Dhow technology has come a long way

While the modern vessels look like their wooden ancestors, there are some fundamental differences.

AJMAN, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Nov 18: Workers polishing inside structure of the Dhow at Al Boom Marine in Ajman. (Pawan Singh / The National)  *** Local Caption ***  PS04- DHOW.jpg
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The dhow has come to symbolise the best efforts of a nation forging ahead as a key player in the modern world while taking care to stay in touch with its heritage. Even in an age of vast container ships and supertankers, dhows, which have linked the countries of the Arabian Gulf to the rest of the world through the centuries, are still employed for international trade and serve as the workhorses of fishermen who harvest the Gulf's warm waters.

Dhow building has been in Ahmed Ibrahim's family for generations, and demand for the craft is more than enough to keep his yard near Ajman Marina, Al Boom Marine, busy through the year. Shipyards in Ajman still make dhows to a traditional design and, as with much of the UAE's recent development, the nation's valuable heritage has been retained despite builders embracing modern technology. While the boats created at the bustling premises today may look the same as the vessels Mr Ibrahim's predecessors made, under the skin they could hardly be more different.

The days when these elegant craft were typically made from Indian teak and propelled by billowing sails are largely over. Now they are built of fibreglass and powered by diesel engines. "It's been the traditional way for our family for a long time," says Mr Ibrahim, 33. "Before we were working with wood but now it's fibreglass because it's better for the customer." As much as he respects the traditions of his industry, Mr Ibrahim does not wallow in sentiment when it comes to Arabia's favourite form of sea transport. The fibreglass dhow is, he insists, vastly superior to its wooden counterpart.

Every three months wooden dhows have to be dry-docked for maintenance, but fibreglass craft can go much longer before they need chemical treatment to keep them seaworthy. "It is safer. You have the complete hull made from fibreglass, not like the wooden boat. You don't need nails and wood," Mr Ibrahim says, speaking from the majlis beside the boatyard where he receives his customers. Dhows sailed the trade routes connecting Arabia to East Africa and what are now India and Pakistan. Leaving with a cargo of dates and fish, the vessels would often return weighed down with timber.

Dhows were also used by the pearl divers who harvested the rich waters of the Arabian Gulf in the days before oil became the chief source of income. According to Dr Fatma al Sayegh, a professor of UAE and Gulf history at UAE University in Al Ain, the dhow is one of the nation's most important pieces of imagery. "Two things symbolise our heritage - the dhow and the falcon," Dr Sayegh says. "Shipbuilding was an occupation of a large segment of the UAE population until 50 years ago."

The dhow, Dr Sayegh says, does not have the same significance it once had for international trade, but it is still used for the import and export of certain goods. You have only to watch the way they pack the quaysides of Dubai and Sharjah creeks. "Old dhows are also used for entertainment," she adds, referring to the vessels that take tourists for evening pleasure trips. Dhows exist in several forms, with names such as baghlah, sambuk, battil and badan, but the one most commonly made by Mr Ibrahim's yard is the shu'ai, a type characterised by its high stern and jutting prow.

The wheelhouse and many other parts of the vessel are made as single blocks and lifted by a small crane onto the hull, already in the water, and fixed into place. Mr Ibrahim's late father, Ibrahim Rashid, and his late grandfather, Rashid Ibrahim, made their living from building dhows. Likewise, those who own the boatyards beside Mr Ibrahim's - there are four in a row - consider the trade a family tradition. They are also the grandsons of accomplished dhow builders.

Among them is Omar Shattaf, who is not averse to getting involved in the practical side of the business in his Shattaf premises by working the small crane in the yard himself. "Ajman is famous in the Middle East for building dhows. It's the largest place for how many boats are built each year," Mr Ibrahim says. Between 40 to 45 dhows are made annually at Mr Ibrahim's boatyard, with the craft ranging in size from 15 metres to 30 metres and varying in price from Dh150,000 (US$41,000) to Dh350,000.

Powered by diesel engines from various parts of the world, the vessels can travel at between 16kmh and 21kmh. Eventually, Mr Ibrahim would like to pass on his boatyard to his children - he has three daughters and two sons - but like him, they will rely on expatriate labour to actually make the vessels. Mr Ibrahim employs 120 staff from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who are housed just a few metres away from where the vessels are made. The workers' blue overalls hang by the dozen beside the accommodation block. "They are lucky. They get their food, there is a restaurant here, and everything they need. They can go outside and there is no traffic. They like to live here because all the facilities are here," Mr Ibrahim says.

Up the road lies Shattaf Marine, which is separate to Omar Shattaf's yard. Here, Patel Bikuhu from India has lived and worked for the past 32 years. "These are fishing dhows and they go everywhere from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain," Mr Bikuhu says, pointing at some of the vessels taking shape on and off the water. While a modern fibreglass boat can be produced twice as quickly as an old-style teak vessel, taking two months instead of four, Mr Bikuhu says there are occasionally orders from customers for a traditional craft.

"Here one piece from teakwood went to Qatar," he says proudly. Planks litter the ground of the various yards, as parts of the fibreglass dhows are still made from wood, and smaller boats are still crafted completely from planks and nails. Even in the modern age, the traditional skills of crafting boats from wood live on, albeit on a smaller scale than in the heyday of the wooden dhow. dbardsley@thenational.ae