By Joseph D’Hippolito
How much would you endure to pursue your dream?
Ghanim al-Othman has confronted storms, destructive waves, blood poisoning and malnutrition. In the process, however, he has met a president, explored exotic places and helped the disadvantaged.
Othman’s dream of visiting the world by sea has turned into a quest to become the first Arab to circumnavigate the globe in a boat less than 100 feet long.
He began his journey from his native Kuwait on Jan. 25, 1998, and traveled almost 16,000 nautical miles before arriving in California seven months later to complete the first half of his trip. Along the way, Othman stopped in Dubai, Oman, the Maldives, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hawaii and various Pacific islands.
Othman’s voyage aboard his 46-foot trawler, Othmani, continues through the Panama Canal and the Caribbean Sea to Florida. From there, he embarks across the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal and around the Arabian Peninsula. Othman said he expects to arrive in Kuwait in July or August of 1999.
Two crewmen accompanied the 31-year-old Othman, a construction consultant for the Kuwaiti government and the owner of a furniture factory. One returned to Kuwait once the boat reached California. The other is Jawad Marrof, the boat’s mechanic. Marrof, a 38-year-old native of Iran, once worked on a boat that made fishing trips to Dubai.
“He might look small and thin but he’s very, very strong,” Othman said. “He’s tough. He can work days and nights without sleeping. I’ve never seen anybody at all work like him.”
Othman’s interest in the sea began early. “Since I was a child, I used to go cruising and boating in my country,” he said. “When I grew up, I wanted to discover what was outside of Kuwait.”
So Othman purchased a second-hand, 39-foot powerboat and made his first major trip to Bahrain in 1992. Othman followed that with trips to Dubai in 1993 and to Oman in 1994, “then I wanted to see oceans,” he said.
But Othman had never traveled by sea beyond Oman, some 600 miles from Kuwait, and his boat did not have the range for ocean voyages. So he purchased his 46-foot trawler in Singapore – and made the first ocean crossing of his life in that boat. Othman and Marrof traveled from Singapore to Kuwait in 39 days.
Othman began his voyage around the world with the blessing of the emir of Kuwait, who issued standing orders to supply Othman with anything he needed, and with letters of introduction from the foreign minister.
“He welcomed me in his palace, and he was very interested and very impressed with my trip,” Othman said of the emir. “I remember he said to me, ‘You are an example of our country. Show the people of the world what Kuwaiti youth are like.’ ”
But Othman’s westward route from Kuwait would lead him into the Pacific Ocean’s fierce environment.
“I thought that by sticking near the Equator, it was going to be calm all the time,” Othman said. “I didn’t read enough to know that the Pacific had an easterly wind all year round.
“It went straight from 15 knots to 50 knots, and it would never come down. The winds pick up deeper into the Pacific, and the depressions become really bad. It took me three months to cross the Pacific, and I wasn’t sure if my fuel was going to be enough because those headwinds and currents really got me.”
Othman had to learn about ocean navigation during the voyage. He read books, communicated with other skippers by fax and received assistance from an American navigation firm, which helped him chart a zigzag course around most of the storms.
“A lack of planning got me into trouble,” said Othman, who had been following inaccurate and out-of-date charts. “When you’re in trouble, you learn, and I forced myself to learn. I learned quickly because I was anxious to save my life.
“When I got to Hawaii, people there were shocked that I arrived in July because it’s hurricane season. I left in late July or early August and they told me, ‘What if your engine breaks down and a hurricane swallows you?’ I said, ‘If I thought like this, I wouldn’t have made it to Hawaii.’ ”
Othman almost didn’t make it past the Micronesian island of Kosrae. A 40-foot wave almost consumed his boat 50 miles away from the island.
“The seas were like 12 feet,” Othman said. “All of a sudden, I saw this huge, giant wave. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My crew and I opened our mouths in silence.
“Once we hit it, the boat dived. All of a sudden, we could only see water. We kept on seeing water, and I was praying to see the sky again. After that, I decided to return to Kosrae and wait.”
Violent weather was not the only obstacle. In Singapore, Othmani ran aground along some rocks that were exposed at low tide, and tipped over on its port side. Othman spent that night trying to pull his boat upright.
“I made every effort I could to get my boat out before the tide came up, he said. “I was afraid water would get inside and sink the boat. I kept on praying and tying ropes.
“That evening felt like a funeral. This is my dream and it’s going to end here? I have so much ahead of me; I can’t end it here. Luckily, the boat just popped up.”
Then in Palau, Othman developed blood poisoning after scratching his left leg against some coral while mooring the boat.
“It was a very small scratch, and I ignored it because it didn’t look serious,” Othman said. “The next day, my leg was really big. I went to hospital and the doctors told me to stay for a week or nine days so they could monitor it. They said, ‘You could lose your leg if you go sailing now.’”
But Othman did not want to wait, so he took a bag of antibiotics to his boat and continued the journey under extreme pain.
“I was crawling on the floors, limping, jumping about,” Othman said. “I was very nervous and scared because if something happens to me, who’s going to take the boat to land? It was really difficult the first three or four days. But after nine days, it went away.”
When the crew reached Johnston Island, about 700 miles southwest of Hawaii, malnutrition’s effects became evident.
“We had spots all over our faces and bodies due to a lack of protein and vitamins,” Othman said. “At Johnston, we had fresh milk, fresh vegetables, fresh oranges, and our faces came back to life.”
Not everything on the voyage was perilous. Othman and his crew had chances to scuba dive, fish and watch whales pass by. Early in their journey, they met the president of the Maldives and gave him a message from the emir of Kuwait.
Othman and his crew also visited lush, tropical destinations such as Kosrae.
“Kosrae is a beautiful island,” Othman said. “You can find all kinds of fruits there: oranges, lemons, limes, avocados and papayas.”
Kosrae has so much fruit that residents do not need to shop for it.
“When I went shopping, I couldn’t find any fruits on the shelves,” Othman said. “I asked the shopkeeper, ‘Don’t you people eat fruits?’ He told me that they just go pick it off the trees. You’re allowed to take it, as long as you don’t sell it.”
But Othman said his greatest joy has come from meeting people, making new friends and helping the poor when he can.
“I like to go into these villages, see nature, meet the people and see how they live,” Othman said. “I’m so interested in that. That’s where you see the beauty of the world. I’ve made tons of new friends, and they are pure friends.
“In Indonesia, there are 50,000 islands. On some islands, people have never seen human beings from other places in the world. But the are so happy to see an outsider. They look so aggressive but when you approach them, they have the kindest, softest hearts in the world.”
While in Indonesia, Othman visited a village where the inhabitants did not have any meat for three months. So he purchased two cows, had them slaughtered and gave the meat to the villagers. Throughout the journey, Othman and his crew gave surplus food and clothing on the boat to the poor.
“When I see poor people, it breaks my heart,” Othman said. “When I finish my trip, I’m going to meet my country’s minister of health and ask him to give me specific kinds of medication, so I can deliver it to countries where they have no medication.”
Othman’s countrymen have followed his progress intently. He gives periodic reports to Kuwaiti television over his satellite phone, and he sends pictures to Kuwaiti newspapers from an on-board computer.
“People in Kuwait are very, very proud of what I am doing,” he said. “Our grandfathers used to be sailors but the new generation doesn’t know anything about long-range boating. So people are very interested in hearing every single piece of news about me.
“Some people whom I don’t know just called me and told me, ‘Good luck, we are really behind you.’ It’s like watching a football match; you want your team to win.”
The attention, the adventure – even the adversity – have reinforced Othman’s determination and invigorated his spirit.
“I have a love and a passion for the sea,” he said. “Since I was in high school, I wanted to be in the navy or be a ship’s captain and go around the world. I didn’t think it was going to be this way, but I’m glad it’s this way because I’m not working for anybody.
“This is my own boat, and I’m free to do what I like. You feel power inside. It makes you feel you can do more things in your life.”
Ghanim al-Othman completed his circumnavigation. He died in a flying accident some time after he completed his cruise