San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Drug on the Market

I must tell you about an odd thing that happened to us offshore one of the emirates lining the southern shore of the Arabian Gulf. Dubai, which now boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the world, started out as just one of a hundred dirt-poor fishing villages strung along that heartbreaking shore. But unlike the others, it had one priceless advantage: the Abu-Ghazaleh family of natural-born entrepreneurs moved in from the Empty Quarter and settled down there. The Abu- Ghazalehs believed you could do anything, be anyone, if you simply ignore the rules that bind ordinary mortals.

They got their start in the humblest possible way, exporting sand and gravel to build Bombay, carried, for economy, in the large oceangoing dhows known as booms, built for the pearl-diving trade in nearby Sharjah.

You don’t make a fortune shipping sand, and furthermore each dhow had to carry an outsize crew of seven to handle the huge sloping yardarm when making the single change of course deep in the southern ocean. But the cost was justified because underneath the innocent-looking cargo was a fortune in hundred-tola bars of bullion for the goldsmiths of Bombay. Then, on the return journey, they carried huge balks of teak for the dhow builders of Sharjah.

Well, nothing lasts forever, and with the arrival of fast motor launches, the trade turned to exporting cocaine base to the refining laboratories scattered along the Iranian shore north of Dubai. So, one by one, the picturesque old dhows were left to rot on the desolate shores.

Which is exactly where we came in, as we needed a sturdy platform for our scuba diving operations off the TrucialCoast, and were content to make do with a small auxiliary engine without the aggravation of unwieldy sails. We managed to pick up one of the smaller hulls in fair condition for the price of a good meal, gave her a new coat of lime and shark oil below the waterline to repel the teredo worm, then installed a propeller and an auxiliary engine contributed by an abandoned Ford tractor. Finally, we loaded her up with the spare air cylinders, compressors and miscellaneous junk scuba divers tend to accumulate.

Our first trip was to KubraIsland, which has an attractive reef, and we motored out at six in the morning, ready for a long day of fishing and photography. Our objective lay some 20 miles offshore, and we were barely halfway there when one of the aforesaid fast motor launches came racing out of the morning mist toward us, swerved at the last second and bumped alongside with enough force to make us stagger.

Their crew of four desperate-looking cutthroats, each branding a wicked-looking Stechkin machine pistol, jumped aboard us and forced us to lie facedown while they hurriedly transferred a dozen plywood cases, about the size of tea chests, to our hold. All but one of our own 10-man crew did as we were told, but Arnold, the big-boned derrick hand out of East Texas, turned over as if to argue the point, and promptly got pistolwhipped for his trouble.

The whole affair hadn’t taken more than five minutes when, without a word, they jumped back into their launch and raced off on a northerly course. The explanation came 10 minutes later when a Dubai Police launch repeated the baddies’ maneuver and asked if we had seen a fast launch. I must admit that for about one second it occurred to me to deny everything so we could take a look at our new cargo and decide what to do with it.

But in the next second, I realized that whatever it was, the bad men had simply dumped it on us so that if the police should  catch up with them, they had nothing to deny. Later, they would be back to recover their property, and we would be mincemeat if we had so much as touched it. Accordingly, I simply told the truth, which is always a good policy when you don’t have a better idea, so the police came aboard, transferred the chests to their own launch, explaining that they contained cocaine base, and made ready to take off.

Suddenly I realized that if the baddies returned and found their property gone, we would be even worse off than if we had merely tried to steal it, so I insisted that the police escort us back to Dubai. By now, the baddies were undoubtedly untouchable within Iranian coastal waters, so with bad grace the police did as requested.

Needless to say, there were few takers for the next scheduled dive, but what annoyed me even more than the loss of a good day was that Arnold, of all people, claimed I should have told the police to buzz off. But then, some folks are never satisfied.


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