Sailing skills in 'land of Sindbad'
Oman enjoys a coastline of 1,700 kilometers, with scenic harbours and a prime location on the edge of the Indian Ocean. It wouldn't be wrong to say that it was their expertise, be it as ship builders, sailors or navigators that helped shape the national character of the country.
As sailors and traders to places far and wide, they earned recognition as leaders of the seas. Over a period of time, Omani shipbuilding and navigational skills, combined with their understanding of seasonal vulnerabilities, helped create a niche for them. In those early days, the principal harbours and ports included Khasab, the inlets and fjords in the Musandam Peninsula, Sohar, Muttrah, Muscat, Qalhat and Sumerhan in Dhofar. Other places like Ras ai Hadd, Bander Jissa and Bandar Khayran also acted as staging posts for littoral sailors.
They proved to be ideal points, especially when the coastal area experienced turbulent weather. According to maritime history notes, Oman's natural harbor of Sumharam in Dhofar was the most important point in the entire Arabian Coast during the years, spanning from 100 BCto 100 AD; which is thanks mainly to the frankincense trade.
The level of coordination and trade established by the 8th century was of the highest order. With the extension of maritime activities, it seemed inevitable to establish trading missions with Omani representatives whose task was to establish sources of goods and also buyers for Omani importers. And since this task involved knowledge of the local language as well as the customs, it soon led to several new developments, most importantly the spread of Islam.
Modern history shows that by the 19th century they were adept at designing modern European warships which ensured the smooth expansion of trade between India, Africa and the Middle East. And the maritime tradition continues.
Early last year, Oman's maritime heritage received a pat on the back with the launch of its prestigious “Jewel of Muscat” which had been reconstructed in the likeness of its predecessor. It was put together during a ten-year period after painstakingly studying the techniques of ship building followed by artisans of past.
The project itself showcased Oman's fascination for the sea and the wealth of heritage it holds for the country. It brought attention to Oman's maritime history which is marked by a tradition of coastal trade as well as ship-building. This joint venture initiative between Oman and Singapore involved the reconstruction of a ninth century sewn-plank ship. It was rebuilt in Oman with the intention of tracing the famous ancient trade route in a voyage that was destined for Singapore after traveling to countries with which Oman is believed to have relations in the past that have continued till the present.
The idea for this project can be traced back to that fateful day in 1998 when a ship carrying more than 60 thousand pieces of Chinese ceramics, silver and gold artifacts, spices and other items were discovered in the Indonesian waters. It was brought to Oman where it was put together in Qantab. Ship builders worked from scratch using traditional techniques from the ninth century to recreate a replica of the ship, that was believed to have set sail from Omani waters. It was reminiscent of “Sohar” that was fashioned in the like of the vessels of the Middle Ages and was set sail to China as a tribute to Sindbad.
There is general consensus on Sindbad being the most famous sailor of all times. There are several anecdotes that add to the enigma of this great sailor, who is generally thought to be an Omani from Sur, He is believed to have sailed to China - although there is no mention of China in his tales of adventure. Nevertheless, in 1980, as an ode to the spirit of seafaring, the government backed historian and writer, Tim Severin, who replicated an early Omani ship. Called 'Sohar', the ship sailed from Muscat for the Chinese port of Guangzhou at the command of His Majesty the Sultan in 1980.
The vessel was made as a copy of the ships of the Middle Ages and navigated with the aid of suns and stars. What adds to the interest element of this venture is the modus operandi followed, similar to the “Jewel of Muscat”. Great attention was paid to make Sohar' into an exact replica of the boat that would have made an earlier voyage. As was done with 'Jewel', no nails were used and all the planking was sewn with about 400 miles of natural twine that was soaked in coconut oil. 'Sohar' retraced the ancient silk and spice trade route traversing along the Arabian Sea to India and then on to Sri Lanka, Sumatra and the Malacca Strait.
Like sailing, ship building too was an equally passionate affair, with craftsmen spread around the coastal areas, be it Sohar, Shinas, Muscat, Sur or Salalah. It was a traditional craft and certain families followed it, passing down their skills through the generations. Sohar, Shinas, Muscat, Sur, and Salalah were all homes to Oman's early ship builders. They worked without drawings or designs and used wooden templates to replicate the curves and symmetry of the hulls. As was done with 'Jewel' the hulls were sewn together with twine that was woven from coconut fibres that were made pliant by soaking in coconut oil. It is believed to have been imported from India, just like the wood.
Preferred wood was teak as well as another wood called 'Banteeg'. Wood from lotus jujube, Omani tree called 'Qarat' and Somalian 'Al Meet' were used to make the sides of the ship. As for the caulking, they used special cotton called 'Al Qalfaf. Tradition demanded that the craftsmen initiate the act of building the ship with a special ceremony that saw the slaughtering of a goat. This was followed by another ritual at the completion of the ship, whereby women from the community presented a specially braided rope, which was fixed to the ship to bring it good luck.
Although the builders followed a wooden replica to design their vessels, the size and shape depended on the purpose of the boat. It is believed that 'Al Ghajah , the largest boat had a cargo capacity that ranged between 150 and 300 tonnes. This is presumed to be equivalent to a decent sized container of the present day.
The baton of Oman's maritime heritage is in the right hands. Oman Sail, which was formed in December 2008 to rekindle the maritime spirit with the support from The Ministry of Tourism, has brought kudos to the country and its people. Formed with main objective of inspiring a new generation of young Omanis to take up sailing as recreation and as a competitive sport, it has to its credit the feat of seeing Mohsin Al Busaidi become the first Arab to sail around the world. He sailed alongside international team-mates for 76 days on Dame Ellen McArthur’s 75-foot trimaran, which was renamed “Musandam”, and made history in March last year.
The Oman Sail project covers hi-tech ocean sailing as well as high level inshore professional racing. These factors have been responsible for creating interest among young Omanis to gel on to a boat and live their dreams. One of the long term objectives of this project is to make sailing accessible to students at schools as well as young enthusiasts. And this in turn is expected to help develop a strong base of Oman Sail racing team as well as spur the progress of marine industry skills and the infrastructure to ensure a sustainable future for sailing in Oman.