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Boats and Ships of Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar

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East African Sails

Impressions that evoke the times of Sindbad. After all, the Omanis and other Arabs sailed down to the East African coast since the Middle Ages. Their main trade goods were slaves and mangrove poles. Today the mangrove poles remain, but consumer goods and staple food stuffs have replaced the slaves.

Dar-es-Salaam roadstead

Setting sail and getting under way, Stone Town harbour, Zanzibar Dar-es-Salaam roadstead

Different Types of Boats

The classification of boats around the East African coasts meets with many difficulties. While we modern Europeans tend to base our taxonomy of boats on phenomenological, that is constructional criteria, the Africans use functional criteria (WINKLER, 2009). As a result, vastly different boats can be given one and the same denomination, resulting in confusion and a lack of traceability in history. In the following, a range of boats encountered during a visit in September 2012 will be presented and compared with what was found in the literature.

The Mtepe

The Mtepe, actually a 'living fossil', was a double-ended boat with a sewn hull, propelled by a single square sail made from matting. It disappeared only in the 1930s (GILBERT, 1998).

The Mtepe-replica in the House of Wonders, Stone Town, Zanzibar.


Dugouts are one of the primordial forms of boats and they are still in use along the coast of East Africa. There are several types of dugouts in use today: dugouts fashioned from a single tree (Mtondoo, Callophyllum inophyllum) , dugouts with extensions (or worn parts replaced) and extended dugouts with double outriggers. The simple dugouts are being used for angling in sheltered waters as well as tenders for larger dhows.
The lateral profile of individual boats can differ considerably, presumably depending on the shape and quality of the trees available. There seems to be also a transition between the simple (Hori) and the extended dugout. As the former becomes worn out, bad pieces are cut out and replaced by planks, making it finally difficult to decide into which group the boat belongs now. Many of the double-outrigger boats (Ngalawa) have a shovel-shaped bow piece inserted, but by no means all of them. Most boats have the wale reinforced by an out-wale that runs along the whole length and is nailed down, rather than dowelled, as the extension pieces obviously are. The simple dugouts fashioned from a single tree do not have a re-inforced wale. The trees, or even the pre-prepared dugouts are imported from India, as there are no suitable trees available anymore in the coastal region of East Africa.

Dugout used for angling Dugout being hauled ashore
Dugout used as a tender for a dhow
Dugouts without plank extensions Extended dugouts

The floats of the outriggers are thin boards with pointed ends and thus do not provide much static buoyancy compared to the outriggers of Asian or Pacific boats. I did not see any boat sailing in stronger winds, but would suspect that some of the buoyancy is dynamic, rather than static. According to WINKLER (2009) the way, how the outriggers are attached to the hull and the constructional details of the outriggers vary between the mainland and Zanzibar. However, comparing the pictures of boats from the harbour of Dar-es-Salaam and Nungwi, one notes that in both cases the main traverse is lashed down to the inside of the hull. There are, however, constructional differences in the way the float is attached to the main traverse.

Derelic(?) extended dugouts without outriggers fitted
Nungwi, Northern Zanzibar

The double-outrigger boats are fitted with a triangular (lateen) or a settee sail with a very short forefoot. The distinction between the two types is sometimes not very sharp as the forefoot can almost disappear in the rather rough fashioned sails. The mast is stepped into a mast spur and a thwart that is lashed down onto the bulwark. All spars are made from mangrove poles. The spar for the settee on larger boats is made from two or three poles, while smaller boat get away with a single piece.

Extended dugouts with two outriggers (Ngalawa) Extended dugouts with two outriggers
Extended dugouts with two outriggers (Ngalawa)
Dar-es-Salaam Nungwi, Northern Zanzibar

There are neither forestays (which would get into the way of the spar for the settee sail) nor shrouds, only a flying backstay. The halliard for the spar serves as an additional backstay. The rig does not make use of any blocks and the halliard for the spar is reefed through a hole in the mast. All sheets etc. are simple pieces of rope. Halliard, backstay and sheets are belayed on whatever appears to be a convenient point, no clamps or the likes are foreseen for this purpose.

Constructional details of extended dugouts with two outriggers (Ngalawa)
Extended dugouts with two outriggers under sail
Nungwi, Northern Zanzibar

The use of outboard engines (mostly of Japanese origin) is quite ubiquitous and some of the dugouts have short horizontal pieces of wood bolted to their stern for suspending there such engines. Engines seem to be more common on larger, plank-built boats. The main means of propulsion still are sail and simple paddles.
It appears that the boats in Nungwi are not normally painted, while some of the dugouts in Dar-es-Salaam have their lower hulls painted red like that of the larger dhows.
Unlike for plank-built dhows (see below) I did not see any place where the dugouts were made. Large trees are rare in East Africa and on Zanzibar so it is probable that suitable logs are imported from Asia, across the Indian ocean. It is mentioned in the literature that dhows employed in the trade to India often took a half-finished dugout as deckload to be sold in areas where no large trees are available.

Plank-built Dhows

The term dhow may refer to boats and ships of quite different size and shape. Originally, dhows seem to have been double-ended, but at least since the 16th century European, namely Portuguese, shipbuilding fashions appear to have influenced the shape and design of the larger, mainly Omani, dhows. These influences also spread along the Arab trade routes down to East Africa. Today there are double-ended dhows, as well as those that have a transom stern. The majority seem to have a transom, as this facilitates the attachment of one or two outboard engines. The local trading dhows use the outboard engine mainly for maneuvring, while the main means of propulsion still is the sail. Fishing boats also use their engine when actually engaged in fishing with the seine net. 

Fishing dhows at Nugwi, Zanzibar

A large number of smaller dhows with a clipper-like bow are employed in the seine-net fisheries. A  GRP fishing boat probably of FAO-design, sunk in the harbour of Stone Town on Zanzibar indicates that this material is much less adapted to the local socio-economic circumstances than the the traditional wooden dhow.

Sunk FAO-boat
Motorised seine-net fishing dhows in Dar-es-Salaam
Drying and mending nets on the beach of Nungwi, Zanzibar

Dhow harbour and beaching opposite Dar-es-Salaam
Maintenance work on seine-net  fishing dhows at the beach in front of Dar-es-Salaam

Trading dhows of the Lamu type

Today dhows are still engaged in local trade up and down the coast of East Africa. In Tanzania and Zanzibar this seem to be largely of the Lamu-type, which is characterised by a near-vertical stem (JEWELL, 1976; WIEBECK & WINKLER, 2000). The name Lamu derives from the island of the same name off the coast of Kenia. Typically, the Lamu-type, or Jahazi (in Swahili), has a more elegantly, heart-shaped, transom than the fishing dhows. Another characteristic feature is a sort of railing made from matting that protects the load. Otherwise, the boats are completely undecked and the crew lives completely in the open. The settee-sail is rather large, its yard is considerably longer than the boat. For this reason they carry a long running-bowsprit. The rigging is minimal and often rather ramshackle, just with four shrouds and the lift for the yard acting as a backstay. Some of the boat are rather colourful.

Trading dhows in the harbour of Stone Town, Zanzibar

The dhow building places on Zanzibar

Boat building and fishing fleet at Nungwi

There are two places where small dhows are being built on Zanzibar: just north of Stone Town, at the edge of a mangrove rimmed inlet, and at the northern tip of the Island, in Nungwi. The boats are entirely built by eye, no drawings are involved. Many of the methods are the same as used for European boats, but constructional details differ.
First the builder lays out the keel shaped from a sawn teak (Tectona grandis) log on three posts that are set into the beach sand and have a groove on top of the width of the keel. The stem post (teak) is fitted to the keel with a hooked scarf, while the stern post (also teak) is notched into the keel. The stem post is cut out such that it covers the end-grain of the keel. Neither keel nor stem post have rabbets, but the stern post and the supporting deadwood bearded to provide a good landing for the planking. The garboard strakes (mahagony) are fastened to the keel with long nails and held to stem and stern post by cleats until apron and deadwood knees are fitted. Using the traditional methods of softening over a fire (judging by the traces of soot) a twist is bent into the garboard strake. The planks are tied down with cantilevers, the inboard end of which is naild onto the keel, until they have cooled down and settled. Nails are driven diagonally into the keel.

Old dhow  Mango branches for knees etc.
Local mahagony for keels and posts
Mangrove poles
The beginning: setting up the keel, stem and stern posts
Cleats to hold garboard planks
Shaping the garboard plank

The next step is to fit aprons and deadwood knees to the stern post and stem. These knees are shaped from suitable crooks of mango wood (Mangifera indica). All shaping is done by eye using an adze. From time to time the pieces are offered to the posts and paint is used to mark, where more wood has to be taken off.
These first steps are rather crucial, as the deadrise thus fixed defines to a significant degree the final shape of the hull. Though the builders know tools such as the quadrant and plumb line, they rely largely on their experience and eye. In fact, at least one of the builders in Nungwi had been to Norway to exchange experiences with builders there, as he related to me. Although, their building methods appear rather rough, the builders are quite aware of developments in other parts of the world.

Joint between stem post and keel Drilling tools
Adze, marking-out tools 
A raw knee piece
Shaping a deadwood knee with an adze
Offering a deadwood knee to the stern post for fitting
Quadrant and plumb line

In the next step a few floor timber and frames are installed. Their shape is entirely determined by eye. However, initially only a few frames are put into place. At this moment also the transom is fitted. As can be seen in the pictures, sometimes parts such as transoms are recycled from broken-up boats. Frames then are connected at their heads with temporary beams and some battens run along them. The shape of the new boat is thus determined. Next the strakes go on. They are pre-sawn local mahogany (Swietenia spec.) from the Jozani Forest Reserve. Material is used economically. It seems that the floor strakes are put on first and planks as long as possible are used for these. The relatively narrow planks available do not allow much shaping in the plane. This requires the use of stealers and lost strakes. Once a number of strakes have been fitted, the remaining frames are put in, as well as more floor timbers where cross-section is fuller. Naturally crooked mango branches are used for the timbering-out. The timbers are carefully shaped with the adze on the outside, but only hewn out rough inboard. Any wood left standing adds to the strength. The floor timbers are bolted to the keel.

Marking out for the bearding
Frames and floor timbers
Planking-up the hull
Bolt through floor and keel
Planking nails hoooked back into frames

As there is no rabbet in the stem post, the strakes are nailed onto the apron and deadwood knees of stem and stern post. Good quality wood is difficult to obtain, so that scarfed planks are necessary. The planks are fastened with locally produced nails (see below). The nails are driven into holes pre-drilled through the strake and the frame and are countersunk for the head. The points of the nails are hooked, i.e. bent over and driven back into the frames.

Fitting and marking out for a scarf Scarf Lost strake Fastening the ceiling

A simple bow-drill is used. The drill bits are fixed permanently into the wooden shafts that driven by he bowstring. When bigger holes are needed somewhere, small holes are drilled on the circumference of the larger hole and the remaining wood in the centre is knocked out. When the planking is completed, the hull is faired with an adze and by eye. The shipbuilder cuts across the grain, beginning from the top strake. The hull is further strengthened by a ceiling that covers the inner face of the frames like a lattice grid. A number of beams keep the hull in shape and are notched into a wale. Some of the beams are reinforced by horizontal knees.

Drilling Drill bit Method for larger holes
 Smoothing and fairing the planks Fitting a deck-beam
Lodging knees

The after part of the hull also received a light decking. The planks extending beyond the transom are cut flush to it. The hull is completed by various items of carpentry, such as a spur for the mast, a breasthook tying together the gunwale and the stem, a short round piece of wood over which the anchor cable is hauled in and on which it is belayed, etc.. Finally the hull receives a caulking with Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) 'cotton' soaked in oil. In Dar-es-Salaam boats are painted in red-oxide below the waterline, but it seems that these small dhows are left on Zanzibar in their natural state.

Half-deck Recycled transom Stern awaiting completion  Stern-post
Forefoot Almost completed
Stem-head with breasthook
Caulking tools and materials

The pictures below are not my own, but a friend who accompanied me on this trip generously allowed me to use them, after my camera was stolen from the car in Dar-es-Salaam together with the memory card that contained the pictures from our visit to the dhow building site outside Stone Town. The shape of the boats here seems to differ somewhat from those in Nungwi. The stern appears to be squarer and has less deadrise. The reason could be that these here seem to be destined for seine-net fishing under engine, so more buoyancy is needed for the outboard engine and for handling the heavy net.

Nail making

The nails for fastening the various parts of plank-built dhows are made by hand in rather make-shift roadside smithies. The raw material are industrial screw bolts. They are heated to a yellow in a simple blow furnace fed by two bellows that are operated manually by a worker. Then bolts are picked up with tongs and converted into pointed four-sided bars by the nail-smith and his mate squatting around a small anvil. They then push the raw nail back into charcoal to be reheated.

The smithy
Nailsmith (left) and mate (right) Working fast

The head-maker picks the raw nail from the furnace and inserts it into a piece of flat steel with a suitably sized hole that serves as a die. He then uses an old wheel hub as anvil and forms the head with a few blows of his hammer. When finished the nail is knocked out from the die and thrown onto a pile of others to cool down. The four men together produce about one nail per minute

Head-maker's anvil
At the beginning
Finished head
Nail released
Cooling nails


ANONYM (1979): Oman, a Seafaring Nation.- 196 p., Sultanate of Oman (Min. of Information and Culture).

CHETHAM, M. (1950): Dhows in East Africa.- Counrty Life, CVIII: 1803-7.

FALCK, W.E. (2014): Boats and Boatbuilding in Tanzania (Dar-es-Salaam and Sansibar).- Int. J. Nautical Archaeology, 43(1): 162–173.

‘FULAHIN’ (1928): Coasting East Africa by Dhow.- Blue Peter, V: 449-52.

GILBERT, E. (1998): The Mtepe: regional trade and the late survival of sewn ships in East African waters.- Int. J. Naut. Archeol., 27(1): 43-50.

HADDON, A.C. (1918): The Outrigger Canoes of East Africa.- Man, XVIII: 49-, London.

HAWKINS, C.W. (1977): The Dhow – an illustrated history of the Dhow and its World.- 143 p., Lymington (Nautical Publishing Co.).

HORNELL, J. (1919): The Affinities of East African Outrigger Canoes.- Man, XIX: ?-?, London.

HORNELL, J. (1920): The Common Origin of the Outrigger Canoes of Madagaskar and East Africa.- Man, XX: 177-178, London.

HOWARTH, D. (1977): Dhows.- 159 p., London (Quartet Books Ltd.).

JEWELL, J.H.A. (1976): Dhows at Mombasa.- 103 p., Nairobi (East African Publ. Ho.).

MONDFELD, W. (1979): Die Arabische Dau.- 93 p., Bielefeld (Verlag Delius, Klasing & Co.).

MOORE, Sir A. (1940): Notes on Dhows.- The Mariner’s Mirror, 26(2): 205-13.

SULIVAN, G.L. (1873): Dhow Chasing in Zanzibar Waters and on the Eastern Coast of Africa. Narrative of Five Years’ Experiences in the Suppression of the Slave Trade.- X+453 p.

WIEBECK, E., WINKLER, H. (2000): Segler im Monsun. Die Dau am Indischen Ozean.- 130 p., Rostock (Neuer Hochschulschriftenverlag).

WINKLER, H. (2009): Segler vor Ostafrika. Die Trimarane der Fischer.- 113 p., Berlin (trafo Wissenschaftsverlag).

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