pictures for larger versions 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.
sail and getting under way, Stone Town harbour,
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, 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).
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
, 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.
used for angling
being hauled ashore
Dugout used as a
tender for a dhow
without plank extensions
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.
extended dugouts without outriggers fitted
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
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.
details of extended dugouts with two outriggers (Ngalawa)
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.
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.
dhows at Nugwi, Zanzibar
A large number of smaller dhows with a
clipper-like bow are employed in the seine-net fisheries.
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.
seine-net fishing dhows in Dar-es-Salaam
and mending nets on the beach of Nungwi, Zanzibar
harbour and beaching opposite Dar-es-Salaam
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.
dhows in the harbour of Stone Town, Zanzibar
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.
branches for knees etc.
mahagony for keels and posts
beginning: setting up the keel, stem and stern posts
Cleats to hold
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
stem post and keel
raw knee piece
Shaping a deadwood knee
with an adze
a deadwood knee to the stern post for fitting
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.
out for the bearding
and floor timbers
floor and keel
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.
and marking out for a scarf
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.
and fairing the planks
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.
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.
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.
(left) and mate (right)
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
At the beginning
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.
(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.
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:
HOWARTH, D. (1977): Dhows.- 159 p., London (Quartet