Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An American Builder of Traditional Japanese Boats

Douglas Brooks is an America boatbuilder and scholar of boatbuilding, specializing in traditional Japanese small craft. He has apprenticed himself several times to Japanese builders to learn techniques associated with various types, such as the shimaihagi in the foreground of the photo above, and the tub boat, or taraibune, below.

He does lovely work, and a visit to his website is most worthwhile, both for the lovely pictures of these fascinating boat types and for his descriptions of his building experiences. (He also maintains the site in Japanese, here.) He builds boats for museum exhibits, and is the author of The Tub Boats of Sado Island; A Japanese Craftsman's Methods, which is also available through his website. An article by Douglas on tub boats is available on the Amateur Boat Building site.

Both photos courtesy Douglas Brooks

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lance Lee and Lansing Madura

I had the opportunity to meet Lance Lee twice this month, and to see the Indonesian fishing boat Lansing Madura, the building of which came about as an offshoot of Lance's Tremolino! project. Lance had the boat on display at the Maine Boats Homes & Harbors show in Rockland, Maine, and at a lecture at the new Sail, Power & Steam Museum, which is busy a-birthing, also in Rockland.

Lance has been at the forefront of the movement to merge boats with experiential education for decades. The founder the The Apprenticeshop and Atlantic Challenge, he is now involved in something he calls "The Tremolino! Project." This is actually a related series of projects that Lance chooses not to turn into a formal organization. Drawing inspiration from educator Kurt Hahn and author Joseph Conrad, Lance uses boatbuilding and seamanship as vehicles to teach self-reliance and internationalism, and to crusade against youth's propensity to prefer virtual reality over the real stuff.

Lansing Madura is a Java Sea fishing gole'an. She was built in Indonesia over the course of about six weeks by one of the few remaining native builders of this type of craft and members of his community, assisted and inspired by one of Lance's proteges, Brian McClellan, also associated with
Atlantic Challenge. The boat was built entirely with hand tools, with the objective of helping to revive the use of traditional boats to rebuild the local fishing fleets.

She is built entirely of teak in a shell construction method -- i.e., from the outside in. Virtually no metal fastenings were used -- she is pegged together. The most modern technology involved in her construction was the use of a come-along to pull the plank edges tight against each other. She uses a crab-claw rig with a good sized mainmast and a very small foremast -- I suppose you might call her a crab claw schooner?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Did a Sabani Show Up at the Olympics?

A year ago, a 32-year-old marine and sports promoter announced plans to sail a sabani from his home in Okinawa, Japan, to Beijing for the Olympics. Takuji Araki planned to have a crew of eight, including children (!) and to use no modern navigation equipment. (reference) I haven't heard anything about him or his project since -- did he do it?

The sabani is a traditional fishing boat native to the Japanese island of Okinawa. Dating back hundreds of years, the tradition of sabani building and use is still alive, thanks to two developments: newfound interest in racing them, and the adaptation of the form to accommodate an engine.

Sabani have a straight-sided, somewhat Bank-dory-like cross section, although with less flare. The stem is broad, and the stemhead is extraordinarily prominent, but it is the stern that is really distinctive. The hull narrows in aft of amidships in the normal fashion, but then flares again a few feet forward of the transom, making the boat appear fish-like in plan view. The transom is triangular, but not as narrow as a Bank dory's tombstone transom, and the load waterline is double-ended, or nearly so. They are quite narrow: I see a reference (here) to one with a length of 6.8 meters, beam of 1.3 meters, and depth of 47 cm. I'm not sure where the depth is measured, however. This appears to refer to a racing version, though, which might be narrower than the traditional working type. Modern, motorized versions apparently have the same length/beam ratio, but deeper draft. Like the Bank dory, the traditional sabani type has limited initial stability, but substantial secondary stability. (reference)

A motorized sabani

The bottom consists of a single, heavy plank, somewhat hollowed, dugout-fashion, and if a plank of sufficient length is unavailable, two or three sections may be joined end to end. The sides may consist of a single wide plank or two or three narrower ones. These are built up without metal fastenings, using a kind of keyed or dovetailed edge fastening similar to the method employed by the ancient Egyptians. Some appear to be lightly built, and others quite robust. They have the reputation of being fine sea boats.

Sabani are traditionally paddled or sailed with a fully battened lugsail. They are raced under paddle in a popular annual festival at Itoman, Okinawa, and in Hilo, Hawaii, which picked up the practice when it became a "sister city" to the city of Nago in Okinawa. A racing sabani carries single paddlers on the first and sixth thwarts, and two paddlers each on the second, third, fourth, and fifth. There is also a helmsman, presumably in the rear, although I see a reference to the helmsman in the bow (!) and a "standard bearer" in the stern on a seventh thwart. Perhaps the "helmsman" is really a coxswain only calling stroke? Racing sabani are sometimes referred to as "dragon boats," although they are quite different from Chinese dragon boats.

A racing sabani

In their traditional fishing role, they carried swimmers who would free dive to either spear fish or drag nets in shallow waters, and this is still practiced on a limited basis according to the video clip here:

The postage stamp shows a traditional sabani, with Iejima or Ie island, off the northwest coast of Okinawa, in the background. Image from here.
The motorized sabani image from here.
The plan view from here.
Woodcut of sabani fishermen from here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Too Late to Document Dhows?

The term "dhow" is a generic one, used mainly by Westerners to refer to just about any type of Arab or Indian Ocean vessel. In the past, it was assumed the boat was fitted with a lateen sail, but now, even power-driven Arab boats are termed dhows. But according to Alan Villiers in his 1940 book Sons of Sinbad: The Great Tradition of Arab Seamanship in the Indian Ocean, the Arabs used the term very rarely, referring instead to a number of more specific types. In the appendix, Villiers describes a couple of types thus:

Baggala. The baggala is the traditional deep-sea dhow of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Its distinguishing features are the five-windowed stern, which is often elaborately carved in the manner of an ancient Portuguese caravel. Baggalas have quarter-galleries, and their curved stems are surmounted by a horned figurehead. Baggalas are built now only at the pot of Sur, in Oman, and are practically extinct in Kuwait. There are probably less than fifty in existence.
Bedeni. The common craft of the smaller ports of the Oman and Mahra coasts. Their distinguishing features are their straight lines, their flat, sheerless hulls, their upright masts, and the curious ancient method of steering by means of an intricate system of ropes and beams. The sternpost is carried up very high, and when anchored, or in port, the rudder is usually partly unshipped and secured to either quarter. Bedeni are usually small craft and often have one mast only, though two-masters are common in the trade to East Africa.

And so on, through eight more descriptions of the following types:

This is only partially enlightening, and one wishes for more systematic descriptions, to say nothing of lines drawings, sail plan profiles and other graphic representations. But Villiers' objective in Sons of Sinbad was to describe the life aboard the trading dhows (and more briefly, on boats engaged in the pearl fishery), and at that goal he succeeded admirably, providing a sensitive, culturally astute, and thought-provoking view of the Arab seafaring subculture just before the sailing trade died with the Second World War. (Particularly interesting is how many of the Arab criticisms of the West haven't changed in all these years.)

So while one cannot criticize Villiers for the lack of detail about the vessels he observed or sailed upon, one can still regret there isn't more. It's unfortunate that no one documented these fascinating vessels before so many of them disappeared, in the manner of an Edwin Tappan Adney or a Haddon & Hornell (for American bark canoes, and canoes of Oceania, respectively). Villiers himself regretted that that wasn't his goal, and also that the Arabs were themselves not sufficiently interested in their boats as cultural objects to bother recording them, much less preserving examples for posterity.

By the way, Villier's book appears in other editions with a (much) longer subtitle: An Account of Sailing with the Arabs in their Dhows, in the Red Sea, Around the Coasts of Arabia, and to Zanzibar and Tanganyika: Pearling in the Persian Gulf: And the Life of the Shipmasters, The Mariners and Merchants of Kuwait.

The photo of a large sambuk is from Villiers' book Sons of Sinbad. This was a much smaller vessel than the boom on which he sailed from Kuwait to Zanzibar and back again, but was typical of the pearling boats he observed in the Persian Gulf.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Update on Dover Bronze Age Boat

A few months ago I described the Dover Bronze Age Boat here. Discovered in 1992, it is the most elaborate boat of its age (1500 BC) yet to be discovered in Europe. Sitting at the cusp between dugout technology and planked construction, the vessel was constructed of four lengthwise sections of oak logs, elaborately hollowed to fit together in the shape of a boat and then lashed together with small split branches (withies) of yew. Terrible technology, since there was little structure to prevent the log sections from working against one another, but really impressive woodworking and clearly on the right road toward the right technology.

Now some of the same archaeologists who have been involved with the boat since its discovery have a new project to build a full-size (10 meter) replica and test it on a voyage from Folkestone, England, to Wissant, France in 2010. Read the full article in on the Stone Pages website, here.

It is assumed that the original boat was paddled, not rowed or sailed. (The boat probably had one more set of strakes above those recovered in the excavation, and it is possible that evidence for some provisions for rowing might have been lost, but lacking those upper strakes, and lacking any evidence for the use of oars in England at the time, the use of paddles must be assumed.) The replica, therefore, will be crewed by volunteers from the British Dragon Boat Association, who have some experience paddling large open craft -- although to the best of my knowledge, dragon boat racing is always done in protected waters and not on anything as boisterous as the English Channel. Should be interesting.

Photo of reconstruction model from the BBC. Painting from

A Couple of Proa Blogs

A couple of good sources for information on proas -- i.e., single-outrigger multihulls:

Outrigger Sailing Canoes -- a blog by Gary Dierking, New Zealand-based American multihull builder, designer, and author of Building Outrigger Sailing Canoes.
ProaFile - a blog by proa designer Michael Schacht, a Seattle-based proa designer.

Both have lots of info. on both modern and traditional proas and occasionally on other types of multihulls. I know Gary Dierking and edited his book, and think it's very good.