Ajman boatmaker still cruising along at 85

The Emirati is one of a handful of highly skilled craftsmen keeping alive traditional boatbuilding techniques once so common across the UAE and Arabian Gulf.
Emirati boat builder Ali Mattar Al Shamsi, 85, is photographed with one of his boats in his building yard in Ajman. Sarah Dea / The National
Emirati boat builder Ali Mattar Al Shamsi, 85, is photographed with one of his boats in his building yard in Ajman. Sarah Dea / The National

AJMAN // Ali Mattar Al Shamsi’s life has always been linked to the sea. The former fisherman, pearl diver and captain has spent more than 40 years building dhows using simple, hand-held tools.

The Emirati is one of a handful of highly skilled craftsmen keeping alive the traditional boatbuilding techniques once so common across the UAE and around the Arabian Gulf. It is a talent he worked hard to perfect.

“I learnt building boats from boatmakers through sitting and looking at them from morning until evening,” said the 85-year-old. “Then I started building my own boats.”

Building a dhow by hand is a long, painstaking process and whereas in his youth he would take on the challenge on his own, these days Mr Al Shamsi, whose physical fitness belies his years, has hired craftsmen to help with the more demanding jobs.

“Now I have labourers who help me in building and I tell them what and how to do, because if I build a boat by myself it will take about three months.”

It takes about a month to build a 110-foot dhow, big enough to hold 137 passengers, whereas a smaller vessel for 10 to 16 people can be finished in about 20 days.

Mr Al Shamsi has passed on his skills to his four sons to keep his family’s tradition, and heritage, alive.

“One of my sons has a factory for boat manufacture, and my other sons learnt fishing and they are practising it.”

Growing up in Al Hamiryah, Mr Al Shamsi said he was originally taught how to make a living as a pearl diver and a fisherman.

“My father taught me fishing and diving and then put me to the sea as a captain since I was 16-years-old,” he said.

“When I became 20 I went to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to work there in fishing and I worked there for 25 years.”

He would spend almost a year away from home at a time, returning to Ajman for only two months to see his family.

The first boat he built was for Sheikh Abdulla bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, the father of the present Ruler of Ajman, with a capacity for 120 people. Named after Sheikh Abdulla, the vessel competed in the annual races in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, finishing first for 16 successive years.

Such was his skill and expertise Mr Al Shamsi was asked to build boats for Sheikh Abdulla’s son, Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, the Ruler of Ajman, as well as Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Crown Prince of Ajman, and Sheikh Khalifa, the President.

“If I get financial support from any sheikh to build a boat I manufacture it and give it the name of his highness, but driving the boat and instructing passengers is my responsibility because I am the captain,” said Mr Al Shamsi.

“I don’t sell any boat that I build because I don’t want anyone to compete with me in racing and get the first place because each boat has its own measurements.”

In his many years of competition, Mr Al Shamsi said he had never lost a race as he always tried to improve in the areas of design and performance.

“I participated in Abu Dhabi boat races for 42 years and Dubai for 30 years because those were the only two emirates that had boat races until now. Friday, November 28, was my first participation in boat races in Sharjah to celebrate the National Day.”

Despite being unable to read or write, Mr Al Shamsi said he could recall from memory each pearl-diving area off the UAE’s coast and across the Arabian Gulf.

“The name of each diving area is engraved in my heart and mind, I can remember the areas’ names and the location of each one.”

A lifetime connected to the sea has taught him valuable lessons, most notably in patience, courage and faith.

“I got from life the good reputation, fame and faith, in addition to the patience and courage that I learnt from my life in and with the sea,” he said.

roueiti@thenational.ae

Published: December 11, 2014 04:00 AM

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