Sanjeeda's story: Sanjeeda is unique. She is the only two-masted lateen-rigged dhow plying the Indian Ocean. Stephen Williams met with the owner, Anderson Bakewell, to talk about the boat's remarkable story.
"One thing led to the next," Bakewell explains. "I began to think about what type of boat I should like to have, and a traditional dhow came to mind." But Bakewell was neither interested in a reproduction, nor a reconstructed dhow. Neither did he really want a coastal jahazi dhow. What he was to set his sights on was a kotiya type dhow, a true ocean going vessel.
Although they can only be confirmed to have existed from about 200 years ago, kotiya dhows were probably a common sight some 500 years ago when the Indian Ocean was as important a trading region to Arabia, India, the Indian Ocean Islands and East Africa as the Mediterranean Sea was to the Maghreb, Levant and southern Europe. And there is a good argument to suggest that, at that time, the Indian Ocean far surpassed the Mediterranean Sea in terms of wealth and power.
The construction of ocean-going dhows in the Indian Ocean died out around 50 years ago. Today, while around the Arabian Gulf at sheltered creeks and bays there may still be dhow building yards--they only build the most common types of dhow in the Gulf, the shu'ai, designed for inshore waters and the wooden cargo ships known as 'launch' that work as coastal-trading vessels.
Bakewell reveals his research led him to conclude that in Oman and Yemen, the art of building ocean-going dhows has been lost for at least a generation. Along the East African coast the story was the same; he could find nobody capable of building the type or size of boat his heart was set on.
However, there was still a place where it might be possible to find the skills required to build a true trans-oceanic dhow. Traditionally, Arab traders had regularly gone to western India, with its plentiful supplies of teak and other exotic tropical hard woods, to have their boats built.
Bakewell first went to the Malabar coast in south India--to Calicut, made famous as the place Vasco de Gama first set foot in India. History buffs will recall that De Gama's epic voyage to India, at the tail-end of the 15th century, was greatly assisted by an Arab dhow captain. The captain joined the Portuguese mariner's fleet at Malindi, on East Africa's coast, to pilot the expedition, navigating mainly by the stars, across the Indian Ocean.
When Bakewell himself reached Calicut, he found the boat-building industry was in a moribund state. He was warned off commissioning his boat since powerful labour unions held sway throughout the Kerala State at that time, and might have sabotaged the project.
The fear was that after accepting a quotation for the work, halfway through the build the workers would have been ordered to down tools while the unions demanded more money. These kinds of practices had become common in Kerala and had hit the boat-building industry very hard. Many of the Arab traders, who a few years previously were having their modern wooden-hulled cargo boats built there, had taken their business elsewhere.
Bakewell then turned his attention northwards to Mumbai and the Gujarat coast where the Parsis of India had traditionally had their boats built. But he still wasn't happy. As a last resort, he decided to investigate the shipyards of the Gulf of Kutch close to the India-Pakistan border. It was there that serendipity was to play an extraordinary role.
In Kutch, Bakewell met a boat-builder, Ibrahim Mistry, whom he felt capable of the task of building Sanjeeda. Bakewell had carried a photograph, taken in the 1950s, of the kind of vessel that he wanted built. When he showed it to Mistry, to his astonishment, Mistry told him the captain of the boat in the photograph was his neighbour!
Mistry took Bakewell to meet the dhow's captain, Babu Malam, who confirmed that he had indeed been the captain of the boat in the photograph. He also told Bakewell that Mistry was the man he needed to build his boat. That was enough for Bakewell, he had found the man to build Sanjeeda. He had also found Sanjeeda's first sailing master--Malam was to work for him for the next three years.
Before building began, Bakewell spoke to Colin Mudie--one of Britain's foremost naval architects who had designed a boat for the Sultan of Oman--and drew up preliminary plans. These plans were then given to Mistry, the Indian shipwright. Bakewell laughs when he recalls that Mistry probably didn't look at these plans once. Nevertheless, "He proceeded to build exactly the kind of boat that I wanted," Bakewell says, with an obvious and deep admiration for Mistry's remarkable skills. Work started in January 2000, with a team of 25 Indian boat-builders and a total of 138 tons of wood hauled to the beach with trains of oxen. Sal (shoria robusta) from Malaysia was used for the hull beneath the water line, and Burmese teak above--all from renewable sources, Bakewell was assured. Local acacia was used for the internal ribs.
Traditionally, the wooden sections of a dhow would have been bound together using coir or coconut fibre--but that practice died out some two centuries ago. Instead, galvanised iron nails were used--although the age-old technique of hammering fish oil soaked cotton into the cracks was adhered to. Bakewell says that barely a power tool was used during the whole construction.
Interestingly, whereas the European shipbuilding tradition has been to make a framework and then add the hull planking, dhow builders start with the hull planking and then add the reinforcing framework later. Since the planking has to be supported during construction, temporary 'template' frames are installed on the inside of the hull planks.
Whilst the hull took shape on the beach, seven enormous Indian cotton sails were being hand-sewn to attach to the two 50ft-plus masts. These giant sails were to provide the primary motive power, when wind conditions were right, for this 93ft vessel.
Within the hull were designed and built six solid wooden bunked cabins, four 'heads' (WCs), three shower rooms as well as quarters for the captain, a seven man crew, a galley and library.
The first stage of Sanjeeda's construction was to take close to 18 months--longer than originally envisaged due to the catastrophic Gujarat earthquake. Fortunately, although the epicentre of the earthquake was barely 35 miles away, Sanjeeda stayed upright on the beach--thereby living up to her name, which is a Persian word meaning 'substantial' and implying reliability.
The final two weeks' work involved a team of about 30 women armed with spades who dug out a trench around the hull. When the trench had been completed a channel was dug to the ocean and at high tide the boat was floated and hand winched, with the aid of an anchor point offshore, out to sea. She was then towed to Ajman, just south of Dubai. Sanjeeda then spent eight months in the Gulf being fitted out with plumbing and electrics, a 6,000lt diesel tank and 4,000lt water tank, two diesel engines, a 30KW marine diesel generator, a water desalination unit and electric anchor winch.
But why, with all that sail power, were engines necessary? "In the past," Bakewell explains, "dhows would go from point A to point B with the monsoon winds. But we cruise, we move outside the monsoon winds. If you are carrying a charter group or an expedition that wants to go to a particular place within a certain timescale, you cannot rely on the vagaries of the Indian Ocean's weather patterns."
Bakewell has also installed state-of-the-art safety, navigation and communications systems onboard and Sanjeeda also carries an extensive range of diving equipment.
After Sanjeeda had been fitted out, she left the Gulf and was taken back to India, to Mangalore, for eight months that consisted mainly of wood-carving and carpentry work. She was then the centrepiece of a launch ceremony with Hindu, Jain, Muslim and Christian elements.
"For the next 18 months we organised commercial cruises to the Maldives and Sri Lanka before sailing for Oman-Halaniyat. And wherever Sanjeeda was in harbour, or on overnight cruises, dinners aboard would be served by Sanjeeda's Indian cook, Das from Calcutta. "He is an exceptional cook, specialising in fresh fish," Bakewell explains. "In fact the whole crew are expert fisherman and whenever they are not sailing they are fishing.
"We had a wonderful first voyage, we left Ajman for about a month sailing around the Musandam peninsula in the Straits of Hormuz--a truly spectacular place. It's just wonderful to have access by boat to the peninsula because the geography is a bit like the Scandinavian fjords--with cliffs rising hundreds of feet from the sea.
"We then spent some time in Muscat, on the Gulf of Oman, before going on to Sur, which is the old Omani boat-building centre. Then we took off for India from Ras al Hadd which is the place, the promontory, where boats have always set sail for India. Everywhere we went we attracted enormous attention. After that voyage to India we returned to Arabia to do two months chartering in Oman, a whale watching trip led by a marine biologist mainly around the Halaniyat Islands, off the coast of South Oman near Salalah. Oman, with its strong links to Zanzibar, has an extraordinary maritime heritage, and there was very strong interest in Sanjeeda."
As for the future, Bakewell is looking for a long-term charter offer, perhaps for two years or more, and has already received a number of expressions of interest--from a private party in the Gulf, to a hotel chain in southern Africa who envisage providing diving expeditions and cruises from their beach resorts. There's also the possibility that Sanjeeda may be used by an educational trust in the Far East.
There are obviously far more than mere commercial considerations at stake here. Like an anxious parent watching a child leave home for the first time, Bakewell is carefully weighing up the options. You sense that he's not the type of man to make any sort of rash decision, and whatever he eventually decides, his priority is to ensure Sanjeeda's future is in safe hands.
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|Publication:||The Middle East|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2004|
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