The World’s Largest Dhow Takes Shape in Dubai

No 78

The dhow makes a virtue of simplicity. Crafted of wood and powered by wind, unmistakable from miles away for its graceful long-stem hulls and triangular lateen sails, this age-old ocean vessel evokes a sense of historical pride for residents of the Arabian Peninsula. Starting in the 7th century, the region’s maritime traders sent their dhows into the Indian Ocean in summer, ahead of the seasonal monsoons, laden with fruit and fish and pearls. The boats would come back north in winter, carrying spices, silk, and timber to Muscat and Aden, then down Africa’s east coast towards Zanzibar.

The versatility of the dhow is a virtue, too. Its shallow draft has traditionally made it suitable for pearling, fishing, and other coastal harvests. Variations in size and shape have produced distinct breeds of dhow over the years: boums, sambuks, and jalibuts. Sturdier versions, perhaps inspired by the far-ranging Portuguese caravels that changed transoceanic travel in the 15th century, eventually knit together the sea routes between Arabia and India. Nowadays, these heavier models are augmented with fiberglass hulls and diesel engines. They still represent a significant portion of oceangoing traffic in the Persian Gulf.

Dubai, with its futuristic reputation and extreme distance from timber sources, would seem to be an unlikely center for shipbuilding. And yet the Emirati metropolis came of age as a pearling hub and remains a fixture along major trade routes. Maybe it’s not so strange after all that it is home to the world’s largest dhow.

Credit for the project, which has been still underway since 2013, goes to the Obaid Bin Juma Bin Suloom Shipyard in Al Jaddaf, where dhows have been made for generations. While the yards are Arab-owned, employees hail mostly from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; they work methodically, using impossibly simple tools. Shipwrights use carpenter’s rulers to section wood planks before sawing them. Piece by piece, from power of eye and pencil, these men assemble a vessel capable of carrying many tons of cargo, some of it bound for ports as far away as the families they have left behind in their lands of origin.

It wasn’t originally conceived to be a record-breaking boat. But the shipyard's owners decided to tack towards glory. They reframed and widened the dhow after contacting the Guinness Book of Records, so that its proportions would surpass those of a rival vessel currently stationed (as a waterfront restaurant) in Kuwait. But when this ship is finished, it will, like its cargo-going kindred, be able to tackle the open ocean.

The super-dhow project is comprised of rope, nails, teak, and a persistent (many would say resurgent) desire of the region’s commercial elite to do big things. Like Dubai’s glistening towers, at least one of which has been built in the shape of a dhow sail, this superlative vessel will sprout out of parched desert. But its foundation will be saltwater. And rather than reach for the skies it will bend into the wind, in order to sail against it.

Credits

  • Director + Editor - Fiona Murguia
  • Producers - Oliver Hartman, Yana M. Scholz, and Simon Taufique
  • Music - Simon Taufique and Micheal Dean Parsons
  • Sound Design - Eli Cohn
  • Color - Evan Allan
  • Text - Sarah Shachat

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