Contemporary Wooden Fishing Craft of Yemen

by Edward Prados
1021 Arlington Blvd., #931
Arlington, VA 22209
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Yemen Update 40:#2
[posted April, 1998]

Along Yemen's two coasts, the Tihama and the Gulf of Aden, one may still observe hundreds of wooden fishing-craft along the shore or anchored in the shallows. Although many fisher mannow operate both locally-built and imported fiberglass boats, the wooden vessels of Yemen continue in productive employ. Because wooden boats are still used, there remains an active industry in boat manufacture and repair, affording observers the opportunity to witness a number of ancient tools and techniques.

This report on the status of wooden boats and boat building in Yemen is based upon research that I conducted from October 1993 to May 1994 under the auspices of a Fulbright Grant. The goals of the grant were to conduct an archaeological survey of the coast and to analyze the situation of traditional maritime culture and technology in Yemen. The comprehensive nature of the research required that I travel most of the Yemeni coast, from Mîdî in the Tihama north, to Sayhût in al-Mahra. Along the Gulf of Aden coast, I surveyed an almost continuous stretch from the ‘Amran Peninsula west of Aden to Sayhut. The Tihama'stopography afforded little opportunity for continuous travel; however, I was able to visit the towns of Mîdî,al-Luhayyah, Khawbah, al-Salif, and al-Hudayda. From Kataba (tenkilometers north of al-Khawkha) to al-Mukha, a continuous stretch of the coast was surveyed.

One of the most striking and immediate results of the survey was the disparity in the status of wooden boat building between the two coasts. The findings, unquestionably the result of the two regions' different political experiences, require separate analyses.

South Arabian Coast

Although wooden vessels may still be observed along most of the South Arabian coast, there is little evidence of a permanent boat building industry in the region. The only boatyard that I observed was located at Ma'alla, Aden, the dhow harbor. All other boat-work in the former PDRY appears to be effected by itinerant carpenters. It is here that fiberglass manufacture has made its greatest inroads into traditional boat building, and I observed fiberglass manufacturing operations in Aden, al-Mukalla, andal-Shihr.

fig. 1 The hûrî

Of the traditional craft that remain, there are two primary types. The first is the hûrî (pl. huwârî) (fig. 1). The hûrî,essentially a dugout canoe, is not uniquely Arabian.(1) Most huwârî were carried as speculation by dhow captains from the Indian subcontinent to Arabia.(2) Upon reaching Arabia, however, many of the craft were extensively modified by local carpenters. Often, a keel was attached; less frequently, stem and stern posts were also fashioned. Thwarts were added and Indian ornamentation was removed. A mast step, placed well-forward of amidships, was installed in most fishing huwârî. Apair of broad sheer strakes&emdash; one strake on each side&emdash;were the most conspicuous additions by the Yemeni craftsmen to the huwârî. The builders mounted the strakes to increase the vessel's marginal free board.(3) In recent years, these sheer strakes have been sprung apart abaft, creating at ransom (square stern) out of previously double-ended craft. Thet ransom allows the operator of the vessel to mount an outboard engine, a form of locomotion that has almost entirely replaced sail.

fig. 2. Details of a sewn sanbûq

The other vessel type most frequently observed in South Arabia is the sewn sanbûq (pl.sanâbîq) (fig. 2). The planks of this craft are stitched together, originally with coir, more recently, with nylon thread. This practice, most likely Indian in origin, is complemented by the use of planking tree nails for enhanced structural integrity.(4)

The sewn sanbûq, which has merited relatively little attention, is an important remnant of the sewn tradition that dominated Indian Ocean littoral boat construction before direct European contact in the sixteenth century A. D. A double-ended vessel that rarely exceeds ten meters in size, the sewn sanbûq is used primarily for fishing, although during the heyday of dhow-borne shipping, it was also used as a lighter.

My research trip was made just in time.Observations and discussions with locals and other scholars have revealed that sewn wooden boat construction has ceased on the Arabian Sea coastline and fiberglass huwârî are replacing the older sewn vessels. The same sewn boats in Oman's Dhofar province also seem to face imminent extinction: the last such craft was reportedly built in 1977.(5) Although some sewn sanâbîq remain in active use, these too will disappear with the steady passage of time.

A larger craft type known as the sâ'iya may also be observed along the South Arabian coast. This cargo and fishing vessel was used extensively before the advent of the modern coastal highway. A transom-sterned version of the classic (non-sewn) sanbûq, the sâ'iya today is also a dying breed. An excellently-preserved specimen, however, maybe observed on land at the site of an incipient maritime museum inal-Hâmî (fig. 3).

fig. 3. Sâ'iya craftat Maritime Museum in al-Hâmî

The Tihama Coast

In marked contrast to the South Arabian coast, wooden boat building thrives in the Tihama. Builders(najjâr, sg.) there manufacture two types of craft: the double-ended sanbûq and the smaller, transom-sterned hûrî. In addition, fishermen use and maintain small rafts&emdash;bundles of lashed jungle crooks&emdash;known appropriately as khashaba (wood), and used primarily for beach-seining and checking crab pots and coastal nets.

Although the hûrî andsanbûq craft-types share the names of vessels on the South Arabian coast, the Tihama craft differ significantly from Southern huwârî and sanâbîq. Inthe Tihama, both craft are plank-built and iron-fastened. Variants of both reach much greater sizes as well along the Tihama; I measure done sanbûq that was twenty-six meters in length overall(LOA). In the Tihama, huwârî are the dominant Yemeni vessel-type; they outnumber sanâbîq by approximately ten to one.

Al-Luhayya, Khawbah, al-Hudayda, Kataba, andal-Khawkha are Yemen's key boat building centers. Al-Khawkha is the largest building center; there I observed over sixty wooden boat sunder construction. According to boat builder MahmûdMu‘allim, the town's preeminence as a major building center is new; previously only a few shipwrights built or repaired craft there.Prior documentary sources do not even mention the town as a boat building center.

fig. 4. At work with an adze neara hûrî under construction

Tihama builders use a variety of traditional tools. Most notable are adzes, which have disappeared from the tool kits of Western boat builders. Builders chop casually mere inches from their exposed toes with these potentially lethal instruments (fig.4). Bow drills are also frequently used; the operator plays the tool like a fine violin. Other manual mainstays include chisels, hammers,and saws. There are, however, power-tool equivalents at use in most of the villages as well. Electric drills are displacing the laborious bow drills for preparing fastener holes. Chain saws are used thoroughly shape large frames. Perhaps the most notable new tool sighting (one that did not exist when I arrived) was a power planerat al-Khawkha. Widespread use of the power planer could signal the end of the adze in Yemeni boat building, although the planer was not used for the athwart ship sides of the frames.

Materials are both procured domestically and imported. Wooden planks are imported from a variety of locales;builders listed Russia, Sweden, and Italy as sources. Framing for the craft, on the other hand, is obtained locally, from the west-ward facing slopes of Yemen's Harâz range, which parallels the Red Sea. Iron and copper for fasteners are imported, but village blacksmiths manufacture both the fasteners locally.

Yemeni shipwrights use a number of creative and unique methods in building their craft. At al-Khawkha andal-Luhayya, builders practice keel-last hûrîconstruction, beginning with the garboard strakes (mâlkî), the two strakes nearest the keel(hirâb). This method is in direct opposition to the typical boat building practice of laying the keel first. At Khawba, builders do not even bother with the garboards; they hang the sheer strakes (darâba; top planks) first, suspending them above the garbage-strewn ground with makeshift splints. Planks(lihâm) and frames (hadrûs; khums) are then laid concurrently, with the transom (shanda) inserted above the waterline. Only near the end of construction, once the craft'sshell has largely been completed, are keel, stem, and sternposts added.

At Kataba and al-Hudayda, builders do lay the backbone (keel, stem, and sternpost) first. At Kataba, however,builders continue to fasten the planks together with tree nails (as with the South Arabian sanbûq), as well as iron fastenings (mismâr). Sanâbîq at allocations are built similarly to keel-first huwârîas at al-Hudayda, although no transom is added to this double-ended craft.

With only a few exceptions, the hûrî is powered by one or two outboard engines (Yanmar is the engine of choice). I did see a few, small huwârî that relied upon sail (shira') for power, as well as several larger ones that rigged makeshift sails to take advantage of a fair breeze. All sanâbîq are powered by single- screw, diesel inboard engines. Some also have the capability to mount a sail, should the need or opportunity arise(fig. 5).

fig. 5. View of sanbûq construction at al-Khawkha boatyard


Yemen's two coasts, which have been shaped by divergent historical and political forces, exhibit marked disparities in boat construction. In Yemen's South Arabian coast,under the domain of the former Marxist Peoples' Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) until 1990, government sought to destroy power bases of the local merchant class and private entrepreneurs and to nationalize all capitalistic industry.(6) The traditional dhow trade and wooden boat building were remnants of an antiquated, mercantile past unsuited, in the view of the socialist leadership, for the twentieth century.

PDRY modernized its fishing fleet during the1970s by purchasing modern steel trawlers and encouraging the use of fiberglass vessels, following the mandates of a 1969 nationalization law.(7) During this era, the Tihama, uninfluenced by the ideals of socialism, poor and isolated, and under the rule of a conservative,tribal-based government, changed little. Builders continued to create craft in towns, such as al-Luhayya, as they had for generations.

I was fortunate to arrive in Yemen at a pivotal time. Unlike previous nautical researchers, who have been forced to choose one or the other coast because of political divisions, I was able to conduct an extensive, comparative analysis. Accessibility and transportation improvements allowed me to survey almost every appropriate locale. I found that despite Yemen's rapid rush into the twentieth century, traces of traditional maritime culture and technology still remain on both coasts. However, my study revealed that this culture is being displaced by new, foreign elements; as a result, maritime technology is adapting and evolving rapidly. In my research, I was able to compile an extensive photographic, textual, and structural record of Yemeni boat building. Ships' lines&emdash;accurate, three-dimensional hull renderings&emdash; of all major Yemeni craft-types have been preserved and are in the process of publication.

Although wooden boat building does persist in Yemen, the country continues to be racked by massive changes and altered by modernization. When the trade ceases to be economically viable, it will disappear. There is little nostalgia or interest in preserving what may well be the last, economically-viable, wooden boat building region in the Middle East. Once the builders are gone,the wisdom and accumulated experience of four thousand years of continuous Arabian boat building will quietly disappear.

1 R. B. Serjeant, The Portuguese off the South Arabian Coast (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 133; and Sir Alan Moore, Last Days of Mast and Sail: An Essay in Nautical Comparative Anatomy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925; reprint, Camden, ME: Marine Publishing Co., 1970), 132 (page references are to reprint edition).

2 Richard LeBaron Bowen Jr., "Primitive Watercraft of Arabia," The American Neptune 12 (July 1952): 198; and James Hornell, "A Tentative Classification of Arab Sea-Craft," The Mariner's Mirror 28 (January 1942): 30.

3 Ibid.

4. Mohammed Zaki Nour, et al., The Cheops Boat, Part I, Antiquities Department of Egypt (Cairo: General Organization for Government Printing Offices, 1960), 48; and Lionel Casson, Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 12.

5 [William Facey and Esmond Martin Bradley], Oman: A Seafaring Nation ([Muscat]: Ministry of Information and Culture, 1978), 146, 176.

6 Helen Lackner, PDR Yemen: Outpost of Socialist Development in Arabia (London: Ithaca Press, 1985), 149-51.

7 Lackner, PDR Yemen, 193-94; and, Robert Stookey, South Yemen: A Marxist Republic in Arabia (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982), 12.

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