x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The pearls of wisdom

Young Kuwaitis are practising the labour of their pearl diving forebears - and gaining a sense of achievement.

A dhow race of 180 young Kuwaitis in 10 traditional boats commemorated last week a 16th-century fight at sea known as the Battle of Riqqa. The race was preparation for a voyage to dive for pearls that begins this month in which the youths, most of them between 14 and 20 years old, will use little but the tools and techniques of the age-old trade. The race and the pearl diving voyages are part of the Pearl Diving Heritage Festival, an attempt to pass on the Gulf's pearl-diving traditions to a younger generation more accustomed to the benefits of a generous welfare state than the sea's frugal and sometimes brutal lifestyle.

For many of those involved it was their first time sailing. Before the starter's call last Saturday, most of the boats looked ready. On the captains' orders, the crews strained to hoist the sails, fighting for balance as the wind caught the sails and the boats pitched. But when the boats sped off, two stuttered, one because the sail was ripped and the other because the crew had not raised the sail to its full extent, proving that some of the crews have something to learn about seamanship.

On Thursday, they will put everything they have learnt to the test when a six-ship fleet sets off on a 12-day mission to collect pearls off Bahrain. Another fleet departs on July 30 on a 10-day mission in Kuwaiti waters. The organisers of the festival, which started 21 years ago, hope to see more Gulf countries involved in future trips. For the past two months, the young Kuwaitis have gathered every morning at seven to train for the expedition, with swimming and press-ups. The instructors teach the recruits how to "skin dive", without a breathing apparatus, and retrieve oysters from the seabed.

The recruits have memorised traditional songs to perform when lifting the sail or dropping the anchor - a different one for each task on the boat. They have learnt to clean and prepare the hulls and how to waterproof them with shouna, a local varnish applied by hand. Until the trip ends, they will get little respite from the relentless heat. The boats' design provides limited shade for those working on the deck and the warm, saline water of the Gulf offers little relief.

Instead of oxygen tanks, wet suits and goggles, the divers are equipped only with wooden nose clips and a lung-full of air. Every aspect of the voyages - the dhows, the food and even the clothes - follows pearl diving tradition as closely as possible. If a crew member does not perform up to the captains' expectations, he can expect to be replaced by one of the reserves. The experience could not contrast more sharply with the lifestyles of the participants, most of whom will be giving up servants, cooks and maids and leaving behind Porsches and Chevrolets in the Kuwait Sea Club car park to travel in the wooden and semi-wooden dhows.

"My friends are the best thing about the trip," said Ahmed Rajab, the captain, or nakhuda, of the fastest all-wooden dhow in the race. "I also love the sea and the traditions, but the worst parts are the heat and the humidity, and getting up at five in the morning, even before the sun." One of the divers, Abdulla Dhiab, who is 17 and already on his fifth voyage, said: "It's a 180-degree change from normal life. The training is tough, but we get a lot stronger.

"You get to see some amazing things: dolphins have swum around our boat before." The older dhows in the fleet are made with African teak, cotton sails and rope braided from palm trees, while the newer boats' hulls are coated in fibreglass to guard against leaks. Although incorporating modern materials is a break from tradition, the club said these dhows are less expensive to maintain, enabling it to send out more boats each year. This year's budget of 100,000 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh1.28 million) is provided by the emir, Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah.

The emir donated five UAE-built dhows last year. They are worth 30,000 dinars each. The new boats will make the longer 800km round trip to Bahrain. In one of the club's few concessions to modernity, the boats have on-board motors, but these are to be used only in case of an emergency. Each group has five pearl diving dhows with between 11 and 15 crew each. Instructors and reserves accompany each fleet in a larger support vessel. The reserves crack open the oysters as they are raised from the seabed. Virtually all of the participants are Kuwaitis, though other GCC nationals, including two Omanis this year, are allowed to take part.

The more experienced sailors captain the ship while the rest pair off to dive. The crew alternate between the roles of the saib, who remains on deck to reel in ropes attached to the diver and his basket of oysters, and the ghawwa, the diver. They eat bread, canned dairy products and jam for breakfast, and rice along with any fish they manage to catch for lunch. They eat a light dinner before bedding down for the night on deck. The sailors' preferred drinks are tea and coffee, which they say makes them feel cooler in the blistering heat.

"Last year, one of our team fainted. We had a terrible wait until the health ministry's boat arrived," said Sheikh Khalid al Sabah, a member of Kuwait's ruling family who captains one of the boats. "I think he had heat stroke." Sheikh Khalid is on his ninth expedition, his fourth as the ship's leader. He said: "We try to prepare the young divers now, but some will inevitably start crying when we reach the open sea. As the captain, it's my job to comfort them."

The club estimates that between three and 10 participants withdraw from the dhows each year, mostly because of exhaustion. Abdulla, a diver, said about five per cent of the sailors are "stubborn people", and some are removed for not following orders. Instructors stay on each fleets' supporting vessels to watch for any signs of ill health or poor discipline. Mentors do not come more experienced than Khalifa al Rashed, the festival's head consultant. The elderly Kuwaiti said he has dived since he was nine because it was the only thing that he could do.

"This trip is to let the kids have an experience of how their grandfathers lived and the things they had to go through for money," Mr al Rashed said. Speaking at the festival's clubhouse, which is lined with framed pictures of divers from the past 21 years and displays of their antique equipment, Mr al Rashed said: "They've read about it, watched it in movies, but now, they want to see if they can do it. These kids live in luxury. For giving that up, I salute them."

Fortunately for the young divers, some rituals on the boat have changed. Mr al Rashed said that in the old days, when one of the crew got a toothache during a months-long trip, the dhow would remain at sea. "The man in charge of the medical kit would push the gum back with a large needle, then use a rope to pull out the tooth," he said with a grimace. But under the water, the risks remain the same. The biggest threats to the divers are sharks, poisonous fish and jellyfish. The divers wear cotton bodysuits to protect them from jellyfish stings and they are trained to watch out for venomous fish - a sting from one of those "can make you sit, feeling numb, for two or three days", Mr al Rashed said.

If a shark appears, the only solution is to get out of the water immediately and wait until it goes away. Mr al Rashed said he cannot remember the last time a shark bit a diver, "but they do chase them". Diving presents its own risks even to the strongest, fittest of swimmers. Repetitive descents in shallow water can cause "shallow water blackout", a loss of consciousness that occurs when the body is deprived of oxygen.

Adel Khatib, a professional diving instructor at Arabian Diver in Ras al Khaimah, said: "If they do it once or twice a day, I don't see a problem, but 30 times a day even in a swimming pool can cause blackout. If they push their limits, it can create a problem." The emir personally asked the club to keep the divers safe by keeping them in shallow water. The instructors follow his wishes by limiting the dives to 3m beneath the surface.

Navigating can present its own challenges. Hamed al Sayyar, a captain and an art teacher whose father was one of the festival's founding members, remembers when his group of boats got separated at night. "Every boat went in the wrong direction and we couldn't find each other for two days. It was a bit of a panic," he said. Mr al Sayyar said the weather has been terrible for the past two years. On one of those trips, it took the dhows three days to reach their destination in nearby Kuwaiti waters.

In exchange for the risks, the oysters provide rewards. The club expects the divers to collect as much as 25,000 dinars worth of pearls, including up to 30 individual jewels that would be large enough to sell on the market. Smaller pearls are usually bundled together and sold by the bag. But that is only in theory: the entire catch is a gift to the emir when the ships return. One year, the divers found a large and rare pearl worth around 7,000 dinars, but the most precious of them all, a giant pearl known to Kuwaitis as a dana, has eluded the expeditions so far. Mr al Rashed said only three of these jewels have ever been discovered by Kuwaitis.

When Mr al Rashed was a young diver, if a dana was discovered, word would spread and ships would travel from India and beyond to buy it. He said they used to fetch around 80,000 rupees, the currency used in the Gulf in those days. He said that back then he could have bought three houses in Kuwait with 1,000 rupees. Even though these pearl divers are not diving for the money, the emir usually sends each of them presents of up to 200 dinars on their return. But for most of them, the best reward is another seafarer's custom that was experienced by generations of divers before.

"Having all of our family waiting for us on the shore is the best feeling," Abdulla said. "It makes us feel proud of our achievement."

jcalderwood@thenational.ae