National Geographic : 1937 Nov
PEARL FISHING IN THE RED SEA BY HENRI DE MONFREID T IRED of trading in leathers and coffees in northeast Africa and feel ing the urge of the sea, I built myself a 10-ton boat rigged with a lateen sail and went off to fish for pearls. Mine was a light-draft Arab craft that could skim across the reefs at high tide. Four Somali sailors made up my crew. I planned to pick up Sudanese pearl divers after a trial run to the Arabian coast. The first land I sighted after leaving Djibouti in French Somaliland was the islands of Moucha, characteristic of the coral isles of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Silence and mystery brooded over the lush green landscape where big brown crabs, fat sea slugs, and white egrets provide the only touch of life. I returned to the boat in full moonlight. From the flat expanse of an island, its white beaches shining in the moonglow, arose the hoarse cries of sand crickets coming to life at night. Little waves died gently on the beach at long intervals like the breath of all sleeping things. While the stars passed slowly above my head, I thought of the unknown where I was going to venture. "IT WAS TIME TO GO" The tide rose slowly; the moon at its zenith revealed the coral with surprising clearness. It was time to go. First with a boat hook to clear the reef, and then with a brisk south wind, we made the blacker waters of the open sea. At daybreak the yellow mountain spur of the Ras Bir showed up to port. We skirted the Dancalia coast, taking advantage of the offshore breeze. Then the monsoon rose and we ran for the mouth of the Red Sea, the Strait of Bab el Mandeb (map, p. 600). Toward nine o'clock the British island of Perim stood out like an enormous sea mon ster guarding the strait and dividing it into two passages. The smaller, on the Arabian side, is practicable only for fishing boats and the zarugs, or light, swift Arab sailing craft, of tobacco smugglers (pages 609, 612, 625). I decided on this narrower one because it was the shortest route to the northern shore. I had been warned that this passage was dangerous because of strong and treacherous currents, but I felt that the force of the fol- lowing wind should carry us safely through. I was a little anxious, though, when I re membered that Bab el Mandeb means "Gate of Tears." Waves, driven up from India by the mon soon, broke against high black cliffs in steaming torrents of spray. It was too late to change course. Any loss of speed in this angry sea would make these almost vertical waves doubly terrible, as they would then overwhelm us from the stern. A STORMY PASSAGE THROUGH THE "GATE OF TEARS" Better to risk our all! If the rigging held we were saved. We tore through the tumul tuous sea only a few cable lengths from the fury of the waves breaking against the rocks of the shore. Suddenly, Abdi, crouching down in the bow, shouted something I did not hear, and pointed in the line of our course. I saw that the sea was covered with what appeared to be liquid cones rising suddenly and disappearing again. Waves whipped with spray rushed in a circle. Here the great swirl and eddy made by the current, which was held back by the wind's force, became a veritable whirlpool. As I tried to steer toward a zone of com parative calm, the mainsail was brought down by the violence of the wind. Ahmed threw himself on the clew line to prevent the sail from bringing the boat by the lee, which would have instantly capsized us. The whirlpool caught us and a wave, rushing over the stern, swept away the sail. A sharp cry rose above the tumult and a dark figure washed past in the foam. Ah med had been carried away by the furious sea! I threw out lines which drifted astern, but I could think only of steering to keep behind us the mountainous waves. Abdi succeeded in hoisting a piece of sailcloth that served as a storm jib and enabled us to make headway. But we were ready to sink. The boat was half full of water. One more sea and we should go to the bottom. I turned around. There was Ahmed clinging to the dragging ropes. We pulled him on board like a fish on a line. Without a word he got a pail and set about helping to bail out the boat.