x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Launch that may sail into history

As a new dhow takes to the waters for first time in Ras al Khaimah today, it may be the last such launch in a history of boatmaking that goes back hundreds of years.

When a 30-metre dhow touches water for the first time today, it will mark the end of two years' toil for Mohammed Bu Haji and his crew. It may also bring down the curtain on his 50-year boat-building career and on a tradition in RAK that goes back hundreds of years. Anna Zacharias reports RAS AL KHAIMAH // When Mohammed Bu Haji's new dhow hits the calm water of the Maardih lagoon today, it could mark the end of centuries of tradition.

The boat may be the master craftsman's last, after 50 years of plying his trade. He, in turn, may be RAK's last dhow builder, as the boats are squeezed out in favour of more modern fibreglass constructions. Even the dhows made elsewhere often contain fibreglass or other modern construction elements. The giant dhow that is due to be launched today is the fruit of two years' hard work by 17 crew members. It is built entirely in the traditional manner, using simple hand tools like the adze, 1,200 35-inch bolts to secure the planks, and thousands of 10-inch nails to secure the siding.

The launch, like the dhow's creation, will be an act of tradition. For days now, at each low tide, the boat has been slowly creeping towards the sea, drawn forward on rollers and wooden planks by a pulley and the strength of Mr Bu Haji's crew. There are faster ways but, the men say with pride, this method of launching the dhow dates to the time of Noah. Mr Bu Haji steps out of a nearby mosque and walks down to his plastic chair under the ship's bow.

At 30 metres long and nine metres tall, it can carry 800 tonnes of cargo. He will rent the ship in Yemen or Somalia to make a profit, before selling it for Dh2.5 million (US$680,000). Now in his late 70s, Mr Bu Haji is no longer as formidable as the great ships he builds. He is plagued with back problems and unable to stand for long periods. Instead, he supervises from a blue chair, holding the respect of his crew despite his seated position.

He moves his chair as close as possible to the rollers, placing his palms on the wood to adjust them and pointing to sand on the planks that needs to be swept clear, moving his chair along as the dhow inches forward. After two years of toil, the last of the crew's energy is spent in releasing the dhow into the water. Between nine and 13 men are at the pulley, their trouser bottoms folded up, grey sand caked on their heels as they march and push, hands stretched forward on the smooth arms of the pulley.

One man sits below and pulls the cable taut, inch by painstaking inch. The men sweat and chant in a mix of Arabic and Malayam, willing the dhow to move quickly with God's blessing. Mr Bu Haji's grandson Amr, a boy of about 13 in yellow garden gloves, joins the pulley gang and runs errands. At one point, he zips away on his scooter, returning with Mountain Dew and Mirinda for the crew. The dhow's progress is almost imperceptibly slow. There is the occasional creak and groan from the wood, or a thump that sends the men at the pulley running forward to pick up the slack.

If all goes well, the dhow will touch the water for the first time this afternoon. Once it does, it will move to the RAK Creek beside the British Bank, near the dhow yard where Mr Bu Haji once supervised 70 men. He says he is unsure if he will be able to keep working after this. "We'll see," he says, shrugging his shoulders. "I don't have wood yet." The crew, though, is eager to continue. Some believe this may be the end, others think there will be another dhow, maybe a smaller one that carries 300 tonnes.

"If they want to work, we will keep working," he says. "It's my work. Everything I feel is in it. If I didn't put everything in it, I would not be able to make it." Ahmed Bu Haji, a cousin who, like Mr Bu Haji, was a former sea captain on the trade routes of the Gulf and Indian Ocean, adds that "boys and girls were supposed to take over this job". It was the dhow that brought RAK its first wealth. The medieval town of Julfar, a few kilometres north of the modern city of RAK, was a famed trade centre from the 13th to 16th centuries, thanks to the dhows that sailed from its harbours.

Similar vessels made Julfar known throughout Asia and Europe. Its pearls were praised by Gasparo Baldi, the 16th-century Venetian court jeweller. If this is indeed the end, it is not just Mr Bu Haji's family that will lose a beautiful tradition. Yesterday, his sons and grandsons crowded the water's edge. His grandson Abdullah Mohammed, 19, a regular at the dhow yard before he began university in Al Ain earlier this year, is thrilled that his grandfather still launches the dhow in the traditional way. "It is easier for him, and safer," he says.

One of Mr Bu Haji's three wives, Aisha, watches with her daughters and grandchildren from a white 4x4 parked along the beach. "It's big, it's good, praise to God," she says upon seeing the dhow her husband has invested so much care in. "My father stays here all the time," says his daughter, Fatima, 37, a mother of four who works in immigration. "He can't stay in my house because he wants to be here all the time.

"For us, the fact that my father did it, it's very fantastic. I want us to learn but it's not in paper, it's in his mind. Not any of my brothers or sons or sisters' sons learnt to make the dhow. "Today he says it's his last, but tomorrow he will make a new one." @Email:azacharias@thenational.ae