SIR BU NAIR ISLAND / / Whenever Suleiman Abdulla was caught in a storm far from land, he would do two things. He would pull off his ghutra and turn it into a flag atop his fishing dhow. Then he would sit and pray.
"When boats or ships see the flapping ghutra, it's a signal that a boat is in trouble," said the 60-year-old fisherman.
If possible, dhows would make their way to the closest island and take refuge near its coast, an emergency operation known for hundreds of years as "bander" among Gulf seamen.
"The sea is worse than a woman," said Mr Abdulla, a fisherman for 50 years. "It always betrays you no matter how faithful you have been to it."
His half-century on the sea has not been kind to the fisherman. He has lost sight in one eye because of the sun, and his skin is deeply cracked.
On Wednesday, Mr Abdulla and his friend Saeed Mohammed felt that betrayal once again when a wind storm hit and the waves battered a modern white ferry as it made its way to a heritage festival on Sir Bu Nair island, about 112 kilometres from Sharjah.
The two old fishermen, with Omani Emirati backgrounds, explained that the "al Shamali" winds were at the heart of this storm. "These northern winds always come around this time of year, they said, but they seemed stronger than usual. "Nature always surprises and wins in the end no matter what technology you have," said Mr Abdulla.
On board the ferry were 30 other people; the old men of the sea were the only two smiling and enjoying the thrashing while others sat clutching the railings, nauseated. The two yelled instructions to the captain to "push on".
"Don't fear it, don't stop. Yallah, command it," yelled Mr Mohammed as the boat was being slapped with seven- to 10-metre waves, water pouring over the sides.
A trip that usually takes three hours ended up taking six, with some of the passengers needing medical attention on arrival. One of them was Um Humaid, a 65-year-old woman from Oman. She came with five of her neighbours to cook traditional cuisine for the heritage festival. It was the women's first voyage on water, and, they vowed, their last.
"Horrible. Horrible," said Um Humaid. "I never want to ride a boat as long as I live."
When the ferry reached Sir Bu Nair island, there was a cluster of 12 fishing dhows, or lanj, already taking refuge. Two yachts were also among the refugees. Sir Bu Nair is one of the main islands sought out by seamen in a storm, as it shelters them from the winds.
A fisherman from Saudi Arabia, Abd al Kareem bin al Karam, 55, and his two-man Saudi crew, were on their way home when the winds got too strong.
"You can't imagine what these islands mean to a seaman," said Mr al Karam. "Even the smallest ones can save our lives."
The Saudis had been docked near Sir Bu Nair for two days before they could continue their journey back to the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.
The police on the island made regular rounds around the docked boats to check on the men.
"We check if they need anything: extra food or water, or even medical assistance," said a police officer.
For the stranded Saudis, the police brought a stock of bread and cheese.
A few boats away, Juma Salem, a 30-year-old Emirati fisherman, took refuge with his crew of seven Indians. They took four frozen chicken packets from the police.
"Fishing is a family tradition," Mr Salem said. "I didn't pick it, it picked me."
His boat has the latest technologies including a GPS and a television, but in the face of a storm he must do what all seamen do: "Take shelter near any piece of land."
The police stationed on the island also handle water accidents. When a death occurs, they pick up the bodies and transfer them to the nearest mainland. "It is a different world here," said the policeman. "One can truly feel all alone here, and at the mercy of nature." In his 12-year career, he has witnessed tens of casualties of the sea.
Despite the weather delays the racing dhows eventually made it to Sir Bu Nair Island for the heritage festival race, organised in co-operation with Dubai International Marine Club, that took place yesterday.
Meanwhile, Mr Abdulla and Mr Mohammed, who have navigated most of the Arabian Gulf waters and the Arabian Sea, were already planning their next fishing route.
"The Iranian coast has the best fish. We will head there next week," said Mr Abdulla. "It is always an adventure out in the sea."