Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Daily Life — Shatt-Al-Arab IRAQ 1947-52

How sixty years ago I sometimes plumbed Iraq’s murky depths by age-old methods, and was refreshed by riding the deep blue waters.

One rather primitive state-of-the-art technique we used when we discovered that a portion of the shipping channel was filling in and needed immediate attention by one of the dredgers, was making blueprints of the area concerned by the aid of solar power. I would plot the soundings a few minutes after we had run them and have them copied on a piece of tracing paper. Then we would cut off a piece of blueprint paper to fit in a compact glass enclosed frame which measured about eight inches by twenty four. On top of this we would place the similar-sized tracing, close down the glass top and place it in the sunshine for a few minutes. Then the blueprint paper would be immersed in a half-bucket of water until the image of the sounding figures appeared. Then it was dried, rolled up and tied with a string to a half-pound piece of scrap metal. Then we would steer an opposite course to the chosen slow moving dredger and as we passed within thirty feet of it one of my crew would hurl the weight, with the blue-print-attached, onto the dredger’s deck. Thus we had almost instant graphic communication despite not having modern fax-machines.

There was the odd day that the wonderful MSXXI echo sounder was not really so wonderful and like most temperamental electronic things refused to function. At such times I had to retreat back to the 19th century way of doing things and we sounded by leadlines swung in the classical tradition of the sea by a leadsman standing on a sounding platform on either side of the El Ghar’s bridge. First one then the other leadsman, assisted by a lascar on the deck below in retrieving the heavy lead after each cast, would swing his stranded wire sounding line, weighted by the hefty piece of lead, well ahead of the ship and as it touched bottom he would sing out the depth indicated by the small pieces of coloured bunting affixed to the wire every eighth of a fathom. As there are six feet in a fathom that meant there was a marker every nine inches along the line. By noting whether it was a little under or a little above the surface of the water the depth of the sounding could be estimated to within an accuracy of three inches. Well, theoretically, that is. On a very calm day. On a hard bottom. In still water. If there wasn’t a swell with a wave length longer than twice the dimensions of the survey vessel. Also, with a uniform horizontal motion of the water from sea bed to surface. Providing the wire was straight up and down when the leadsman called his cast.

Obviously we could never have all these conditions satisfied. The bottom of the estuary was so soft that when a pile driver initially drove down a beacon component it would go into the seabed ten feet at one blow. Unfortunately it would at once spring back nine feet 11 inches. Thus it was evident that the lead would go a foot or more into the mhutti below before the leadsman could feel any sort of bottom. And we thought there was only one brief period during the flood tide that a good vertical sounding could be taken. At other times in thirty feet of water we could see that the warm, salt-water, flood tide was making on the surface while below the fresher, relatively less dense, but silt-laden river water, ebbed and flowed in the opposite direction . Or sometimes vice versa. Hence the sounding wire would be bent or slanted. But none of it was that critical really as the soft bottom was easy on the touchings of big ships and this ability of large vessels, even with their foot or so of squat when going at speed, to churn through the muddy bottom would actually help maintain the channel when the ebb tide was strong and immediately washed the churned up mud out to deeper water.

So for hour after hour, while manually leadlining we would make our stately progress at a slow speed just a knot or two faster than, but always along with, the tide and listen to and record the melodious and monotonous soundings of the fathoms as they were called out in Arabic: Arbaa wa sebbaat athman, nargus (four and seven-eighths with the mark just under the water surface) from the port side, to be followed ten seconds or so later from the starboard side by Khamsa, sayid (five with the mark a little above the water).

But most days the echo-sounder was in good working order and strongly recorded its veritable electronic profile of the soft seabed beneath us. Then we could sound at full speed and give the leadsmen so much rest from that part of their duties that it was a wonder they didn’t forget their numbers. And though the recorded echo trace was very fuzzy, owing to the soft mud having such poor reflecting qualities for the accoustic pulses, it was possible to determine a criterion for accepting the depth at which suspended mud gave way to a more dense layer that could be construed as a sea bed. And also as we reached the outer limits of our normal area of operations and the flat lands of Iraq and Iran had long disappeared from view, there on the electronic echo trace, emerging from below a fathom or two of mud would be the hard dense shape of an underlying firm formation. Gradually as we went south the razor-sharp outline of the rock would be seen to rise higher and higher in relation to the falling level of mud until the two traces met and the fuzzy upper surface gave way to a proper and distinct deep-sea, foreign-going, bottom. Thus the echo-sounder electronically marked in graphic, unwitting, display the boundary, measured in centuries, or millenniums, of the time elapsed in years, of the amount of river mud deposited since Sindbad the Sailor’s lifetime until my own. And here, at that refreshing boundary, several miles from land, where the brown river water met the deep-blue, salt sea water, the division between them was sometimes so distinct that the stern of the 98-foot-long El Ghar was in one colour of water and the bow in another.

And here also, at the limits of where my work was officially done I would nevertheless often order the El Ghar on and on into the deeper blue waters for no real purpose but just so I could feel the ship’s entrancing motion as she lifted gracefully to the long ocean swell and I could watch the echo-sounder graph as the bold clean bottom trace finally dropped off the edge of the wet, iodine-saturated, electrical recording paper.

Then we would be deep in the magic of profound waters and to attest to the truth of it a dozen porpoises would urge us on like seductive sirens of old, leaping and running ahead of the ship with the spray from their glistening bodies flashing in the sunlight.

After this invigorating dalliance, during which even the now higher-riding El Ghar herself seemed to rejoice in having her hull washed in the clear blue saline, we would eventually have to turn about and head back to the turmoil of the Shatt al Arab and its troubled and murky waters.

Going the 80 miles up to Basra for an infrequent weekend from Fao was always something of a holiday event. The usual and quickest way for the dozen or so shore-based port directorate personnel stationed in Fao was to take a bus that cut across the desert along an indistinct track often several miles from the sparse shade and green of the river-bank-hugging date palm plantations. In summer it was important to take drinking water along in case of breakdown as there were several stories of passengers in past times having to drink the unappetising contents of their vehicle’s radiator before they were missed and rescued.

The port also had a rather ramshackle motor boat that ran a shuttle service of sorts up and down the river. But it was a long, smelly and noisy trip and seldom used by port officers. I did go up in that boat one very hot night and it not only broke down for a while but the crew had forgotten to bring water along. I got so thirsty that I couldn’t stop myself from leaning over and scooping up some of the dubious water straight from the river. When I say dubious I mean dubious. I mean almost putrid. I mean really putrid. Up river there were several million inhabitants who use the Tigris, Euphrates, Karun and Shatt al Arab rivers as their communal toilet. And have done so since time began. However, nobody can fight real thirst. Its immediacy transcends any finickyness. And anyway, on the El Ghar we drank the same river water all the time, though we did run it slowly through a big ceramic cone-shaped Persian Hub whic h was equipped with filter candles inside. This was purely a way (Oh! boy, is that ever a class-one oxymoron) of keeping the water somewhat cooled through evaporation and also somewhat cosmetically clear of silt and the larger pieces of effluence. It surely didn’t do much in the way of hygiene.

The most pleasant way of going up to Basra for me was either in my own El Ghar or aboard one of the big suction dredgers when they had reason to go up river. A few days staying at the notably luxurious rest house with half a dozen vacationing dredger officers was always a festive occasion. This holiday spirit was augmented by our lengthy visits to the oppulent Port Club not far down the road in Ma’gil, the pleasant residential area for the authority’s officials. Mainly because of the myriad little lights strung through the trees and bushes around the spacious club gardens and swimming pools it always seemed to be Christmas at the club. And the long curving bar and sumptuous meals served in the spotless dining room were delights to enjoy. Much of this sumptuous living was due to the meticulous professionalism and often diplomatic competence of Mr John, the club’s Armenian manager.

At times we would go a couple of miles to Ashar, the old town of Basra, and visit the suk and examine and barter for pieces of delicate inlaid Amara work in silver and gold and other items of interest and varying desirability. Three or four times when I was in Basra with the El Ghar, my serang, Ashhor Ahmed, and Abood Assiad, Moosa Sagar, Hassan, the chief engineer, and one or two others of my crew and myself would go into a café or some such place together and have a beer or two. And it was a very happy time and I discovered that our senses of humour and ways of looking at the world were basically much the same. They were deeply interested during those relaxed times in hearing of what life was like in Europe and North America and I saw how incomprehensible it was for them to visualize what I was describing. This was before any television had come their way. All they had seen were a few western movies full of puzzling scenes of domestic bickering and unintelligible cultural relationships.

On occasion I was invited by senior port officials to dinner parties in their large and sprawling bungalows. It was all very pleasant but somewhat tedious with a dozen or more other guests sitting for several hours at a decorated long table and being served course after course of fine food. Then I would melt away to the Port Club to meet my dredger friends.

Whenever I have been on a beer salary I never aspired to champagne and during the times I have had the fortune to be on a modest champagne salary I have been lucky enough to stay inclined to beer tastes. I’m sure Charles Dicken's Mr Micawber would fully approve of that.

There was an old saying in Fao that if you once tasted the waters of the Shatt-al-Arab you would return to taste them again. As it turned out I did so myself. Water was a very important commodity in the region. Kuwait, already rich from oil was just beginning experiments to desalinate sea water but they still employed a couple of medium-sized tankers whose sole task was to come up the river to load fresh water. Bellams, the local small boats, also were seen paddling up river past Fao on the last of the flood tide. As soon as the ebb was away the single occupant of the boat could be seen making a few further paddle strokes up river, then putting a hand in the river and tasting the water, making another few strokes of the paddle, tasting again and then finally, when the water was unsalted enough he would bail in reverse, filling his boat with water until he had barely enough freeboard left to float. Then sitting in his boat amid his load of water he would make off down river to little settlements farther to the south. Perhaps even to Kuwait, I suppose.

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