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D I S P A T C H E S

+ "HMCS Algonquin"


from Martin Smith

click here for a larger map We get a call from the lobby around 1 a.m., just as I am settling in with a movie (some British thing with vaguely familiar faces I can't put names to).

By 2 a.m. we've swung by the airport, recovered my bag, and set out in two mini-vans for a location that -- for security reasons -- our hosts tell us they can't reveal. We're on our way to board a Canadian destroyer -- the HMCS (Her Majesty's Canadian Ship) Algonquin -- patrolling the area for possible terrorists. We're riding with a couple of personable women from the Canadian Navy who've come out to the Gulf to interview sailors requesting reassignments. The driver is French Canadian. On the radio is Steely Dan. At a rest stop, we discover the second van is full of a sullen group of men, also sailors, being ferried out to ship. These guys are dour.

We speed on. I watch the dunes go by. Marcela points out a fence running along the highway and tells me it's to keep camels off the road. I don't know if she's kidding. Two and a half hours later we pull into the port. It's 4:30 a.m. and we are waiting again for an Indian-operated tug boat that's not yet ready to ferry us out to the ship. I'm wide awake all night. We're told it will take two and half hours to reach the destroyer.

I arrive feeling slightly sea sick and climb aboard up a 10-foot ladder while a couple dozen expressionless Canadian sailors stare at their new guests. When Scott turns the camera on me I think how ridiculous we look. They've got to be wondering whether this is a story about some self-involved American TV correspondent and his travels, or about them. These guys have been out sailing in suffocating heat and humidity for months, bored out of their minds, tired, wanting to go home. Are they now just the backdrop for some New York asshole's TV adventure?

Canadian warship HMCS Algonquin on patrol in the Gulf of Oman. (Photo by Marcela Gaviria)
We go through a safety briefing which my failing brain is unable to take in. I figure I'll just follow the rest of them if anything seems to be going wrong.

Eventually I'm shown down a few ladders and steered to a bunk, No. 88, in what's called "13 Mess." I strip down and then struggle to hoist my heavy body up to the third level without stepping on the sailors sleeping below. But I do manage to bang my head, bruise my right arm, and strain my back in a final spasm of lifting, grunting, and twisting. It's a graceful finale, and I wonder who's watching. I turn onto my back. The ship rocks in the waves. I stare at a ceiling 18 inches from my nose, listen to the sailor breathing in the adjacent row of bunks, and think about the Russian submarine Kursk.

I awake at around 2 p.m., negotiate the showers and bathroom, and fall into the ward room for a late lunch. Late that first afternoon we get word that the ship is hailing a Chinese fishing boat sailing from Aden, Yemen, to Dubai in the U.A.E. This port of departure and port of destination is what the sailors on the bridge call a tripwire -- enough to justify a boarding by a team of about 8 to 10 men. Scott and I are going to go along with them in a small Zodiac called a RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat). We are instructed to get into blue jump suits, boots, and hats marked NAVY. It's hot out and we're told to drink constantly to stay hydrated.

Up the rope ladder and into the Chinese boat and we've been transported to a floating Shanghai slum. The deck is strewn with pipes, scrap metal, ropes, and litter, and given that much of the wood planking is rotting and loose, it's hard to find a solid footing even if your feet find the deck. We walk up a rusted ladder to the foredeck and enter the eating area. In the dining room, cockroaches are crawling everywhere and there are two-inch long waterbugs. Inside the living quarters Leading Seaman and ex-military policeman Sean Gillis inspects with his assault rifle at the ready. He kicks open the doors and then, crouching, moves quickly, whirling about pointing into every corner, into each bunk, and behind the doors. The crew has gathered on the bow, so all that scamper out are the roaches. I look around for rats. Al Qaeda is far from my mind.

A Chinese fishing vessel hailed and boarded by the HMCS Algonquin. (Photo by Marcela Gaviria)
Long after dark we return to the mother ship. The Canadian sailors have combed through the passports of the 14 Chinese aboard. Through the captain, who speaks a little broken English, the Canadians record that the trawler is on its way to Dubai for its annual refitting. But the truth is this boat has seen few repairs in 10 years. And it doesn't smell like fish. Plus, the winches that haul the nets are rusted solid. The hold is empty and the storage area refrigerators ceased functioning long ago. Scott and I wonder if these guys are just refugees looking for a home. In any case, they are cleared of harboring terrorists.

Thus comes to an end the Algonquin's 49th boarding.


< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

London
(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

+ HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

Pakistan
(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

Pakistan
(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

Frustrations
9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

Indomitable
23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

Yemen
(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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