In its first and only battle at sea, the Royal Saudi Arabian Navy late last month defeated a rag-tag fleet of Chesapeake Bay crabbing boats - and the losers still are looking for restitution.
The crabbers say three Saudi mine-sweepers on a training exercise off Cape Charles, Va., sailed right through the middle of commercial crabbing waters, destroying hundreds of crabpots worth $12 each.
When the crabbers protested, they said, the Saudis and their American advisers "told us to get out of the way," said crabber Glenwood Pruitt. "They had steel boats wiht guns. There was nothing we could do."
Crabpots are placed on the bottom of the day and are attached by lines to buoys on the surface. The Saudi ships, which are among four newly purchased from the U.S. Navy, cut the lines with their propellers and mine-sweeping equipment, according to Pruitt.
"There's no way they couldn't have seen those buoys because we've got day-glo paint all over them," said Pruitt, who estimated that about 20 crabbing boats each lost between 20 and 35 crabpots.
Pruitt took his case to the U.S. Navy in Norfolk, which eventually ordered the minesweepers to sail clear of the crabbing area. As for reimbursement, he says the Navy referred him to the Virginia Mairine Resources Commission. An official there, business officer Robert Craft, says he suggested Pruitt get a lawyer or contact the Saudi Embassy.
"How are we suppossed to get in touch with an embassy in Washington when we're out here working everyday?" Pruitt asked.
Pruitt instead contacted his state senator; William E. Fears (D-Accomack). Fears was out of town and unavailable for comment yesterday, but his secretary said Fears had written a letter about the incident to Admiral H.D. Train, commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet.She would not divulge its contents.
Pruitt said Fears told him the Saudis have agreed to reimburse the crabbers for their losses. A spokesman for the embassy's information office here said yesterday he had not heard of the incident, and embassy charge d'affairs Essa Al-Nowaiser did not return a reporter's phone calls.
The Navy's version is that only one minesweeper briefly transgressed crabbing waters on one occasstion. If any of the crabbers make a claim, Navy spokesman Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Renk said, "We would investigate it and process the claim according to our established procedures."
Renk said there are about 160 Saudi sailors training at the Little Creek Navy Amphibious Base near Norfolk. The training is part of the terms of the American-Saudi military sales agreement under which the minsweepers - each costing $11 million - were purchased. The Saudis began arriving at Little Creek last July and their training will be completed this summer, according to Renk.
"There always is and has been a conflict between traffic on the water and the equipment of fisherman," said Craft of the state marine resources commission. "When an accident happens, it's sort of like your neighbor running into your car. If it's a foreign country, I guess that just makes it a little more complicated."