Many admirers have described the Dhow as the most graceful of sailing vessels. For centuries the dhow plied the western trading routes of the Indian Ocean unchallenged. Commercial links forged between Asia and Africa thrived on the auspices of this vessel.

The first written account of dhows appeared in the Greek book, Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. Published in the mid-first century, the book also called Periplus of the Red Sea contained recordings of sailing itineraries and commercial, political, and ethnological details about the ports visited. Before maps even existed the book functioned as a combination atlas and traveller’s handbook. But before the Periplus of the Red Sea, the dhow already dominated the western ports of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

When Vasco da Gama arrived at Matondoni island, the pristine tourist site better known for its historic sites, he found people who believed that they were cursed into making a living from the sea. They were expert canoe and dhow makers. The sailor, history says, fell in love with these people’s craftsmanship – the Kenyan dhow.

Six centuries later, a fellow European, Marco Bruno, from Italy, left his country in 1965 to settle in Lamu. Like da Gama before him, the dhow captivated Marco. At the launch of Utamaduni, a Kenyan dhow commissioned by his son Marco Brighetti in 1994, he said, “This is the biggest moment of my life. I have always liked dhows. With something like this you can cruise along the entire Kenyan coast.”

While the Utamaduni never ran any maritime commercial ventures between the Persian Gulf and East Africa, its commissioning illustrated the love that some people attach to the dhow.

The Kenyan dhow evolved from the dau la mtepe. A dugout boat with matting sails, the dau la mtepe thrived at the coast until the dau la misumari replaced it two centuries ago. Apart from the use of nails in its construction, the dau la misumari had cloth sails and masts borrowed from the Persian Gulf.

In the 1870s, traveller G.L. Sullivan wrote the book, Dhow Chasing, in which he described the mtepe dhow thus:

The mtepe is the most remarkable and primitive of these vessels that can be seen anywhere. They are large barges built with strips of the bark of a tree sewn close together with thongs of hide and rudely caulked with rags of cotton.

The Bajuni of Pate island built the mtepe while the shipbuilders at Matondoni produced the Jahazi, its bigger version.

In its hay days, steered by the seasonal monsoon winds, the dhow was a workhorse of the sea. It ferried exotic cargoes of dates, Arab chests carved or studded with brass, carpets and spices from Arabia and India to the ports of East Africa. When the winds changed direction the fleet returned to the Persian Gulf ports with mangrove poles, cereals, gold, and ivory. It also carried an infamous cargo from the Arab slave trade – slaves.

The arrival of the Arabian dhow fleet at the Kenyan coast between January and April caused a flurry of activity in Mombasa. Elderly residents still recall the excitement as Arab seamen, in flowing white robes, toured the narrow streets of the Old Port announcing the arrival of their goods. Dates were sold or used for barter. Salt from Aden and Berbera was another popular commodity.

Other exotic cargoes included coffee pots, copper trays, curved Arab daggers from Muscat, Mangalore tiles from India, figs, almonds and dried or salted fish. Of course, the crews carried a few illegal items. They engaged in the lucrative occupation of smuggling ivory, gold and illegal drugs. One such craft arrived in Mombasa carrying cheap earthenware pots. The traders quickly snapped up the worthless goods. Behold the pots contained opium!

Dhow construction, an art in itself, evolved over the centuries. Until the end of the 15th century and the arrival in Africa of da Gama, dhows were built without using a single nail. The craftsmen sewed the boat together with coconut ropes and wooden pins. Dhows made outside East Africa were carved out of teak wood, the preferred wood for the hull as it is resistant to shipworms.

In more recent times, many of the larger dhows were built in Kuwait, Oman and Dubai using modern ship-building methods. Increasingly diesel engines were fitted for motoring in and out of port.

Arab seamen did not refer to their ships as dhows. They used more specific names according to the particular design. The most frequent visitor to Mombasa – the Boom – was a traditional dhow that narrowed to a point at both stern and bow. A Kuwait build, the majority measured about 30 M long, 7 M across and 3 M high. They had a displacement of between 150 and 210 tonnes.

Dhows with squared-off transoms were an adaptation dating from the arrival of the Portuguese. The Sambuk (Arabic for fast) was an example of this style. This quickly became the second most common dhow after the Boom.

The different types of dhow were also distinguishable by the amount of carving and colouring used for decoration. For instance, the ghanjah from Oman was intricately carved, both on the inside and the outside.

Dhow rigs were generally similar, with the enormous triangular white canvas sail raked backwards along a wooden boom, and secured to the mast by a morass of rope, blocks and pulleys. The only variation in the shape was that the sails of the Lamu dhows were triangular, whereas those of their larger cousins were usually rectangular.

Until World War II, the dhow season could be predicted with accuracy. It began with the ripening of the dates in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The fruit was packed at the port of Basra on the Persian Gulf and loaded onto the dhows from August onward. Indeed, dates were the universal currency of the Arabian ports, so much so that a dhow’s size was measured by the number of boxes of Basra dates it could carry.

From Basra, the ships sailed down the Arabian Gulf to Oman before heading west towards Aden. Some of the boats travelled east to India. Others sailed up the Red Sea and even carried pilgrims to Jeddah for the Haj. When the wind changed direction, they pushed out into the Indian Ocean, then across to the Horn of Africa.

In early times, navigation was based on stars. Da Gama, who in the 15th century charted the sea voyage from Europe to India through the Cape of Good Hope, close to Africa’s most southern tip, was greatly impressed by the Arabs’ ability to navigate by the heavens. In time, however, compasses became more widely used together with naval charts.

Life on board the dhow was hard. The crew slept on deck in virtually all weather and discipline was severe. The crew strictly adhered to the Muslim prayer times. Women passengers spent the entire journey locked in a cabin below the deck. Alan Villiers’ 1940 classic, The Sons of Sinbad, gives a first-hand account of his travels around the Indian Ocean with Arabs from Arabia on board these Dhows.

During the last leg of the journey down the coast of Africa, the dhow would make trading visits to the Somali ports of Mogadishu and Kismayu, and Lamu off Kenya’s northern coast. The island of Zanzibar traditionally made the final port of call.

However, the promise of gold lured some dhows further south to the port of Sofala on the coast of Mozambique. For the return voyage to Arabia, the merchants would load mangrove poles (boriti) for building. Coffee, tea, charcoal, lemon and lime, spices and cereals, also.

After unloading the dhow, it would await its turn for cleaning or careening. They dismasted the ship and lashed it to a frame. Every day during low tide, they would scrub the underwater timbers and carry out the repairs. The dhow would get a fresh, thick protective paste of lime and beef fat applied to its hull by hand. Its upper timbers also got a new coat of conditioning fish oil. The Nakhodka took great pride in the appearance of his vessel.

During the era of the Arab slave trade, slaves constituted lucrative cargo. The Arabs collected them from many parts of Africa and forced them to walk to the coast. From here, they loaded the unfortunate captives on the dhows. They crammed them below deck in often filthy conditions before shipping them to Arabia.

It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the importance of the dhow started declining. Notably, more than 200 foreign dhows visited Mombasa’s Old Port annually in the 1940s. Their number shrunk significantly. By the end of the 1970s, only an occasional dhow voyaged between Arabia and Mombasa.

Overtaken by modern state-of-the-art shipping and the attendant diesel engine-propelled boats, the transcontinental dhow trade is no longer viable. Technology has with time caught up with the elegant sailing boats, rendering them irrelevant as commercially useful vessels.

Thus a phenomenon that spans more than a millennium has, more or less, slipped into history. A visitor to the East African coast may, with luck, see the occasional graceful white triangle of a Kenyan dhow sail and the sleek lines of the wooden hull as it cuts through the warm Indian Ocean waters.

But these vessels only ply along the East African coast to trade. Tourists who want to get a taste of the region’s rich cultural heritage love them. But a whole culture is fading into history. The knowledge and the legends handed down from father to son are slowly dying.

The proud seamen, the nakhodas no longer walk the streets of Mombasa. Coming from among other places Oman, Iran and Kuwait, they offered a colourful site. Each with a different style of robe and headdress. Today, at the coast, you can catch the occasional, but nonetheless beautiful local Kenyan dhow. Operated by mostly tour companies, they serve to remind us of a more romantic bygone age.

While the vessel more or less belongs to the past, one can witness the art of dhow-making at Matondoni island. Vasco da Gama visited this very island more than 600 years ago. Hundreds of people travel to this island to observe the dying art of dhow making. Builders use traditional tools to cut timber and shape it into a boat. The favoured tree is the mgambo, a rare hardwood. These days one has to get permission from the forestry department to cut the tree.

It takes about two years and anything upwards of tens of thousands of shillings to make a Kenyan dhow. But this dhow does not draw power exclusively from wind (a diesel engine is more or less a compulsory fitting). Pomp and gaiety accompany the commissioning of a dhow. In the past, this involved among others, human sacrifice. Goats later replaced the use of humans.

The National Museums of Kenya has also come up with a project based at Fort Jesus Museum. It ensures that the art of dhow making lives on. Here, apprentices take a UNESCO-funded course intended to revive the traditional dhow-making skills and rekindle the particular aspects of Swahili culture.