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Volume 25, Number 2March/April 1974

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Ghosts Ships in the Gulf

"Plans?" the shipwright said, tapping his head. "The plans are up here."

Written and photographed by Clifford W. Hawkins
Additional photographs by John Feeney

Arab dhows are among the oldest ships known to man, but to this day they sail the blue waters of the East, weather-beaten, hand-crafted ghosts from another age carrying the products of this one.

Admittedly, some of today's dhows are considerably updated versions of the traditional craft that once ranged from the Arabian Gulf to East Africa. Sails are on the wane and the descendants of the shipwrights who once built the now nearly extinct baghlas, sambuks, shewes, zaimas and markabs now turn out sleek motorized dhows. Nevertheless, most shipwrights still scorn plans and blueprints in deference to a tradition described by a Kuwaiti shipwright when an English naval officer asked to see the plans for a certain dhow. "Plans?" the shipwright said, tapping his head. "The plans are up here." And the dhows that survive are still unique: huge triangular sails, square sterns, weather-beaten timbers rubbed with shark oil, an ability to carry more sail in proportion to size than any other sailing vessel, the mast tilting forward, and the stern-to-bow slope.

This special silhouette of the dhow is a product of evolution in which the intuitive skills of the Arabian Gulf shipwrights have, over the centuries, incorporated distinct features from the merchant fleets of India, Malaysia, Portugal, Holland and England. Who, for instance, could look at the high stern of the jadakarim, an Omani dhow, and not think instantly of a Spanish galleon beating to quarters? Or an East India merchantman bound for Plymouth?

Not all dhows are the same. (In fact, they didn't even share the name dhow until the coming of European mariners.) They range from 25-ton coastal vessels to ocean-going craft of 300 tons. (One, built in Kuwait centuries ago, is supposed to have run to 500 tons, but sank.) There are baghlas, now nearly extinct trading vessels, with curved stems, figureheads, transomed sterns and quarter galleries. There are sambuks, swift passenger ships that were once common and are now rare, with low curved prow and high stern. There are jalboots, often used for pearl fishing. There are ganjas and kotias. And there are booms, the biggest and most popular dhow afloat. Booms, which were usually built in Kuwait and which reached a peak of popularity between the two world wars, are sharp at stern and bow—they do not have a flat transom stern—and have generous cargo space and up to three masts. Their ornamentation is almost severe: decorative roses on each side of the head of the stern post, black and white steering yokes and flagstaff and some carving on the zoli, the simple over-the-side toilet that is always a feature of the dhow.

Where dhows originated is a matter of conjecture. Some experts say the Arabian Gulf, others India.

Wherever it was, development followed the realization, possibly 2,000 years ago, that the winds of the area followed a pattern as regular as the movement of the sun and the moon. From November to March the haskazi or north-east monsoon blew from the Arabian Gulf, down the east coast of Africa to Madagascar and Zanzibar or across the sea to India. Later in the year the kuzi blew all the way home again to Arabia.

It was a sensational discovery and soon the peoples of the area were voyaging down the Arabian coast, through the Straits of Hormuz, across the Indian Ocean, along the Hadhramaut, up into the Red Sea or down the coast of East Africa.

Such voyages are hardly remarkable by the standards of the 1970's. But considering that the nakhodas, the dhow masters, had no compasses and knew nothing of fore and aft sailing—which forced dhows generally to depend on prevailing winds—voyages to Africa were dangerous feats. Moreover, in those days, when the Trucial Coast was the Pirate Coast (Aramco World, November-December, 1973), trading dhows were frequently boarded and sunk by raiders themselves sailing in dhows.

Possibly because of such dangers and because of the uncertainties of completing voyages, the nakhodas in christening their vessels tended toward names with overtones of fatalism and faith: "By Allah's Deliverance," "In Praise of Mohammed," "As Allah Wills." These names still persist, even though today's dhows, with their diesels and compasses, rarely face hazards more threatening than seasonal storms and oil tankers ponderously bearing down on them in the narrow and crowded Straits of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Arabian Gulf.

The Straits of Hormuz is one waterway where seamen are certain to see dhows, but for close observation the famous Dubai Creek is better. In the creek, a long tidal inlet, a forest of masts pokes up from dhows moored at the quay that runs the full length of Bin Yas Street on what is called "the Deira Side." The dhows come from all parts of the East and their masters advertise it with an enthusiastic display of huge ensigns that not only identify the dhowmen's nationality but also the company—usually Japanese—which has sold them a diesel.

In booming Dubai can be found traders from and beyond all ports in the Arabian Gulf, all loading or discharging cargoes amid the typically Eastern bustle of waterfront activity. There are Indian motor sailers like the Anwari of Bombay, disgorging sacks of onions, the Adel with a cargo of Basra dates, motorized shewes getting underway, one with a load of donkeys braying unhappily from the deck, another stacked high with sacks of fertilizer.

These, and such other cargoes as copra, hides, wood, ivory, carpets, sisal, coffee, cloves, fruit and grains, have been the life-blood of dhow trading for centuries. But recently, as India developed modern industry and began to ship the goods of the 20th century to the Gulf and Africa, the cargoes have changed. Now the dhows are just as likely to be carrying anything from aluminum pots and pans to television sets.

Kuwait is another center for dhows. Kuwait dhows, usually booms, used to be constructed in shipyards along what is called the seef, a coral-protected harbor along the Kuwait waterfront. But with the development of the oil industry and the growth of the city the seef declined. A particular problem was dumping. Rubble from razed buildings was piled up along the shore and eventually, when a coastal boulevard was constructed, the harbor was cut off from the shipyards. The shipwrights had to move—most went to a distant suburb—and when they did the old city lost one of its most colorful features.

Today in Kuwait there is barely enough activity on Kuwait's seef to evoke the nostalgic past. Beyond the modern deep sea port, the Muhalaf, one of the big booms that made Kuwait famous as a shipbuilding center, has been hauled ashore and at Kuwait's museum there is a fine collection of large-scale dhow models. But for the last traces of real activity you have to go to the suburb where a few struggling shipwrights, amid the scrape of adzes and the tattoo of hammers, still have the time, patience and endurance needed to build a dhow in the old way.

To start with, the Indian teak wood must be laboriously roughed out by hand. Taking advantage of the natural twists and bends in the wood workmen, using small adzes, cut the wood to within an inch of their bare toes, slowly shaping the keel, the stem and the stern posts. Next the outer planks of the hull are nailed on with special large-headed iron nails from local forges. As driving nails directly into the wood can split the dense teak, the shipwrights hand-bore holes for each nail and carefully wrap each nail in oiled hemp.

Such methods undoubtedly sound obsolete in contrast to shipyards like those in Japan that can build giant oil tankers in a matter of months. But they work; dhows, with any luck, can last 50 years. On the other hand, the demands of modern shipping are such that dhows are now usually motorized and to accommodate the engines the hull form is changing. Many dhows already look like oversized launches and in some sails have been reduced or eliminated. Clearly the traditional dhow is on the road to extinction.

For a time, no doubt, some relics will continue to spread their sails to the monsoons and head for Africa with their cargoes of both exotic and mundane items. But the dhow as it was is finished. What will be left will be a little more than a vague term and a fading tradition of craftsmanship and courage to equal any in the annals of sailing.

Clifford W. Hawkins, a New Zealander, a maritime researcher and a contributing member of the Society of Nautical Research, is writing a book on dhows.

This article appeared on pages 26-32 of the March/April 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1974 images.