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Oman: Coastal city's boat-building heritage endures

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A boat being built in the shipyards of Sur. Photo / Jill Worrall
A boat being built in the shipyards of Sur. Photo / Jill Worrall

They've been building boats in Sur, on the shores of the Gulf of Oman, for thousands of years.

Dhows, some capable of carrying up to 600 tonnes of cargo, left the shipyards here in Oman to ply the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and even as far afield as China.

Today, Sur's boat builders no longer produce these giants of the dhow family but there is still the sound of hammers on teak and the whiff of coconut oil in the air beside Sur's tidal creek.

On the day I visited a vessel commissioned by the ruler of one of the nearby Gulf states was nearing completion in the one remaining shipyard.

Its teak hull gleamed with oil and an unseen worker was wielding a hammer inside the cabin high above us in the square stern. The timbers curved towards the upswept prow, its shape reminiscent of an Arabian scimitar or sword.

The temperature was in the high 30s as I picked my way among the teak offcuts and a jumble of sleeping dogs.

Under the keel, another boat builder was making adjustments to the brass propeller - a nod to more modern technology.

Close by, an old man in a grey dishdash (the full-length Arabian garment worn by almost all men in Oman) was sitting in a battered armchair, a flask of Arabian coffee at his side, the dregs of his last cup beside it.

He'd been a boat builder for more than 50 years, my guide told me.

Although the huge ocean-going dhows of the Omani fleet now live on mostly in scale models, this yard still launches about six smaller dhows each year.

Oman's ruler Sultan Qaboos ibn Said has been personally involved in ensuring the Omanis' impressive legacy of shipbuilding is not lost.

Dhows are built from the keel up - the teak board laid side by side and then secured with long iron nails.

More traditionally, rope made from coconut fibre was threaded through holes in the teak and then the holes plugged with fibre or cotton soaked in sesame, fish or coconut oil.

While keel and hull are made from teak, the ribs of the dhow, which are added after the hull has been completed, are usually made from locally-grown timbers.

The builders - many of whom are in Indians from the Malabar Coast - use modern saws and electric drills but the yard still contains awls, bows and caulking irons. These are little changed from the tools that would have been used when Marco Polo sailed past about 700 years ago.

The fact that Sultan Qaboos is so keen to preserve his kingdom's dhow-building traditions is inextricably linked with Oman's history and traditional sources of wealth. (Oil reserves, modest by Middle Eastern standards, were only discovered in 1967).

Oman is situated in a lucratively strategic position on the Strait of Hormuz that connects the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean. It was thus ideally placed to trade for itself and control the trade between the Persian and Indian empires.

It could also exploit its inks with East Africa - in particular Zanzibar - and with China.

In addition, it was an important port for vessels from the Red Sea with a trading history dating back to the time of the Greek and Roman empires, when Egyptian seafarers went into competition with the more traditional camel caravans that used to criss-cross the Arabian peninsula.

Beside the Sur creek, among the curls of teak, the gently panting dogs and the Friday noon call to prayer hanging in the sultry air, Sur's past glories were still palpable.

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