National Geographic : 1948 Nov
Sailing with Sindbad's Sons BY ALAN VILLIERS * With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author E VER SINCE the day I thrilled to my first sight of a dhow speeding down the Red Sea, I knew I could never be satisfied until I learned how the Arabs sailed their ships, where they went, and how they survived in a mechanized world. A look around the maritime world offered nothing of interest to compare. In the Occi dent scarcely a fisherman was left without power, and few were the South Sea Island schooners that didn't leave the reek of Diesel oil astern. Only the deepwater Arab, the odd China man with his junk, the long-voyage Indian dhow, and the Makassar prau still went about their ancient seaways under sail. So, having sold my own full-rigged Joseph Conrad, off I went to ship with the Arabs. I went armed with introductions to political agents and to sheikhs, and with visas filled with strange hieroglyphs. A ship owner at Aden arranged for me and an American com panion, Hilgard Pannes, to ship in a tiny double-ended dhow. I discovered that the Arabs speak of none of their ships as "dhows." These craft have type names-sambuks, booms, baggalas, and zarooks-depending on hull forms. The Sheikh Mansur, to which I was as signed, was a zarook, built in the Yemen. She was lean and fast, and when I joined her at the little wharf at Ma'ala, Aden, she had just loaded general cargo for Qizan, a small port on the Red Sea (map, page 678). The ship was so overloaded, her midship rail only a few inches above water, that I feared the wash of a fast rowboat might swamp her. Arabs Laugh at Foreign "Softies" Arab sailors and stevedores on the wharf eyed Pannes and me with interest as we ap proached Ahmed, the nakhoda (master) of the Sheikh Mansur. Despite language diffi culties, it became apparent that the nakhoda did not want us, no matter what the owners said. To all and sundry he shouted that his ship was without comforts for softies such as we. "Look here," I said, "don't you worry about us; we're sailors." Sailors? Two foreigners in white suits? Laughter swept the wharf. At last we persuaded the nakhoda, and he marched us off to sign aboard. At the sight of us, pariah dogs on Ma'ala beach barked themselves hoarse. Across the harbor, sand shimmered under the Arabian sun. Behind us the pock-marked mountains, burned and bare, shut in the settlement. A Bedouin camel caravan, hauling firewood, shuffled past us. All along the beach Arab shipwrights repaired dhows and sailors sewed lateen sails. At last we came to the water-front police office, where we were entered on the Sheikh Mansur's outward manifest. Bearded Pilgrim Comes Aboard I got a Persian carpet (made in Birming ham) and bedded down on the ship's deck. Early the next morning a bearded Indian holy man, bound on a pilgrimage to Mecca, came aboard.f This dignitary, wearing a Joseph-coat gown, was escorted by police, who wanted to make sure that he did not become a public charge in Aden. His luggage consisted of a kerosene can crammed with food. Of cash he apparently had none, and he later jumped ship. That evening, with wind and tide in our favor, we sailed. This maneuver was accom plished by weighing the grapnel anchor by hand and then sheeting home the lateen sail, which broke out of its palm fronds and, catching the air, sent us bowling along. The nakhoda took the tiller (there was no wheel), and we slipped silent and lightless down Aden's bay. We ghosted along Arabia's arid shore, bound toward the strait of Bab el Mandeb. Sheikh Mansur was deep-laden and stiff, and she rolled with a sudden jerky motion. Though the sun was blazing, it occurred to no one to erect a tent shelter. * The author, an Australian journalist, served under sail in the Australian grain races. Later he became the owner and master of the square-rigged Joseph Con rad. During the war he was a commander in the Royal Navy. To the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE he has contributed: "Cape Horn Grain-Ship Race," January, 1933; "North About," February, 1937; "Rounding the Horn in a Windjammer," Feb ruary, 1931; "Where the Sailing Ship Survives (Aland Islands)," January, 1935; and "Last of the Cape Horners," May, 1948. t See "Pilgrims' Progress to Mecca," 40 ills., NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1937; and "Unbeliever Joins the Hadj," by Owen Tweedy, June, 1934. SSee "Rock of Aden," by H. G. C. Swayne, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, December, 1935.