward.

"Start the starboard engine."

The telegraph clanged and Muhammad spoke again. "Full ahead two."

On the wing, Captain Watson and As'ad watched quietly, the captain because, for the moment, he had given up the control of the ship for which he is responsible; the son because one day he would be called upon to assume the responsibility that would be his father's in the next tense moments.

"Slow ahead two."

Salamah moved from one side of the bridge to the other, calmly but quickly. Ahead in the channel a waiting tug gave two blasts of its whistle. Between the hull and the buoys marking there was scarcely 30 feet clearance. The channel steadily narrowed and the ship slipped quietly through the deceptive, menthol-green shallows, a few scant feet from the jagged brown spine of the reef.

"Dead ahead two."

Salamah smiled. The captain, standing quietly at the side, frowned at the water. Behind him, As'ad watched intently, his face expressionless.

"Tug on port quarter."

The ship inched between the buoys and edged past the burned-out wreck on the reef. Salamah, legs apart, one hand behind his back, stood stock-still, his eyes darting in all directions as the junior officers paced soundlessly behind him. Captain Watson, his hands behind his back, knotted his fingers.

"Starboard ten."

"Twenty midships."

"Steady ... port 20." Salamah smiled broadly, pushed one foot further into its sandal, slapped the creased cap and readjusted it at a jauntier angle on his head and suddenly everyone knew that it was over. The ship was through and only berthing remained. "Midships," he called. The Malayan boy at the wheel repeated the command.

"Steady!" The echo came back, "steady!"

"Sir, tug is fast on port quarter."

The ship moved in toward the pier, its advance marked by its own deep whistle blasts and the shrill answers from . the tug. On the bridge, amid bells and buzzers, Muhammad snapped off crisp commands until at last the ship swung around, its stern easing toward the pier where men scurried about ready to receive the thick hawsers that would lash it to the shore.

Ashore, on the roadway leading to the pier, trucks and buses, their roofs piled high with baggage, began to line up at the gate. In them were pilgrims—now hajfis—nearly 2,000 strong, eager to press aboard the ship which would take them back with the good news of their pilgrimage to their families and neighbors in Southeast Asia.

On the bridge the silence continued, broken only by Captain Watson's admiring murmur: "Four and a half million dollars worth of property here and he handles it like a motor car. Excellent. Excellent."

Finally the Kuala Lumpur nudged the Jiddah pier and Muhammad, with the authority of four generations of seamen behind him, finished his job and his story.

"Stop engines," he said.

William Tracy, is a graduate student at the American University of Beirut and a regular contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 28-33 of the November/December 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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