Middle East tensions – the past and present challenges of merchant seafarers transiting warlike areas
22 July 2019
This year’s attacks on civilian tankers in the Gulf of Oman have brought back memories for many merchant seafarers of working under fire in the Middle East. And thanks to a collaborative life-story project at the Nautilus Mariners' Park retirement estate, we can still learn from the conflict-zone recollections of a late supertanker master. Deborah McPherson reports
Captain David McCaffrey was sleeping on his bunk during a Gulf passage off Qatar when the telephone rang, and a junior's voice said: 'I think we’ve got visitors, sir.'
The master rushed up to the bridge just before an Iranian Exocet missile hit the Liberian-flagged 236,907-tonne vessel during the height of the Iran-Iraq war in 1985.
'Captain McCaffrey lay for two days injecting himself with morphine before he could be rescued – amazing man,' says Roger Cliffe-Thompson, the men’s activities coordinator who helped compile a memoir for Capt McCaffrey at the Mariners’ Park Care Home.
The Wirral-born master was 51 at the time of the attack while in anchorage off Qatar, and he vowed never to return to the war zone after that – advising other merchant seafarers to stay away as well, according to a report published in the Glasgow Herald on 19 March 1985.
'I've had enough. I'm bloody well going to retire now. I'm a congenital coward,' Capt McCaffrey told reporters. His discharge book tells a different story, however, and he continued the seafaring life in and out of the Gulf.
Four-and-a-half years later, he suffered injuries to his left elbow, scalp and chest, when the wheelhouse he was in collapsed after being hit by a rocket from an Iranian aircraft. Ten of the crew of 34 were injured and a watchman killed, illustrating some of the dangers of transiting war zones for seafarers in any era.
The incident occurred as the warring sides’ targeting of tankers reached a new intensity during a mission of Gulf states to Baghdad to try and end the then 53-month-old conflict.
The Caribbean Breeze was one of three Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) chartered by Kuwait Oil to transfer crude oil from Kuwait to Khor Fakkan in the UAE, where they would tranship to Kuwait Oil's own tankers.
Capt McCaffrey told Mr Cliffe-Thompson that during the war the Iranian tactic was to target any oil tanker with a connection to Kuwait that entered the Persian Gulf (also known as the Arabian Gulf).
Officers at the time were mainly from Britain or Pakistan, with Filipino crew. The vessel was used as floating storage for about four months, before discharging its first cargo and sailing to Kuwait to unload. That was done without incident, but on its return the vessel was targeted by the Iranian air force using French-built Exocet anti-ship missiles.
As the missile struck the bridge, Capt McCaffrey, the second mate and watchman were all severely injured, and a watchman was killed. They were eventually rescued by an American ship. the USS Arthur W Radford, which was operating as a radar picket in the Gulf at the time.
Get well cards during his recovery included one from the British Embassy's vice consul at the time which read: 'Sir, many congratulations on surviving the lunacy.'
In later life, Capt McCaffrey came to live at Nautilus Mariners’ Park, where Mr Cliffe-Thompson has a role in helping many residents come to terms with depression and isolation after swallowing the anchor. The activities coordinator had the idea of compiling a book commemorating Capt McCaffrey's life after he saw that the former master was becoming depressed.
As tensions increase again in the Middle East in a different era, the timely reminder of Capt McCaffrey's experiences has been shared in one of the regular newsletters to residents on the estate.
Do you have experiences of transiting warlike zones as a merchant seafarer? Tell your story by emailing email@example.com.