Sur, home of Oman’s millennium dhow building
Sur, Oman - The sound of hammers on teak and the whiff of coconut oil invade the senses when visiting Sur, the same way it did for visitors of the Omani coastal town centuries ago. The sounds and smells come from the last remaining factory that builds Oman’s traditional wooden boats, the dhows.
Boats have been built in Sur, on the shores of the Gulf of Oman, for thousands of years. The dhows, some capable of carrying up to 600 tonnes of cargo, sailed across the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean and even reached China.
Dhows are no longer used for the trade that led to Oman’s prosperity in ancient times and Sur’s boat builders no longer produce the giants of the dhow family.
“The shipyard belongs to the family whose members have been building dhows for hundreds of years,” explains boat builder Jumaa bin Hassoun, one of the last oustaz (Arabic for “master”), a name used to designate lead carpenters in the old days.
“Nowadays, all the boats we are building are smaller and go to the tourism sector as well as some private buyers, notably for wealthy Qatari businessmen, like this one you see here ready to hit the sea,” bin Hassoun said pointing at the vessel with its timbers curved towards the upswept prow, a shape reminiscent of an Arabian sword.
The wooden ships are built without referring to sketches or blueprints, he said. “All the plans for construction are in here,” he added, pointing at his head. “Inshallah, my son Mohamed will take over our ancestors’ knowledge and skills after me to continue the legacy.”
Seafaring and trade is at the core of Oman’s history. Located at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Oman had maritime trade links with the ancient cities of Ur and Sumer in Iraq and the Indus valley in India due to its excellent boat-building capability and its sailors’ navigation skills.
The dhow yards in Sur, however, have rapidly declined as the demand for the vessels plummeted in recent decades.
“Now people prefer to build fibreglass boats because they are much cheaper to make and easier to maintain,” bin Hassoun said, fearing that Omani dhows may soon be relegated to a museum as a symbol of Oman’s past.
In the last 12 months, bin Hassoun had only two orders for wooden dhows. This is hardly sufficient to sustain his business, which employs 15 workers, almost all Indian carpenters, he said.
Old seafarers remain deeply nostalgic about the time when dhows were Oman’s main means of sea travel.
“It used to take us sometimes two months to reach the island of Zanzibar (off the coast of east Africa) with the dhows,” recalled Nasser al Alawi, an elderly captain from Sur.
“In order to get there, we used to go first from Sur to Salalah (south of Oman), then to Yemen after which we crossed the Red Sea and sailed along the African coast down south to Zanzibar. It was a long and tough journey especially when we had no wind but we used to enjoy it so much,” he said.
Dhows, which have one or two masts supporting triangular sails, are built from the keel up with teak imported from India. In the past, wooden planks were sewn together without nails or glue. Now they are laid side by side and secured with long nails.
More traditionally, coconut-fibre rope was threaded through holes in the teak and the holes were plugged with fibre or cotton soaked in sesame, fish or coconut oil.
The keel and hull are made from teak but the ribs of the dhow, which are added after the hull has been completed, are usually from locally grown timber.
Builders use modern saws and electric drills but the yard still contains awls, bows and caulking irons, the same tools that would have been used when Marco Polo sailed past 700 years ago.
Although it no longer retains its prominence in the trade industry, Sur continues to be the best in building the wooden ships, at least in the Gulf region. A couple of centuries back, the town built ships for clients in China, India, Iraq and other prominent trade destinations.
One remnant of the bygone era in the vicinity of the dhow yard is the lighthouse built by the Portuguese during the 16th century to guide the bustling sea traffic that went in and out of Sur during those days.