x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Era ends as dhow builders push the boat out for the last time

The dhow launched this week not only impresses with her size but also her symmetry and the rich warmth of her wood.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // When the dhow finally hit the waves, it was with a crash unworthy of her majesty. She lurched on her side and, for a dreadful moment, looked as if she would topple over completely. Her crew and a crowd of onlookers scurried for safety. After she settled, still slightly askew in the shallow water of a low tide, the two men on board climbed down a ladder. Up to his chest in water, one promptly lit a cigarette, his job done and relieved to have his feet back on land.

The tide came overnight, filling the Maaridh harbour and lifting the ship to her former grace. This was quite possibly RAK's last great dhow launch, and the end of an industry dating back hundreds of years. Mohammed Bu Haji and his crew of 17 men took two years to build the large wooden vessel, using traditional tools and old-fashioned know-how. Mr Bu Haji, now in his 70s, has overseen every minute of the boat's launch, sitting inches from the craft in his blue plastic chair like a maritime film director.

He is the emirate's last known builder of traditional dhows and his family worries that he might not have the physical strength to build another ship. The future of dhow building is placed in further jeopardy by problems with the supply of wood from Africa. Ibrahim, his 27-year-old son, summed it up: "My father said one month ago he will stop this, but he met with my brothers and asked us, 'Should I stop?'.

"He must continue for his health. Without this, he will have nothing to care for. "The problem is with the wood. Now it is forbidden to cut the wood in Africa." If Mr Bu Haji's crew thought the hard work was over once they had built the 30 metre-long, nine metre-tall dhow, her tricky launch, which stretched to nine days, proved them wrong. She creaked and groaned as she inched towards the water's edge, pulled forward on wooden rollers by a one inch-thick metal cable fed through a capstan, and pushed by the men who had built her.

Recent dredging has changed the depth of the harbour, creating a new challenge for the crew, who spent countless hours shovelling sand under the bow so that the planks could reach further into the water. A huge log attached to the stern gave more leverage to push the dhow further, its tip balanced over the shoreline. As time dragged by, it was not just family who came to show their support. Each day more faces appeared in the crowd, many ironically lured by new technology such as Facebook, e-mail, blogs and text messaging.

Some had followed the process since the dhow was a mere skeleton of timber, others were newcomers who joined for the final farewell. The camaraderie grew: karak tea and homemade banana bread were passed around and a bond formed between onlookers who came to get a glimpse of history. By Tuesday evening, with dusk falling fast and low tide getting later each night, drastic measures had to be taken.

The crowd, by now numbering about 80, held their breath as a Caterpillar bulldozer arrived on the scene and positioned itself behind a huge log attached to the stern. A murmur ran through the crowd. "No, it can't," whispered one woman. "No, they wouldn't," said another. The bulldozer charged forward and hurled the dhow forward into the shallows. Mr But Haji's son Qassim circulated among the crowd afterwards, reassuring them that while bulldozers were not exactly traditional, there was nothing to worry about. Mr Bu Haji, exhausted from days of concentration, left with his crew.

Mr Bu Haji built the dhow on the beach above the high-tide line, a preferred boatyard offering a gentle slope to the beach below. He first built one here 20 years ago. Dhow building is a traditional craft that has been passed from one generation to the next for centuries. Mr Bu Haji developed his skills while working on his father's ship. One of the sailors, an Iranian, taught him how to make model dhows, which was a popular hobby among seamen on long journeys. They would sell them when they reached ports in India, Africa and the Gulf.

For hundreds of years, dhows brought Ras al Khaimah wealth through trade and pearling. This type of ship, known to Emiratis as a boom or informally as a launch, was built to withstand heavy storms on the Indian Ocean and is distinguished by its steep bow. The dhow launched this week not only impresses with her enormity but also her symmetry and the rich warmth of her wood. Mr Bu Haji's family are not optimistic about continuing the trade.

"I have the money but not the experience," said his son Abdulla, 40, crouching beside his father. "I don't know how." Mr Bu Haji rents his dhows off the Gulf of Aden before selling them at his cost price of Dh2.5 million (US$680,000). However, it is not a profitable business. "Some traditions are easier to follow than others," said Ibrahim, who watched with his friend, Hasan, the son of another sea captain. "This work is very difficult. You need 30 years' experience."

But the morning after the launch, a new rumour had spread through the dhow yard above the launch site: Mr Bu Haji had finally found new wood from Africa for a new dhow. The tradition, it seems, may continue yet. @Email:azacharias@thenational.ae