Built to last
As the spotlight turns to the Al Gaffal Dhow Race this month and Emirati sailors gear up to compete, Concierge takes a closer look at this humble vessel to discover its enduring appeal and cultural significance in a world of megayachts and imposing cruise liners
Unlike the Western construction model, Arab dhow building begins with the stem and stern posts, followed by the rough unfinished hull planks, usually made from teak, that are held in place with supporting ribs or templates. The internal reinforcing framework is introduced once the hull nears completion. Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of holes are hand-drilled to avoid splitting the wood, and long thin nails swathed in oiled fibre secure the planks to the frames. Remarkably, the whole process remains credibly intuitive and organic. Plans and drawings are eschewed in favour of the eye and gut feel, and measurements are entirely experience-led. At all times, overall accuracy is orchestrated and overseen by a master craftsman, who guides the vessel into error-free, seaworthy shape.
Dhows are safeguarded against wear and tear below the water line with a mixture of animal fat and sand, which prevents aerodynamically disruptive barnacles from taking root. Usually, dhows are removed from the water once a year for a thorough cleanse, as well as a new coat of oil inside and out. Although mostly powered by petrol engines these days, a traditional dhow usually has a minimum of two triangular sails. Some dhows have a single large sail known as lateens.
Different types of sails are sewn according to individual requirements. For more thrust, a less flat sail with fuller luff tends to be used. The most stunning of dhows are always equipped with ornate, filigreed decorations. The whole production can take up to ten months, although smaller versions of the dhow can be finished between one and four months, depending on intensity of work and the size and ability of the team.