How an Israeli Missile Boat Ran Aground the Hostile Saudi Shore

Egypt's transfer of two islands to Saudi Arabia brings up memories of the 1981 drama that unfolded when an Israeli vessel tried to traverse a narrow Red Sea passage on its way to Eilat, and the complicated operation to extricate it.

The Ga’ash, a model 3 Sa’ar missile boat, stranded on the Saudi shore.
Kodkod Zahov

Nowadays, with everything tweeted and documented, it may be hard to understand how such an incident remained a secret: An Israeli missile boat was grounded on a beach in enemy territory, and the subseuqent complex operation to extricate it lasted 62 hours.

Even so, “Operation Flying Dutchman” was successfully concealed from the media for more than 10 days. Gideon Samet, Haaretz’s Washington correspondent, reported on October 5 that “the Ministry of Defense’s spokesman, in a late night announcement, reported that two weeks ago an Israeli missile boat, on its way from Haifa to Eilat, ran aground on a Saudi beach following a system malfunction.”

The Ga’ash, a model 3 Sa’ar missile boat, was one of the “Cherbourg vessels” that were built in France and smuggled to Israel in 1969, during the French arms embargo on Israel. The Israel Navy boat left Haifa on September 22 on its way to the Eilat naval base in order to undergo some technical work. En route it passed through Ashdod and Port Said, later going through the Suez Canal towards the Tiran Straits. Just before daylight on September 24, a technical malfunction shut down its radar, and faulty navigation by an insufficiently trained crew caused the boat to inadvertently beach on Saudi territory.

Rescue forces near the Ga’ash.
Kodkod Zahov

Haaretz’s military correspondent reported that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon directed the Israel Defense Forces to set up a commission of inquiry that would examine “how it happened that that the boat deviated from its course before sunrise, hitting the beach at a right angle, opposite the Sinai village of Dahab.”

The United States mediated between Israel and Saudi Arabia in order to enable the extrication of the vessel, with an understanding that no combat units would approach the area. However, after the quiet diplomacy ended, combative statements were made. Haaretz reported that IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan told military correspondents that “there might be an impression that the Saudis acted with moderation here but they understood that if they interfered we’d get the boat out by force.” He also confirmed that “two female naval officers were on board, after getting approval to be on the boat on its passage through the Suez Canal, as others had done previously.”

A tug boat tows the Ga’ash away from the Saudi shore.
Kodkod Zahov

One of the participants in the rescue operation was Lt. A., a helicopter pilot who was sent to return the boat’s crew members, including the female officers. The crew was transferred to Dahab, which was still under Israeli control. “When I was told I had to fly there to get those people off the boat I thought there’d be some difficulties,” he told the Air Force Magazine after the operation. “I thought we might have to hover above the boat and pull them up with ropes — in such cases you have to mind the mast, antennas and ropes on the vessel. But when I arrived there I saw the prow stuck in the sand, with the crew getting on and off the boat without even getting their feet wet.”

Rafael Eitan in the late 1970s, while he was the commander of the Northern Command, before he became IDF Chief of Staff.
Sa'ar Ya'akov, GPO