Five years on, memories of the Jewel are still sparkling
Muscat - It is five years since the Jewel of Muscat made its epic voyage across the Indian Ocean, following the ancient trade route east from Oman to Singapore.
The dhow, which was built along the lines of a ninth-century shipwreck of an Arab sewn-plank boat excavated off the Indonesian island of Belitung, made its triumphant entry into Singapore in July 2010 after almost five months at sea. During its voyage it survived raging storms, broken masts and sweltering calms.
The anniversary is an occasion to recount vivid memories of those who participated in the “big adventure”.
“To be the first Omani captain to command a sewn-plank boat after around 1,200 years was just incredible!” said Saleh al-Jabri, a former sailor with the Omani Royal Navy.
“It was a great challenge to sail for the first time such a vessel because nobody knew how it would behave.”
Jabri said he was hesitant when he was asked to command the ship. “I went to visit the ship and it was such a beauty! I just could not drop the offer,” he said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
The risks and incidents during the voyage were many, but it was worth the adventure, Jabri said. “One of our masts cracked in a storm between India and Sri Lanka and we sailed through the edge of Cyclone Laila in the Bay of Bengal,” he said. “I think that we sailed a few times close to death.”
“The food was also very bad. We ate plenty of qaseh (dried sardines) and dates, had 1.5 litres of drinkable water per person per day and washed only with sea water,” Jabri recalled.
The construction of a replica of the ancient dhow was a joint venture sponsored by Oman and Singapore, which hired Tom Vosmer, an Australian maritime archaeologist, to direct the project.
The project’s site director, Luca Belfioretti, an Italian marine archaeologist, recounted how the project developed.
“We started building the ship in 2007 in Qantab, near Muscat,” he said. Prior to construction, the 36-member team, including shipwrights, carpenters and maritime archaeologists, underwent extensive preparations.
“Along with Tom Vosmer, we spent months making experiments on the ropes and looking for the same wood that was presumably used in the construction of the shipwreck,” Belfioretti said.
The team worked 17 months to rediscover and put into practice the knowledge and techniques employed by ninth-century Arab shipbuilders.
The boat was constructed from different types of wood from Africa, India and Oman. The sail, made of doum palm leaves, was manufactured in Zanzibar, Belfioretti said. The bottom of the vessel was coated with a mixture of goat fat and hydrated lime to protect the wood from sea worms and to make it easier to remove barnacles and algae.
The ship was built without a single nail as planks were stitched together with 130 kilometres of coconut-fibre rope through 37,000 holes. The shipwrights used traditional hand tools, including saws, adzes, chisels and hammers.
Several months after its launch to test seaworthiness, the Jewel of Muscat’s epic voyage began on February 16, 2010.
In the first leg of the journey, the ship covered 2,800 kilometres in 27 days travelling from Muscat to Cochin, India. It was the longest part of the trip and completed without incident.
“We had time to become familiar with a unique ship that was sailing for the first time ever because pre-launch sea trials are never enough,” said Alessandro Ghidoni, the Italian technical director.
The second leg from Cochin to Galle, Sri Lanka, took nine days, but it was the most dangerous.
“On the fourth day, we saw a storm coming towards us but it passed without touching the boat and we thought we were safe. But the weird thing is that it came back and suddenly there was chaos.” Ghidoni said.
“We managed to bring down the first sail quickly but it took us very long to bring the second one down amid extremely strong wind. Then there was a huge crack in the mast and we had to wait helplessly for hours in the middle of the big waves.”
In Sri Lanka, the crew replaced the two masts with the same type of wood. “I drove 5,000 kilometres in three weeks to find two teak trees in the jungles of Sri Lanka to replace the masts,” recalled Belfioretti. “I even came eye to eye with a king cobra in the forest while I was looking for the timber. I was scared to death.”
In the third leg, from Galle to George Town, Malaysia, the ship sailed along the edge of Cyclone Laila, reaching a top speed of around 11 knots during a 50-knot squall. The three-day fourth leg, taking the crew from George Town to Port Klang, also in Malaysia, was the shortest and calmest.
However, the final leg was very stressful as the Jewel of Muscat encountered adverse currents, contrary winds and maritime traffic carrying contraband through the Strait of Malacca over the nine-day journey.
“It was a nightmare. With constant rain, opposite winds and front current, it was just impossible to control the boat,” Ghidoni remembered with a shiver. “There was a big risk to be hit by these massive cargo boats sailing without lights under the cover of darkness.”
However, the Jewel of Muscat did not fail its crew.
“For nearly five months, this ship has been our kitchen and our cradle. Our lives have depended upon her, in the most adverse weather conditions. She has surprised and perplexed us on many occasions. But she has proven loyal and true, exceeding our expectations,” Jabri wrote in his memoirs after reaching Singapore.