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Friday, April 7, 2017

The Vattai of Tamil Nadu

Examples of traditional frame-first boat construction in Asian cultures are rare. Throughout the Far East, Middle East and east Africa, shell-first construction of planked boats is the norm, where it is used for everything from sampans and junks to dhows. One of the few exceptions is the vattai, an open, sail-powered, flush-planked (carvel) fishing boat common in the state of Tamil Nadu, in India’s southeast.

A vattai in Tamil Nadu
A vattai in Tamil Nadu. Source: Blue (click any image to enlarge)
The vattai is described by Lucy Blue in “The Historical Context of the Construction of the Vattai Fishing Boat and Related Frame-First Vessels of Tamil Nadu and Beyond,” published in Ships and the Development of Maritime Technology in the Indian Ocean (David Parkin and Ruth Barnes, editors; Routledge, 2016). The information and images in this post are from that article.

To quote Dr. Blue:
"Vattai, are flat-bottomed, have a box-like transverse section and are near wall-sided over much of their length. They range in size from around 13.72m long, with a beam of 2.13m and a depth of 1.37m, to the smallest vessels of c. 5.18m x 1.07m x 0.76m. However, irrespective of their size, they are all similar in shape with very high bows, and two or three masts each with a settee-lateen sail, a balance board, and, uniquely on this coast, leeboards."
The design process is of much interest. A single mould form or template is used to lay out most of the frames on a scrieve board, the form being flipped to draw the port and starboard half-breadths. (Forms for different boats differ from one another, apparently, only in the radius of the curve that joins their two straight, right-angled legs.) Since the boat’s cross-section (half-breadth shape) is constant across its entire midbody, a single shape drawn on the scrieve board suffices to define most of the frames, and this follows the exact shape of the form laid square to the edges of the scrieve board.

Use of mould form and scrieve board to design a vattai boat
Use of the mould form and scrieve board (A) to create the shapes of the "equal" frames for the midbody (B,C,D), and the progressively narrower frames toward the ends (E, F, G). 
Fore and aft of the “equal” frames that constitute the midbody, each of the next three progressively narrower frames at the bow has an identical counterpart in the stern. These frames that define the ends are derived from the same mould form according to a formula that defines how far in from the scrieve board’s upper edge and how far up along the diagonal the form is placed. By rotating and raising the form, different frame shapes may be drawn to create the narrowing and flare of the hull’s ends. The final three frames in the very bow and stern, however, are not drawn or gotten out at this time.

In the boat recorded by Blue, there were 15 “equal” frames for the midbody plus 12 “unequal” ones, evenly divided between the bow and stern. The midsection always consists of an odd number of frames – the central master frame, and equal numbers of identical frames fore and aft of it. The design can be readily made longer by the addition of more equal frames in the midbody with no changes to the ends, and made wider starting with a wider scrieve board but using the same mould form. Rules of thumb establish ratios between length, breadth, depth, and frame spacing, so the builder’s discretion to make changes is limited mainly to his choice of the mould form and number of frames.

Vattai construction drawing
Vattai construction drawing
Frames are built up from floor timbers and futtocks, which are assembled with “a complex dovetail joint” that “extends right through the turn of the bilge.” The vattai has no backbone, so apparently the frames are set up on the straight, flat bottom planking, which must be laid down first. Stem and sternpost are butted with a lap joint against the ends of the central bottom plank. The article states variously that the shapes of the very ends are determined by battens (ribbands) or by laid planking between the midbody frames and the end posts. Whichever is truly the case, these define the shapes of the three final pairs of half-frames at each end. Only in these final three sets of frames do the shapes of the vattai’s bow and stern differ. They are installed without floors, their lower ends overlapping fore-and-aft where they land on top of, or are notched onto, the stem and sternpost. (This detail can’t be determined from the drawing.)

I have been unable to find any other photos, descriptions or even references to the vattai through Google searches and would welcome additional input. There is much else I’d like to know, including:
  • whether the planks have a caulking bevel, and the materials (if any) used for caulking
  • the design process for the end profiles (i.e., whether the stem and sternpost shapes are determined by template or drawn by eye.) 
  • details of the rig and leeboards
  • details of usage: crew size, responsibilities, sailing procedures and performance

I would also much like to see additional photos. Google image searches for terms like “fishing boat Tamil Nadu” yield a number of stock photos of open fishing boats that do not appear much like the vattai (the distinctive bow shape is an easily-noticed identifying characteristic), and nothing else even close. Please communicate in the comments if you can add to the discussion.


  1. Hi Robert,
    I also couldn’t really find much about these boats, but after using the location Rameswaram and others adjacent , a few hits showed up.
    The first was this tenuous hit:
    https://gcmouli.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/boat1.jpg and then another http://wikitravel.org/upload/shared//7/79/Rameswaram_Banner.jpg
    and then back from the coast into the Muthupet Lagoon of all places:
    and here’ s a few more while the links last:
    a dead ringer for the photo you show:
    and http://il8.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/8583169/thumb/1.jpg
    and the piece de resistance image:
    I guess a real question could be: ‘why are these boats so hard to find’ – especially as they were supposedly so ubiquitous in fairly recent times [Boats of SouthEast Asia – McGrail et al]? I think it’s a 4 part answer: 1) Looking at your photo and the two ringers above, one can see that even small pieces of odd shaped wood was utilized in their construction. This highlights the issue that wood is getting precious here to the extent that all is being used no matter how haphazard the build. [evokes the problems in some Egyptian boats and Oceanic boats where the ecology was devastated to the extent that every scrap was used] 2) Building upon this, the amazing rise of GRP longtail powered light skiffs that now seem to be everywhere for most all fishing for 5 -8 people. [Incidentally, these skiffs are a very provocative design: high bow sim. to the Vattai, rectangular sctn. like the Vattai, rounded rear bilge that maybe give rear maneuverability like the Vatai – but very light, very burdensome, cheap, and oh so able!] 3) That all wood boats in this area are being subject to increased deterioration due to less time spent on upkeep and loss of boatbuilding expertise, and probably most importantly of all 4) I bet the 2004 tidal wave devastated these areas and destroyed the bulk of the wooden Vattai stock and that also is why the GRP skiffs are so commonplace now.
    Anyway, just guesses. I haven’t looked in Hornell, but Boats of SouthEast Asia has 43 pages on the Vattai and its relation to others and has many more illustrations and photos. But it does mention that the highish upturned bow may be a recent development after the early 1900s and so other boats with a lower but acute shaped may also be in the game similar to the very first photo I mentioned.

    mick allen

  2. [I placed the following comment incorrectly at the end of the previous month's post]:
    The book mentioned is 'Boats of South Asia', not 'South East'.
    -mick allen

    1. Mick,
      Thanks so much for this input and for digging into the questions I posed. The photos you linked to add so much to an appreciation of these boats, and I urge readers to copy/paste the URLs into their browsers and take a look. (I wish comments could include live links, but alas...) Given that you found several recent photos, I wonder if the vattai is indeed in serious decline. But assuming it is, your speculations about the decline seem reasonable, except that I wonder about the availability of usable boatbuilding woods. A couple of the photos you linked to show heavily forested land in the background (although of course it might not yield good boat lumber). I'll have to get my hands on McGrail's "Boats of South Asia" (oh darn, another book for my library!) and learn more about the vattai. (thumbs-up icon!)