Dhows and Traditional Boats
There are a variety of traditional boats found throughout the Swahili Coast, mainly used for fishing and transport.
The iconic triangular lateen sail of dhows along the coast is a wonderful sight, one that has changed little over the last 2,000 years. Traditional boats are intrinsically linked with the Swahili culture and the people who live here.
The four most well known kinds of traditional seacraft along the Swahili are coast can be split into two categories:
The first two kinds being dugout canoes, with the hull carved from a single piece of wood from a large tree trunk.
• Mtumbwi, a simple dugout found in sheltered coastal waters;
• The Ngalawa an unmistakable sailing outrigger canoe plying lagoons, creeks and near shore waters;
The second two kinds being traditional 'dhows' with a pointed bow and square stern - built from planks of wood being nailed and bound together by various methods. This design of vessel has its origins in Oman, and due to the seaworthiness of the vessel, availability of materials, the ease of maintenance, and the efficiency of the lateen sail, construction and use of these boats has spread throughout the Indian Ocean.
• Mashua a general name given to a variety of larger, ‘plank’ built traditional dhow with a square stern, often used for cargo transport, and fishing in the open waters;
• Jahazi - the grand dhow of the Indian Ocean, weighing as much as 30 tons and capabable of crossing thousands of miles of open ocean.
One theory on the origin of the design is said to come from the skeleton of a whale. With the backbone as the keel and the ribs forming the skeletal structure on which the wooden planking of the hull is fixed. With the frame of the hull complete, boat-builders fix more planks to form the decking. Remaining parts include long poles for the mast, and the spar (the long wooden pole - or poles) that the sail is tied to; and of course the rudder and rigging.
Other influences on the design of these boats and dhows come from seafring nations further afield. The outriggers of the Ngalawa possibly inspired by similar design in Indonesia and Polynesia. The square stern of the dhows not dissimilar to the Portugese galleons that bought explorers such as Vasco da Gama to the Swahili Coast in the 16th century.