The Dhow has been described as the most graceful of sailing vessels. This is the vessel which, for centuries, plied the western trading routes of the Indian Ocean. It was the prime mover in commercial links between Asia and Africa.

The first written account of dhows was made in the Greek book, ‘Periplus of the Erythrean Sea’ (also called Periplus of the Red Sea). The book is believed to have been written in the mid 1st century. But before its publication, the boats were a common feature in the western ports of the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

Indeed, it is said that when Vasco da Gama arrived at Matondoni island, the pristine tourist site better known for its historic sites, he found a people who believed that they were cursed into making a living from the sea. They were expert canoe and dhow makers. The sailor, it is said, 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, he was as awe-struck by the dhows. At the launch of the dhow, Utamaduni, 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 was certainly not meant for 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 dau la mtepe, a dugout boat with matting sails, which was replaced 2 centuries ago by dau la misumari. Besides the use of nails in their construction, the dau la misumari had cloth sails and masts which were introduced 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 mtepe was built by the Bajuni of Pate island while the jahazi, its bigger version, was built at Matondoni island.

Blown by the seasonal monsoon winds, these wooden crafts, in their heyday, carried 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, ivory and – during the era of 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, smuggling of ivory, gold and illegal drugs was a lucrative occupation for many dhow crews.

One craft is said to have arrived in Mombasa carrying cheap earthenware pots. For apparently worthless goods they were snapped up quickly. The pots, it transpired, 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 the use of a single nail. The craft was sewn together with coconut ropes and wooden pins. Dhows made outside East Africa were carved out of teak wood, a preferred wood for the hull as it is resistant to ship worm.

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. Built in Kuwait, 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 huge 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. Muslim prayer times were strictly adhered to and women passengers spent the entire journey locked in a cabin below the deck. Alan Villier’s 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, trading visits would be made to the Somali ports of Mogadishu and Kismayu, and Lamu off Kenya’s northern coast. The final port of call was traditionally the island of Zanzibar.

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 ships were loaded with mangrove poles (boriti) for building, coffee, tea, charcoal, lemon and lime, spices and cereals.

Once the dhow had been unloaded, it would await its turn for cleaning or careening, The ship was dismasted, lashed to a frame, and each day while the tide was out, the underwater timbers were scrubbed and repairs carried out. A thick protective paste of lime and beef fat was then applied to the hull by hand. Fish oil was used to condition the upper timbers. The nakhoda took great pride in the appearance of his vessel.

During the era of the Arab slave trade, slaves were a lucrative cargo. From many parts of Africa they were forced to walk to the coast where they were loaded on the dhows, crammed below deck in often filthy conditions, and shipped 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 such that towards 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 dhow sail and the sleek lines of the wooden hull as it cuts through the warm Indian Ocean waters.

But these vessels are used only for trading along the East African coast or to give tourists a taste of the region’s rich cultural heritage. A whole culture is fading into history and the knowledge and the legends that were handed down from father to son are slowly dying.

The proud seamen, the nakhodas, from among other places Oman, Iran and Kuwait, each with a different style of robe and headdress, no longer walk the streets of Mombasa. Today the occasional, but nonetheless beautiful local dhow, usually operated by a tourist concern, serves as a reminder 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, the very same place that da Gama visited more than 600 years ago and found a people whose destiny was tied to boat making.

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 2 years and anything upwards of tens of thousands of shillings to make a dhow, which is no longer exclusively powered by 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. This was later replaced by goat sacrifice.

The National Museums of Kenya has also come up with a project based at Fort Jesus Museum to ensure that the art of dhow making is not totally forgotten. Here, apprentices take a course, funded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), intended to revive the traditional dhow-making skills and rekindle the particular aspects of Swahili culture.