Four Sea-Stories

Abharah’s Seamanship

Among the yarns of the seamen and shipmasters is that which I told about Captain ‘Abharah. He was originally from Kirman, a shepherd in one of its districts, and then he became a fisherman, and then one of the sailors on a ship trading with India. He then changed to a China ship, of which he afterwards became captain. He was well versed in the ways of the sea and made the voyage to China seven times. No one had crossed to China before him except as a perilous adventure. No one had ever been heard of who had made the voyage without accident and returned; if anyone made the outward voyage safely, that was a wonder, and a safe return was rare; and I have never heard of any but him who made both the outward and the return voyage wholly without mishap.

He was on one occasion found sitting in his canoe with a water-skin, and remaining on the sea some days. Captain Shariyari, one of the captains on the China route, relates what follows:

“I was sailing from Siraf to China, and was between al-Sinf and China in the region of Sandal Fulat – an island at the entrance to the Sanji Sea, i.e. the sea of China – when the wind dropped to a calm and the sea became still: we let out the anchors and rested where we were a couple of days. On the third day we sighted in the distance something on the sea. I let down the dinghy into the sea with four sailors and ordered them, “Make for that black object and see what it is.” So they went and returned and we asked, “What is it?” and they said, “Captain Abharah in his canoe with a water-skin.” I replied, “Why did you not bring him?” They said, “We tried; but he said, “I shall enter your ship on condition that I become captain in command of the vessel and am paid goods to the value of 1000 dinars at Siraf prices. Otherwise I shall not enter.” When we heard this report we were struck by his words. I went down with some others from the ship to where he was being tossed up and down by the waves; we hailed him and begged him to come up with us. But he said, “Your situation is worse than mine; I am safer than you. But I shall go up if you pay me goods to the value of 1,000 dinars at Siraf prices, and give me command of the ship.” Then we said, “This ship holds a great quantity of goods and valuables and many people, and it would do us no harm to have the advice of ‘Abharah for 1,000 dinars. “So he came up into the ship with his canoe and his water-skin. As soon as he came aboard he said, “Deliver me the 1000 dinars’ worth of goods;” and we delivered them. Then, when he had put them in a safe place, he addressed the captain, “Sit aside!” and the captain moved from his station. Then he said to us, “It is your duty to carry out your orders thoroughly while there remains a chance.” We said, “What shall we do?” He said, “Throw out all heavy cargo,” so we threw out about half the ship’s freight, or more. Next, “Cut the larger mast,” and we cut it and threw it overboard. In the morning he ordered us to take up the anchor and let the ship drift, which we did also, leaving it in the sea. After that he ordered us to do the same with other anchors, and continued until we had thrown six anchors into the sea. On the third day a cloud rose up like a lighthouse, and dissolved again into the sea; then the typhoon was upon us. And if we had not jettisoned the cargo and cut the mast as should have been sunk by the first wave that struck us. The typhoon lasted three days and three nights, with the ship tossing up and down without anchor or sail, drifting we knew not whither. On the fourth day the wind began to abate; then it died down altogether and the sea was fair at the end of the day. From the morning of the fifth day the sea was good and the wind favorable; we erected a mast, hoisted the sails and went on our way, preserved by God. We arrived at China and stayed there until we had sold and bought, repaired our ship, and made a mast to replace the one we had thrown overboard. Finally we left China and made for Siraf. “When we came near the place where we reckoned we had first seen ‘Abharah, we passed by an island and some reefs. ‘Abharah said, “Drop the anchors”; and we did so. Then we let down the life-boat and fifteen men went into it, with orders from ‘Abharah to go to a certain reef which he pointed out and fetch from it a certain anchor. We were surprised by the order, but did not dispute it; so the men went and returned with the anchor. Again he ordered them to go to another reef that he pointed out and bring back a certain anchor, and they went and returned with it. Then he ordered the sails to be hoisted, and we hoisted them and sailed on. “We asked him, ‘How did you know about those anchors?” He replied, “Yes, I shall explain. When I found you in this place it was exactly the thirtieth day of the moon, at the time of high tide. But the water had already ebbed considerably, and you were between the reefs and the island. So I ordered you to throw out the heavy cargo, and you did so. I then thought about the anchors, and realized that we should not need them urgently in China and that the value of an equal weight of the remaining cargo was double the value of the anchors; so I threw them out as well because it was absolutely necessary to lighten the ship. These three anchors remained visible above the reefs and the island, while the other three sank under the water.’ ‘But, we asked, what indication did you have of this ebb and the typhoon?’ He answered, ‘I and others before me have had experience of this sea, and we have discovered that on exactly the thirtieth day of every moon there is a large ebb which uncovers these reefs. Moreover at the time of this ebb there is a violent typhoon that arises from the depths of the ocean. The ship on which I was had been wrecked on the crest of one of these reefs, because the ebb had caught me while I was laying at anchor for the night over the reef; but I saved myself in that canoe. And if you had stayed where you then were, you would not have remained on the sea more than an hour without your ship being grounded, before the typhoon, because you were over the island; and if you had run aground on it you would have been wrecked.”

This ‘Abhara was a man of many voyages and adventures on the sea, and this is one of his strangest adventures.

Heading for Raysut

Muhammad ibn-Babishad narrated to me an incident that occurred once when he was sailing in his ship from Fansur making for Uman. After he had crossed the Sea of Harkand and entered the Sea of India, and resolved to cross to the West, the captain of his ship said to him, “What port in the West are you making for?” He replied, “I am making for Raysut or a farsakh above or below it.” The captain said to him, “We are heading for a certain port fifty farsakhs below Raysut.” So they made a wager of twenty dinars, to be given to the poor. At the time they were at least 400 farsakhs from Raysut.

After fifteen days’ sailing they thought they were now approaching the mountains of the West, and began talking about their wager until nightfall. They sailed on till the next morning, and when the day broke they climbed up with the look-out boy to the top of the mast, but saw nothing and descended. But when they had performed the afternoon prayer, Muhammed ibn-Babishad said, “I can see an outline of the mountains.” But the others said, “We see nothing.” So he told the boy to climb up, and when he had climbed and set himself on top of the mast, he cried, “The mercy of God on those who magnify Him!” So they magnified God and congratulated each other and wept from the intensity of their joy and happiness. Then they went on for the whole of that night until near the dawn, and when the dawn was nearly rising Muhammed al-Babishad said, “Drop the anchor,” and they did so, and lowered the sail. Then he said to the captain, “Where are we?” and the captain told him that they were off a certain place, which was forty farsakhs distant from Raysut. But Muhammed al-Babishad replied, “No, we are at Raysut itself: either it is on the shore just opposite the ship, or an arrow’s throw ahead or astern.” And sure enough when morning came they were at Raysut itself.

Muhammed al-Babishad added, “If you are on the sea and you want to know whether you are near the land or a mountain, look out in the afternoon when the sun is going down; if when it goes down there is actually a mountain or island on the opposite horizon, it will be visible then.”

Shipwreck on the Way to India

Among the famous adventures of the sea which have been handed down by tradition to our own times is the following, told to me by a merchant:

“I left Siraf in the year 306 (CE 919) in a ship making for Saymur. With us was a ship of ‘Abdallah ibn-al-Junayd and a ship of Saba. These three ships were extremely large and well known on the sea, with famous shipmasters of high repute and standing among seamen. Aboard the ships there were 1,200 men – merchants, sailors, and others, of diverse nationalities. The cargo of wealth and merchandise was of incalculable value. After eleven days’ sailing we saw the outlines of the mountains and the features of the land of Sindan and Tanah and Saymur. We had never heard of this voyage being made with such speed before, so we rejoiced and congratulated each other on our safe crossing, and we began preparations because we presumed we should reach land next morning. “But then the wind came upon us from the mountains, and we could not handle the sails, and we were caught in the gale and the rain and thunder and lightning. The ship’s officers and sailors proposed to jettison cargo, but Ahmad (the master of our ship) forbade them saying, ‘I shall not jettison until after things are beyond my control and I know that I shall perish.’ So the men went down to bail out the hold on both sides. The other two ships were in the same condition as ours, with everyone on board waiting on the master to see whether he would jettison or not, and following his example. Then the merchants started fretting and said to him, ‘Throw out the cargo, you will not be held responsible; for we are perishing.’ But he refused absolutely. For the next six days matters grew steadily worse. On the sixth day when the ship was almost sinking, he gave the order to jettison; but it was impossible to throw out anything because the sacks and bales were heavy with the rain, so that what had contained a weight of 500 manns (about 27,500 pounds) now contained 1,500 because of the rain. The situation was now urgent; the lifeboat was put on the water and thirty-three men went down into it. Ahmad was pressed to go down into the lifeboat, but he said, “I shall not leave my ship, for there is more hope of its being saved than the lifeboat; and if it goes down, I go down with it, for I have no interest in returning after the loss of my capital.”

The merchant who told me the story went on:

“We stayed in the lifeboat five days without food or drink, until we had not the force to speak a word, from hunger and thirst and our sufferings on the sea. The boat was so tossed by the waves and wind that we did not know whether it was under the sea or not. And in our intense hunger and distress we made signs to each other that we should eat one of our number. There was among us in the boat a fat boy, not yet of age, whose father was in the company that had remained behind on the ship: so we decided to watch him. The boy felt what we were up to, and I saw him looking up to heaven and moving his lips and his eyes in silent prayer. But in less than an hour we saw signs of land. Soon the land became clearly visible; then the boat ran aground, capsized and filled with water. We had no strength to stand or move. But at that moment, behold! There were two men running down from the shore to the boat. They asked us where we came from; we told them from a certain ship, which we named. They took us in their arms and brought us ashore. There we fell on our faces as if we were dead. One of the two men ran away; I asked the other where we were and he answered, ‘This smoke which you see is from al-Tiz. My companion has gone to the village where we have food and water and clothing.’ Then they carried us to the town. “Everyone on board the three ships perished, and not one of them was saved except a handful of those who were in the lifeboat. Among the victims was the captain of our ship, Ahmad, whose name has remained celebrated. The loss of these ships and their cargoes of goods contributed to the decline of Siraf and Saymur because of the great quantity of wealth, and the number of important shipmasters and captains and merchants in them.”

Crossing from ‘Aydhab to Juddah

On Monday the 25th of Rabi al-Awwal, (i.e. the 18th of July, CE 1183), we embarked on the jalbah for the crossing to Juddah. We stayed that day in the anchorage because of the calmness of the wind and the absence of the sailors; and on the morning of Tuesday we set sail, with the blessing of God the Great and Glorious and the benefit of His much-desired help….

On Tuesday the 26th of Rabi al-Awwal, and on Wednesday, our sea voyage continued with a gentle breeze blowing. But in the late evening of the night before Thursday, while we were rejoicing at the sight of birds circling above us from al-Hijaz, a flash of lightning shone from the direction of that land, i.e., from the East. Then there began a rain-storm with which the horizon was darkened, and soon it covered all the horizons; and a strong wind blew which pushed the ship off its course backwards. The gale wind continued and the intense darkness increased and enveloped the horizons, and we did not recognize the direction we were making for until some stars appeared and some indications could be got from them. The sail was lowered to the foot of the mast; and we stayed that night on a rough sea that led us to despair. But after the Red Sea had shown us some of its tempestuous rage, God brought relief with the morning. The wind was curbed, the clouds dispersed, the sky cleared, and al-Hijaz appeared to us in the distance. We could only see some of its mountains to the East of Juddah; the captain asserted that between those mountains that appeared to us and the site of Juddah was a distance of two days on land. May God smooth out for us every obstacle and make easy for us every difficulty with His greatness and kindness!

We sailed that day, Thursday, in a soft and pleasant wind; then in the evening we anchored at a small island in the sea near that land which we mentioned, after we had passed much coral on which the water was breaking, and mocking at us. We penetrated its reefs with the utmost caution; the captain was intelligent and skillful at his craft, and God delivered us from the reefs, until we anchored on that island. We went ashore and lodged there on the night before Friday, the 29th of Rabi al-Awwal. In the morning the weather was calm, and the wind was breathing only from the opposite direction to that which suited us, so we spent Friday there. On Saturday, which completed the thirty days of the month (1st of Rabi al-Akhir), the wind blew somewhat; we sailed with the wind gently, while the sea became so still that you might imagine it was a plate of blue glass…

On the evening of Sunday the 2nd we anchored at an anchorage called Abhar, less than a day from Juddah. This anchorage has a most wonderful situation, for it is a channel of the sea entering into the land, which surrounds it on both sides; the jalbahs anchor there in a calm and quiet spot. At dawn on Monday we sailed from it with the blessing of God the Highest in a mild breeze. It is God who gives success; there is no Lord but He. When the night darkened we anchored near Juddah, which was within sight. On Tuesday morning the wind was blowing against our entry into its harbor; the entry of these anchorages is in any case difficult to accomplish because of the numerous coral reefs and the winding channels: so we were able to see the art of these captains and sailors in managing the jalbah among them; it is extraordinary how they bring it through the narrow channels and lead it among them like a rider on a horse which is sensitive to the rein and easy under the bridle; and in this they show marvelous skill, difficult to describe. At noon on Tuesday the 4th of Rabi al-Akhir, the 26th of July, we entered Juddah, praising God…

Among the dangers of the voyage, ibn-Jubayr mentions the weakness of the ship’s tackle, its derangement and breaking time after time when the sail was raised or lowered or an anchor drawn from its moorings; and sometimes the ship’s hull struck one of the corals during its passage among them, and we heard a crashing sound which caused us to despair; and sometimes we did not know whether we should live or die…”

These sea stories are taken from Arab Seafaring, by George Fadlo Hourani, after those originally written in Buzurg.