The shipwrights of Pulau Duyong work mostly from memory rather than set plans. For hulls, their preferred material is cengal, a wood whose toughness and imperviousness to termite attack make it prized not only for boats but also the best kampung houses. After the hull planking is fastened with strong hardwood pegs, a special sealant – derived from swampland trees, and resistant to rot – is applied. Unusually, the frame is fitted afterwards, giving the whole structure strength and flexibility. As construction takes place in dry docks, the finished boats have to be manoeuvred on rollers into the water, an effort that often requires local villagers to pitch in.
Historically, the boatyards produced schooners that ranged from humble fishing craft to the hulking perahu besar, up to 30m in length. These days however, motorized, modern alternatives to the old-fashioned wooden boats, the increasing cost of timber, plus the lure of other careers, have all contributed to a steep decline in local boat-building. Today fewer than five boatyards are still engaged in the business. With the fall in local demand for traditional working boats, any salvation for Duyong’s boat-building looks to lie in clients from around the world, who have been placing orders for all manner of bespoke craft.