Dhows, once a crucial part of Dubai's pearling and trade industries, have long been in decline.
Turned into restaurants, or put on display as artefacts of another era, no longer are they built to travel the high seas or beyond the Arabian Gulf.
But at a quiet dockyard in Jadaf, one family is on a mission to preserve the tradition – and break new ground. Here, the Al Falasi family is building what they claim to be the world's biggest dhow.
Obaid bin Juma bin Suloom Launch Repairing Establishment, run by brothers Ahmed and Majid Al Falasi, is building the world's largest dhow – a 6,000-tonne capacity, 84.5-metres long, 9.75m-tall ship, with a width of more than 12m.
"We're not doing this for our family only, but for our country, and Dubai, actually. We're going to submit it to the Guinness Book of Records and, Inshallah, get our name and our tradition in the Guinness Book of Records,” says Ahmed Al Falasi with a smile.
Construction of the dhow began in January and is expected to take 25 people about eight more months to complete. Asides from an electric wood cutter and a crane, everything is done by hand.
From the outside, the wooden vessel is majestic, an enormous work of art. The interior is a network of beams and girders forming a rigid skeleton, secured by nuts, bolts and welding. Although the company used to import wood from Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, it now brings in tens of thousands of tonnes of bilinga and other wood from Africa.
When finished, the dhow will be placed on an inflatable tube, launched into the water, and fitted with engines at the adjacent main Jadaf dockyard.
From there, tugboats will guide it into the creek. Once operational, the ship will require a crew of up to 30, although the company will not run the trade routes itself.
At present, it charters its six ships to traders. They mainly export loose cargo, ranging from juice to cars, to Somalia, and return bearing charcoal and cattle. This is the last remaining dhow route, Mr Al Falasi says.
For the boat build, the company has purchased two engines, a forklift and other equipment. "It will have two engines – each 1,500 horsepower. You don't need that much speed, only 11 or 12 miles. You will reach there in six days,” he adds.
In the construction, the company not only adopts a traditional handmade approach but shuns modern shipbuilding methods.
"First of all, we make a small model,” says Mr Al Falasi. "We take the length, we take the girth and everything, and we make small centimetres-long samples. After that, we put it in the water and see how it does.
"Our father had a lot of experience in this job. If there was a mistake somewhere he could tell you by sight. Our foreman is like this. My brother is also like this. If he sees anything he will tell you. But we don't work from a map.” Everything, he adds, "is here”, pointing to his head.
The company was founded by the Al Falasis' father, and legendary shipwright Obaid bin Juma Al Falasi, in 1972, a year after the UAE was founded.
From a long line of seafarers, he began as a fisherman and started a water taxi of sorts, rowing people from Deira to Bur Dubai, before captaining his own ship.
Eventually, Saif Bil Ghaizi, a man Mr Al Falasi calls Dubai's master builder, took the senior Al Falasi under his wing.
After receiving a trade licence, he began building small fishing boats – with a staff of 10 – at Al Hamriya. In 1978, he started on his first dhow, a 350-tonne boat, in Karachi, where he honed his skills.
"He brought it here the next year and when it got here, a lot of people thought, ‘What? This is huge. What will he load this with? Where will he get the cargo for this dhow? Where will he take it?'”
He loaded it in Karachi, and founded the line from Dubai to Somalia, Mr Al Falasi says.
He then travelled the route himself, studying the seas, the seasons, and the intricacies of how different parts of the dhow interacted with the forces of nature.
"He gained experience and every time he built a new dhow he would make it stronger in different parts than before.”
Even when the company lost dhows to violent weather and engine fires over the years, his attitude remained positive.
"My father never thought about what he lost. ‘No problem – we've lost this one, another is on fire – khalas. We will make a new one. We are builders. We will build a new one'.”
Twenty years after building his first dhow, however, disaster struck. The vessel sank while carrying wood from Karachi.
"That time, he cried,” admits Mr Al Falasi. "Because this was the first one he built at the factory, he took care of all the families there and this boat started everything here.
"He had lost four or five dhows before that and didn't even think about it. But, for this one, he cried.”
He persevered, however, and built larger and stronger boats.
"One by one, we built a 400-tonne boat, then 500 tonnes, 600 tonnes, and now we are building a 6,000-tonne boat.”
Asides from the profitable Somalia line, the company also builds wooden yachts for customers around the world. One example, a 47.5m vessel, sits in the dockyard, designed by a French customer and built by the Al Falasis.
"Everybody likes wooden yachts – there's one in the marina and maybe four or five on the creek.”
Despite some trade routes to Iraq and Yemen remaining open, most of the routes have shut.
While the creek still buzzes with small Indian boats, and 80 to 150-tonne Iranian ships, docking large dhows for weeks is not profitable anymore. Consequently, the GCC, once a hub of dhow-building activity, has seen its traditional builders hang up their tools.
"In Dubai, there used to be three or four small companies like us who made fishing boats, small boats, and boats for tourists. All these companies have closed.
"In Abu Dhabi there were three or four, and there was one in Ras Al Khaimah. Kuwait also stopped, Qatar stopped, Bahrain stopped.
"There's a little work in Oman – people making small fishing boats in Sur, but I think that has also stopped. They used to come to us for wood, but nobody has been here for three or four years.
"If you want to continue doing this job, you must love this job,” he says.
"We cannot tell you if in one year or four years the Somalia line will still be running. But every year we make a dhow. When we finish this one, we will make another one. We have workers here. We cannot leave our business – this is our father's business and our tradition.”
Because of the experience-based, rather than academic, nature of dhow building, the industry's decline puts the future of the tradition at peril. To make things worse, passion is in short supply among today's youth, Mr Al Falasi says.
While he hopes younger brothers Juma and Yousef will carry on the torch, that makes just four out of his 17 siblings who are passionate about the industry.
"Children today like to sit at home, watch movies, play PlayStation. That's it. Every child today has an iPad, a telephone – khalas, what will he think? Now, you have three-year-olds that know how YouTube works,” he says.
"When we were children we made games by hand. We went from Hamriya to Bur Dubai by bicycle. We were outside from morning until evening. Now you can go anywhere in Dubai and you won't see a child outside. They're home playing video games.”
Mr Al Falasi and his older brother, Majid, were introduced to their craft at a young age. At nine, he would go straight from school to the dockyard every day. "We didn't see any books. Homework? No homework,” he says with a laugh.
The pair travelled to Karachi with their father when they were 12 and 14 years old. The journey should have taken three days in good weather, but took five.
"At that time, the sea started getting rough in June,” he says grimacing, then laughing. "It was our first time travelling on the sea, and we were on a small boat. Me and my brother started vomiting.”
However, they soon found their sea legs. Even to this day, Mr Al Falasi has to go to the dockyard each day. Even just four days away from the dockyard gives him headaches. He hopes to encourage schools to take children on trips to observe and engage with the tradition.
His brother, Juma, 21, visits the dockyard every spare moment he has. He says he grew passionate about dhow building when their father died five years ago.
"I said to myself, ‘It's our history; we should learn it. We should try to save it'. Now there's my brothers, but everyone will go. We should work on it for the future, to put our father's name in the sky,” he says.
An image of the elder Al Falasi hangs in the office. The family is interested in writing a book about their father, although Mr Al Falasi believes dhow-building must be lived.
He points to a miniature dhow and says: "This is our traditional design – it's called Al Boom. Now, we use Pakistani designs for the shape, which we call ‘lanch'. The Indian style has the same shape at the front as the back, but we make the back round so you have much more capacity.
"But I can bring in some local guys and ask them what this is called. Some people might know because their fathers are fishermen. But most people won't.”
Pointing to various parts of the boom, he speaks in Emirati terminology: meel, saada, bees, louh, shalmar. "There's a lot of names. Who knows them?,” he asks.
Source: The National