The Arab dhow is one of the world’s most graceful sailing crafts and the Emirates were famous throughout history for the prowess of their sailors and the sleek lines of their vessels.
When pearling was at its climax, the most important manufacturing industry in the region was boat-building. Teak (saj) for planking and for the keel, stem, stern and masts of the larger boats was traditionally imported from India; mit for the naturally grown crooks used to form ribs and knees from India, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq; rope from Zanzibar and the sail canvas from Bahrain or Kuwait, although some was made locally. Mango was also imported from India to construct the smaller boats and dugouts (huri). Only the shashah, built usually by its user, was made entirely from parts of the local date palm.
Today, traditional boatyards in the Emirates nurture this ancient boat-building tradition, using the same basic materials and tools to fashion elegant craft. Shell construction, involving the fitting of planks first and ribs later, is the usual system employed in dhow construction, contrasting with the European method of forming a skeleton of ribs prior to planking. Boats are all carvel-built with planks laid edge to edge; hundreds, sometimes thousands, of holes are hand-drilled to avoid splitting the wood and long thin nails, wrapped in oiled fibre, are driven through to secure the planks to the frames. All the construction work is carried out without the aid of plans and drawings, measurements being made solely by eye and experience; templates are, however, used to shape the hull planking.
Although it appears that accuracy depends solely on the instinct of the boat-builders, in fact a highly experienced master-craftsman (ustadh) usually oversees the calculations. The tools used in building boats, from the smallest to the largest, are very simple. Hammer, saw, adze, bow-drill, chisel, plane and caulking iron are, amazingly, all that is required to produce such a sophisticated and graceful end product. The building of a large vessel could take anything up to ten months, while a smaller one – a shu’i for instance – would be finished in one to four months.
Construction of Arab craft in the pre-Portuguese era differed somewhat from the modern form. Three distinctive features epitomised the dhows of this early period: coconut or palm-frond fibre rather than nails was used to sew the planks of the hull together; the hull shape was double-ended as opposed to square-sterned; and the sails had a fore-and-aft rather than square-rigged arrangement. All three features can be found on the east coast but, except in the Omani sewn sambuq, never in the one boat.
The famous ‘Hariri’ print (1237) is one of the few surviving representations of a medieval Arab ship before European influences brought changes. Their technical characteristics and relatively shallow draught meant that the traditional Arab ship was ideal for negotiating the treacherous coral reefs and sand banks of the shallow Gulf waters. Stitched hulls appear also to have made the vessels more flexible, capable of standing the shock of being landed straight onto beaches in heavy surf. A disadvantage was their tendency to ship water. Oil, preferably shark-oil, was used in an attempt to prevent this by sealing up the cracks between the planks.
European influence over the centuries has given rise to a whole selection of dhows with square sterns; but the double-ended form persists in the boum and badan among others. The lateen sail remained unchanged. However, the nailing of planks together has supplanted the less robust method of sewing.
Different types of vessel falling under the collective western title of dhow are individually named according to their particular hull shape. Baghlah, boum, sambuq, shu’i, batil, baggarah and jalibut and, to a lesser extent, the huri and shashah were all common in the Gulf at one stage or another. Varieties on which it is inconvenient or impossible to modify hulls to accommodate engines have, by and large, fallen into disuse and are no longer being built except for museum purposes. Sterns of all suitable types have been adapted and ribs extended to make way for modern engines, and outboard motors are now fitted on large numbers of dugouts or huris and other fishing craft. However, long boats with multiple rows of oarsmen are only seen on ceremonial occasions in the UAE.
The double-ended boum is now the largest of all Arab vessels in the Gulf, attaining a length anywhere between 15 and 37 metres. Easily distinguishable by its high, straight stem-post, built out into a kind of planked bowsprit decorated with a simple design in black and white, it has superseded the ornately decorated square-sterned, high-pooped baghlah as a trading vessel. The boum can be seen in great numbers jostling for space by the wharfs of the UAE, laden with an eclectic selection of goods from many different countries.
The sambuq, boasting an infinite variety of sizes, used to be one of the most common Arab vessels of the Gulf and is still very much in evidence. A low curved, scimitar-shaped stem piece and high square stern lend elegance and grace to the lines of this useful boat. The length of the stem piece underwater and the resulting short keel allowed for easy manoeuvrability on the sand banks, making this a most popular pearling vessel but it was, and still is, used for trading and fishing purposes. Shu’i, basically small sambuks, rarely over 15 tons, but sporting a straight as opposed to curved stem piece are commonly used as fishing vessels.
Shashah, on the other hand, are a totally different class of craft needing little skill and experience to build. Small (about 3 metres) and basic, they are made of date palm sticks tied with coir to form a point at bow and stern. Palm bark, coconut fibre and the bulbous ends of palm branches, packed into the bottom of the boat under a makeshift decking, lend buoyancy so that the boat lies flat on the water like a raft. Polystyrene is now favoured as a method of providing buoyancy and the substitution of nylon thread for coir has given greater strength to these fragile but flexible craft. It is precisely this flexibility that enables the shashah to withstand the pounding surf common on the east coast where they were once so popular.
The purpose for which a traditional wooden vessel was intended greatly influenced its design and that remains the case as the ever-popular racing dhow becomes more streamlined for speed, its billowing white sails still evoking an earlier era when transport by sailing boats was the main engine of economic activity.
Traditional long boats with multiple rows of oarsmen are also seen on special occasions in the UAE. These draw their inspiration from a considerable time ago: Greek sailors under Alexander the Great, rowed in similar craft across the Arabian Gulf.
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