Oman was formerly famous for the excellence of its boats and the skills of its sailors, whose maritime expertise – backed up by a detailed understanding of the workings of the local monsoon (a word derived from the Arabic mawsim, meaning “season”) – laid the basis for the country’s far-reaching commercial network, and for its string of colonies in East Africa. Boats were formerly built at centres all along the coast, though only the one at Sur now survives – offering a fascinating glimpse into an almost vanished artisanal tradition.
The word dhow is generally used to describe all traditional wooden-hulled Arabian boats, although locals distinguish between a wide range of vessels of different sizes and styles. The traditional Arabian dhow – such as the large, ocean-going boom – was curved at both ends, while other types – such as the sambuq and ghanjah – boasted a high, square stern, apparently inspired by the design of Portuguese galleons. Traditional dhows were driven by enormous triangular lateen sails (a design which allowed them to sail much closer to the wind than European vessels), although these have now been replaced by conventional engines. Another peculiarity of the traditional dhow was its so-called stitched construction – planks, usually of teak, were literally sewn together using coconut rope, although nails were increasingly used after European ships began to visit the region.
For a fascinating insight into traditional Omani boat-building, seafaring and navigation, read Tim Severin’s entertaining The Sindbad Voyage; Severin’s specially commissioned dhow – the Sohar – was built in Sur and now sits in the middle of a roundabout in Muscat.