THE Santa Maria skims across the Mediterranean, bound in the darkness for Lebanon's coast and a Syrian naval blockade. Its Norwegian captain extinguishes all lights. Passengers stop smoking and silence radios. Four hours after leaving Cyprus, the powerful hydrofoil catamaran slips into Juniye, keeping alive the only direct link between Lebanon's embattled Christian enclave and the outside world.
Syria has besieged Lebanon's Christian community since April, when Christian leader Michel Aoun vowed to oust Syrian troops from Lebanon. The Syrians were originally invited in as peacekeepers in the 14-year-old Lebanese civil war, but now back the Muslim side.
The Santa Maria's 200 passengers hastily disembark and wait in an airless, heavily sandbagged hall while those leaving - usually the boat's full complement of 300 passengers - rush aboard. Half an hour after arriving, the Santa Maria backs away from the quay and speeds back into the night.
The slower, conventional ferries which ply the Larnaca-Juniye route in normal times have been dropped in favor of the Santa Maria. Because it is low in the water, the catamaran does not show up on radar. With cruising speeds of 40 or 50 miles per hour, it can outdistance most of what the Syrian Navy has to offer.
Like most blockades, that imposed by the Syrians on the Christian enclave is inconsistent and only partially successful. In addition to the Santa Maria, many commercial freighters think running the blockade is worth the risk - though insurance rates have shot up to some 7.5 percent of the hull value.
In practise, the Syrians are more interested in stopping arms or fuel supplies than a few hundred passengers. They have made no serious attempt to disrupt the Santa Maria's nightly voyages.
But the passengers, and those seeing them off or waiting to welcome them, run a second and greater risk. Often at around the time the Santa Maria is docking, artillery and rocket batteries manned by Syrian troops in the mountains or in west Beirut open up on the Christian coastline, trying to reinforce the Syrian naval blockade by scaring vessels away from the Christian ports.
So far, the Santa Maria has avoided hits, and Juniye itself is only occasionally the gunners' target - though there have been some narrow misses. Others have not been so fortunate. A number of ships have received direct hits while unloading cargoes. Others have been intercepted and diverted by the Syrian Navy. A small number have even been attacked and damaged or sunk at sea.
Sometimes ships which have been intercepted and allowed to pass by the Syrian Navy are bombarded by land-based artillery as they approach the shore.
Another inconsistency is the fact that on July 4, the Syrians and their mainly Muslim allies reopened most of the crossing-points between their areas and the Christian enclave, allowing people and most goods to resume movement in both directions.
The reopening of those crucial land passages has eased conditions somewhat in the enclave, with prices of fruit and vegetables dropping as fresh produce flows in from South Lebanon via west Beirut.
But the blockade has continued to mean a critical shortage of gasoline and other fuel products in the enclave, although small quantities have trickled in from the Syrian-controlled areas.
A gallon of gasoline in the Christian enclave sells for at least three times the price prevailing in the Muslim areas, where supplies are plentiful.
But the hardest effect of the blockade is being felt by both sides. The whole Beirut area is fed by a power station in the Christian area. Because of fuel-oil shortages, electricity supplies were recently reduced from one hour per day to none at all.
In a city where summer heat and humidity are high, this makes daily life an uncomfortable and demoralizing battle. It means no elevators, no lighting, no refrigerators, no air-conditioning. Water and telephone services also depend on electricity, and are constantly disrupted.
``The logistics of everyday life - chasing after water, problems with electricity - take up half the day, and leave you exhausted,'' a west Beirut resident says. Another adds: ``Nothing is easy in this country. You have to suffer for the simplest thing you want to do.''
What little business is done on both sides of the city is frequently disrupted when artillery duels break out between the Syrians and General Aoun's mainly Christian units of the Lebanese Army.
``I have lived through everything that's happened here since 1975, but I've never been so nervous as I am now,'' a Shiite businessman in west Beirut says. ``My children have been traumatized since a shell hit our parking lot and blew in all our windows.''
``My six-year-old daughter woke up crying the other night and asked me who was going to look after her if I get killed,'' says a Beirut mother who has moved her family south for safety.
As well as worrying about their children's safety, parents on both sides of Beirut are acutely anxious about their disrupted education. ``Forget about water and electricity. This is the real problem as far as any parent is concerned,'' one father says.
Schools and colleges have been closed since March 14, when the artillery battles erupted. Nobody knows whether they will be able to open for the fall semesters, though dates have been optimistically set.
As a result, thousands of families have left both sides of Beirut. The Santa Maria is heavily booked on outward journeys, while flights out of Damascus - the nearest operational airport available to Lebanese Muslims - are three or four times overbooked.
``Anybody who can afford to leave has done so, or is about to, and those who lack the means and have to stay are being driven crazy,'' an east Beirut resident says. ``The children spend their time cooped up in apartments or in shelters, with no recreational facilities at all. No wonder they are getting out of hand.''