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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bonito Fishing Boats in Maldives

In Fishing in Many Waters, James Hornell describes the practice of bonito fishing in the Maldives, including a description of the boats used. Although he doesn’t name the boat type, it can be termed a dhoni. (Somewhat like dhow, dhoni is a generic term that doesn’t indicate a single type of boat. According to Wikipedia, it means simply “small boat” in Tamil and related languages, while thoni is the equivalent term in Malayalam. We’ve written previously about the very different yathra dhoni of Sri Lanka.)

Drawing: a bonito dhoni of the Maldives (Source: James Hornell)
A bonito dhoni of the Maldives (click any image to enlarge)
Probably no longer in use, the Maldivian bonito boats that Hornell observed were “built (especially) for the fishery, long, beamy, graceful craft, fine of line and shallow draft as befits vessels that have their home in coral-infested lagoons of little depth.” He further describes them as stoutly built, mostly open boats with short decks fore and aft and six or seven transverse bulkheads. The aft deck, from which the fishing was conducted, was “shaped like the extended wings of a butterfly” and extended over the sides of the hull. Hornell noted the distinctive “snakelike” stemhead, which rose high above the gunwales, curving gently aft and then slightly forward near the very top “not unlike that of an old Viking ship which, indeed, the boat as a whole closely resembles.” (This latter is an exaggeration. While the stemhead does indeed call to mind a Viking ship, the differences between the two types of craft are far more dramatic and substantial than the purely superficial similarity between them. Hornell, infinitely more than I, understood this well.)

The two compartments fore and aft of the mast each had four to six plugged holes in the bottom, which, when the plugs are removed, allowed them to serve as livewells for bait. These livewells were managed in a curious manner, described below.

A single mast was held in a tabernacle and could be dropped into a crutch aft. The mast supported a tall, narrow squaresail of woven matting and a boomless gaff mainsail of cotton. Although the drawing shows no shrouds, it appears that the squaresail’s halyard may have served as a combination backstay/shroud. The drawing seems to show a light spar extending upward and forward from the base of the mast, but Hornell did not explain its use. (Perhaps it served as a kind of whisker pole for the squaresail?)

traditional Maldivian dhoni, model (Photo: Badr Naseem)
This model of a traditional Maldivian dhoni shows the transverse bulkheads and butterly-shaped aft deck of the bonito boat, but not its S-curved stemhead, recurved sternpost, or two-sail rig. (Photo: Badr Naseem. Source.)
Although somewhat similar dhonis, with transverse bulkheads and the aft platform extending over the sides, remain in use in the Maldives, none of the recent photos we’ve found show the old style bonito boat’s distinctive double-curved stemhead, recurved sternpost, or mixed squaresail/gaff rig. Lateen rigs are the norm in existing boats (or at least, those that are not motorized), and the stemheads curve sharply aft, with no hint of reverse curve.

Before bonito could be caught, the same boats were used to catch baitfish. A square net was fastened to long poles and lowered to the bottom of a lagoon. Ground bait (bait for the baitfish) was dropped over the net. When the baitfish came to feed, the net was raised. Presumably this was repeated many times before sufficient bait for a bonito fishing trip could be accumulated. The live bait was kept in a huge basket in the lagoon until it was time to go fishing in earnest.

The baitfish were then transferred into the dhoni’s livewells and the plugs were removed. According to Hornell:
“(T)he holes being unplugged, continuous streams of water spout inwards. This inrush would speedily swamp the boat were it not that two men are set to work to keep pace by bailing, with the inrush. By means of perforations at suitable and varying heights in the intervening bulkhead the inflowing water is conducted to the after compartment where the two bailers are located. In this way the water in the wells is constantly renewed and thereby maintained in a fit condition to keep alive the stock of little fishes for use as bait.”
In addition to two bailers, the crew consisted of several anglers with fishing poles, a helmsman, four “splashers,” and three or four boys to tend the squaresail. The poles were about six feet long with a line of about six feet fixed fast to the end. Barbless hooks of bright steel at the end of the lines were shaped to resemble baitfish.

Photo: a bonito dhoni of the Maldives (Source: James Hornell)
Bonito fishing in process. Note the heavy splashing around the aft deck.
Upon approaching a shoal of bonito, one of the bailers would stop bailing and begin throwing baitfish into the water while the splashers would use long-handled scoops to vigorously splash water all around the boat. Per Hornell:
“This is a measure of economy; the bonito have to be gulled into the belief that a large shoal of small fish are about and without the splashing the amount of live bait thrown out would be insufficient to carry through the deception successfully.”
But successful the ruse was. The anglers, crowded upon the stern platform, would drop their unbaited, lure-like hooks in the water and yank bonito from it directly into the hold. The barbless hooks could be disengaged merely by slacking the tension on the line for the briefest moment before they were returned to the water with scarcely a pause.

In an active shoal, a man might average one catch per minute, and a boat might catch a full load of 600 to 1,000 fish in two or three hours. The boat owner received 21 percent of the catch as his share, the rest being apportioned amongst the crew. That which was not eaten fresh was cured for later use or for trade by a combination of boiling, smoking, and sun-drying.

Except where otherwise noted, information and images are from:
James Hornell, Fishing in Many Waters, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1950

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Shade Fishing from Catamarans in India

Catamarans, of the type used on the Coromandel Coast in India’s southeast and in Sri Lanka, close by across the Palk Strait, are subject to two kinds of misconceptions. The first is one of terminology. In its original meaning, kattu-maram (Tamil for “tied logs”) denoted a raft, not a vessel with two identical hulls, as the term is commonly understood. The erroneous transference of the term was probably made by an early European traveler who, being familiar with Indian catamarans, decided to call the twin-hulled boats he found in the Pacific by the same name, it probably seeming logical at the time to call any indigenous, non-European small craft by the same term. Henceforth, our use of the term will refer only to the raft.

The second misconception concerns the nature of timber rafts, which are commonly conceived to be rectangular, flat, and capable only of drifting with the current rather than being directed according to the boatman’s wishes. Catamarans are, specifically, shaped rafts of wood or bamboo, and they behave more like true boats than like the flat, rectangular platform upon which Huck and Jim floated inexorably down the Mississippi.

Model of a jangada
Model of a jangada (source). Click any image to enlarge.
In Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution, James Hornell describes several varieties of catamaran on India’s east coast and in many other parts of the world. Such craft are still in use in some locales. We have written about the jangada, a Brazilian catamaran in current use, and one can easily find with a Google search contemporary images of catamarans of more than one type on Sri Lanka.

three-log raft "boat catamaran" from Sri Lanka
A three-log raft from Sri Lanka of the type called a "boat catamaran" by Hornell. (source)
Hornell also distinguishes between catamarans that are more or less boat-like. In the Sri Lankan type that he calls “boat catamarans,” the central of three logs extends below the outer two, forming a keel, while the upper surfaces of the outer ones are considerably higher than that of the central one, forming an inside space that could be termed a hold or cockpit. In contrast to this, he describes the “flying fish” catamaran of Coromandel, which is the main subject of this installment. While it lacks a keel, it has enough of a depression in its upper surface to have an identifiable “inside,” and it is considerably more shapely and boat-like than the common conception of a raft.

Seven-log flying fish catamaran of the Coromandel Coast
A seven-log flying fish catamaran of the Coromandel Coast

In Fishing in Many Waters, Hornell describes in detail the flying fish type and its use, which he observed in the Tanjore district. Pursuing flying fish requires sailing to deep waters as far as 25 miles from shore with a crew of seven and staying out for as long as three days. As such, the deep sea catamaran is a substantial vessel, averaging 30 to 35 feet long. They are built of seven main logs of light wood, dressed on all sides and tapering from back to front and from bottom to top. Curved logs are selected, so that, when assembled, the main section of the raft is an isosceles trapezoid in plan view, and dished both longitudinally and transversely.

The logs are lashed together with coir rope. At the forward end, says Hornell, “the completed craft becomes definitely wedge-shaped in plan after the addition of an elegant upturned prow of five pointed pieces cleverly jointed on to the forward ends of the seven main logs.” Another log is lashed atop the outermost log on the starboard side to serve as a working platform.

rig details of a Coromandel Coast flying fish catamaran
Coromandel flying fish catamaran, showing rig details

The two-masted rig is refined, although it looks crude as a result of the materials from which it is made. Short masts fit into sockets on the whichever outside log happens to be to leeward, hoisting lateen or settee sails. The head of each cotton sail is lashed to a long yard with a short downward-curving extension at the forward/lower end. The foot of the sail is lashed to a boom that extends only as far forward as the mast. Between the mast and the end of the extension-piece of the yard is a foot-rope. The sail, however, does not extend all the way to the forward apex of the triangle. Its forward corner or tack is cut off short, so that the sail has a very short luff.

There are forestays and backstays, and the halyards serve as shrouds on the upwind side. There is also a short strut lashed at its lower end to the windward hull log, and at its upper end to the mast, about three feet from the base. Hornell writes, “Even with these substitutes for shrouds there is always the danger of the masts and sails falling overboard should the craft be taken aback by a sudden change of wind; this, however, is of rare occurrence…so steady is the wind at the season when these craft are at sea.”

As to control lines, “Each sail is provided with a sheet and a vang or guy made fast to the upper end of the yard.” The sail can be furled by rolling it up around the lower boom, and by moving the grommet from which the yard depends down from the masthead onto one of a series of notches provided for the purpose.

To counter leeway, the raft has two large leeboards and a large-bladed steering oar, the attachments for none of which are described. Hornell gives the following dimensions for one raft of typical size:
LOA: 33 feet
beam at forward lashing: 4 feet
beam at aft lashing: 7 feet
forward yard: 29 feet
after yard: 21 1/2 feet
steering oar: 12 feet
forward leeboard: 10 1/2 feet
after leeboard: 9 feet
draft (boards up): 1 foot

The boat is equipped with paddles and oars for when the wind fails. Two dip nets, consisting of a rectangular piece of netting (measuring 5’6” x 4’9”) with its short sides tied to poles about 7’ long, are carried. The rest of the equipment is limited to spare rope, a jar of drinking water, a bundle of cooked rice, a scoop to throw water on the sails, and three large bundles of bushes or shrubs, the last of which are key to the curious method of fishing practiced.

The raft is sailed into deep waters until a shoal of flying fish is sighted. The raft is brought into their vicinity, turned with its starboard side to windward, and the entire rig is dropped. The bundles of shrubs are then thrown over the accessory log on the windward side. Each bundle is attached to a rope of a different length: 300 ft.; 180 ft.; and 60 ft. The bundles act like sea anchors, and with the raft’s shallow draft, it quickly drifts downwind of them. (A block of wood tied to each bundle acts like a float, but it’s unclear from Hornell’s description to what purpose, for it’s clear that the bundles of shrubs sink to different depths determined by the length of rope to which they’re tied.)

Flying fish are attracted to the bundles. After a large number of fish have gathered, one of the bundles is pulled in slowly and carefully. The fish follow until it is close to the raft, at which time the dip nets come into play. Each net is operated by two men, one per pole. The net is dipped into the water nearly vertically, then brought up under the fish and tipped back so that the fish fall into the boat – the whole proceeding being performed in silence so as not to disturb the fish who remain beside the shrub bundles. When that group of fish has been disposed of, the next bunch of shrubs is hauled in and the process repeated.

According to Hornell, the attraction that the bundles hold for the fish is neither their shade nor the expectation that they harbor small prey upon which to feed. Rather, the fishing occurs during the flying fishes’ spawning season, and the bundles replicate the bunches of seaweed upon which they normally deposit and fertilize their eggs. 

Large quantities of flying fish may be caught by this method over the course of two or three days. Fish that are not eaten fresh are sun-dried, but given the long distance that the rafts sail from shore, it often occurs that the catch may spoil before it reaches market.

Also in Fishing in Many Waters, Hornell describes a second method of “shade fishing” from catamarans done off the Coromandel coast near Madras. Although he does not describe the catamarans, they are different from those described above, and from the illustration appear to consist of only four logs and to be manned by just two men. Nor does Hornell identify the fish thus captured. Four catamarans must cooperate to employ the madi valai, what Hornell calls (but does not translate as) a “handkerchief net.”

shade fishing with four catamarans off Madras
Shade fishing with the madi valai net and four catamarans off of Madras

A long length of coir rope is made up with many strips of palm leaf between the strands, making a bushy appearance. (We presume the rope appears far bushier in practice than in the illustration.) One end is tied to a stone anchor or heavy bunch of turf; the other to a piece of light wood as a float. The anchor rope is dropped in “several fathoms of water” in an area where current is prevalent, and allowed to remain until fish collect in its shade.

A large rectangular net is suspended at its corners by four ropes, the upper ends of which are held by a man in each catamaran. Moving against the current, the four boats approach the suspended shade rope from downcurrent, with the forward edge of the net held low and the after edge high. When the men in the forward two catamarans feel the net contact the shade rope, they begin to pull it up as quickly as they can, gathering the fish that have collected in its shade.

Although catamarans are still fished in Sri Lanka, I do not know if either of these methods from the Coromandel Coast are still in use.

Except where stated otherwise, information and images are from:
James Hornell, Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1946
James Hornell, Fishing in Many Waters, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1950

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Fishing Boats of Orchid Island’s Tao People

Boats of Tao (Yami) people, Orchid Island
Tao tatara boats, with and without culturally significant decorations. (source) Click any image to enlarge.
Orchid Island, also known as Lanyu, is about 45 miles due east of the southernmost point of Taiwan. Only 7.5 miles long, it is home to a culture best known as the Yami, although the people themselves prefer the name Tao, which means simply “people” in their language. Numbering about 4,000, the Tao, a Malayo-Polynesian people, make up about two thirds of the island’s population, the remainder being Han Chinese from Taiwan.

Although Lanyu is now part of the Republic of China, there was little cultural contact with Taiwan until the second half of the twentieth century, leaving Tao society relatively intact and among the least affected by outside influences of all Southeast Asian cultures. The people continue to speak their own language and are culturally more akin to the inhabitants of Batanes, the northernmost province of the Philippines, about 100 miles across the Bashi Channel. They are the only of Taiwan’s remaining aboriginal peoples with a maritime culture.

Lanyu is mountainous, of volcanic origin. Much of it is covered by tropical rainforest, parts of which are untouched. “Coral reefs are distributed around the island and the warm Japan Current also flows by, attracting vast schools of fish.” (source)

Flying fish play a central role in the culture of the Tao, their migrations determining the Tao’s annual cycle of ritual and economic activities. The boats used to fish for flying fish are “a central cultural emblem,” and so distinctive as to have become the island’s best-known cultural artifact and image for tourism.

The Tao’s boats range from the 1- and 2-man tatara, about 2.3m long, to the 10- and even 14-man chinedkulan, at 7.6m long. All are of similar form and construction, their most obvious distinguishing features being the extremely high extensions of the stem and sternposts that sweep up sharply but gracefully from the gunwales, and the elaborate carved-and-painted decoration of the hulls.

Tao boats show similarities to those of Batanes, to the mon of the Solomon Islands, and to those of Lamalera, on the island of Lembata in Indonesia. Chinedkulan are notably seaworthy, having formerly been used for voyages to Batanes (but apparently no longer so used). Tatara are said to be quite unstable and are used only in protected waters in calm conditions.

The Tatara and Chinedkulan Hulls

Structural cross-section of a Yami chinedkulan boat
Structural cross-section of a chinedkulan. "Botel Tobago" is another name for Lanyu or Orchid Island. Image source: R. H. Barnes (see bibliography)
Built on a keel with separate stem and sternpost, the hull is symmetrical fore-and-aft, V-bottomed, and chined. It is built shell-first, with frames that (at least, on the chinedkulan) do not reach to the topmost strake. Thwarts, too, span the second-to-top strakes, not the topmost ones. Making up for this, a strong shelf near the lower edge of the top strake provides a great deal of rigidity. The shelf is not attached to the plank as a separate component but, rather, is carved as an integral part of the planks of the top strakes. Each strake consists of three plank sections. The larger chinedkulan has four strakes, the tatara three.

Frame/plank lashed connection in a Tao tatara boat
Detail of lashed-lug construction between frame and planks in a Tao tatara. Source: R. H. Barnes
The smooth-planked (i.e., carvel) hull is of lashed-lug construction. When each plank is gotten out, “comb cleats” (pairs of lugs with a short gap between) are left on the inside surface. Holes are bored in the lugs. The U-shaped frames are placed in the gap between the cleats and tied in place with rattan lashings. But before this happens, the strakes are assembled to the keel and to one another by blind-pegging. The upper edge of each plank is drilled with numerous holes – from photos, it appears that they are spaced rather closely, perhaps 4” apart. Dowels are inserted in the holes, and the next plank, with corresponding holes, is forced down against the lower one. Joints are caulked with vegetable fiber.

Pegged plank fastening, Tao boat, Orchid Island
Blind pegged fastening of planks. Source: R. H. Barnes (see bibliography)
The planking has three sets of lugs: one set, amidships, holds the frames. The smaller boats have a single frame amidships. The larger ones have two frames, dividing the hull approximately in thirds lengthwise. The second set of lugs, appearing at one end only, is used to fasten a transverse bulkhead. The third set, appearing at both ends, holds lashings to pull the port and starboard planks in toward each other. It’s unclear how the hood ends are fastened to the endposts, or how the butt joints between the plank sections are fastened.

Tao Tatara boat of Lanyu
Tatara with single frame amidships. Also shown are shelf near the bottom of the sheerstrake and a transverse bulkhead at right. Source: R.H. Barnes
The backbone consists of three pieces – the V-shaped keel and two endposts – joined in a stepped joint (and presumably pegged).

The boats are rowed with oars that pivot against a kind of tholepin structure that consists of two or three posts arranged with their bottoms splayed fore-and-aft and their tops, which rise high above the gunwale, lashed together with many wraps of heavy rope. The bottom ends appear to penetrate the shelf that runs near the lower edge of the topmost strake, and perhaps are held in place by lugs in the planking below the shelf.

Thole structures, sheerstrake shelf, steering oar yoke and thwarts (deckbeams) are all visible. Source: R.H. Barnes 
Tao (Yami) Boat Construction Procedures

To begin construction, trees are felled with an ax, and planks are shaped with an adze, each trunk yielding a single plank or backbone section. The center of the trunk becomes a plank’s outer surface. The endposts, in order to avoid grain run-out in the rapidly curved transition from the horizontal to the vertical, are gotten out from the base of a tree with buttress roots, in the manner of grown knees in Western boatbuilding.

Much of the construction of Tao boats is regulated by ritual. All of the major parts of the boat must be cut from live trees, there being a prohibition against the use of dead wood. According to Barnes, “(T)imber should be felled, worked into rough shape and carried back to the village on the same day. The bow and stern pieces require some twenty men taking turns to carry them across the island.” A ceremony and celebration, with feasting, greet the men on their return to the village.

Having brought the major pieces back to the village, the boat is finished in a special boatbuilding shed, using axes, adzes, chisels, gouges, and borers or a brace and bit to produce the holes for the planking dowels.

Construction takes two or three years. When it is complete, a boat may be painted rather simply – usually with white topsides inside and out and a red bottom – and put into use. It is more common, however, to apply elaborate conventional decorations in traditional red, white and black painted and carved patterns that represent human figures, waves, and bow oculi in the form of the sun. Borders made of multiple bands of repeating triangles of the three colors outline the sheer, cutwaters at bow and stern, and waterline. The tops of the endposts are decorated with chicken feathers.

Hull decorations on fishing boat of Orchid Island
Traditional decorations includes (from left to right) the sun-like oculus, human figures, and ocean waves. (source)
The Tao, according to a Taiwanese government website, “consider a boat as a man’s body. Boat-building is a sacred mission and a part of life. Owning a boat means owning the ocean and the sky and having valor. For the Tao, boat-building is the manifestation of divinity and beauty.” Carrying such heavy social/psychological meaning, only boats that will be subjected to an expensive, elaborate launching ritual may be decorated in the traditional manner.

One step of this ritual consists of covering the boat in taro roots which, after flying fish, is the most important staple of the Tao diet. Given the large amount of taro required, land clearing and planting may begin three or four years prior to the start of building the boat. After the boat is covered in tubers, they are removed to become part of a celebratory feast (which also includes roast pig, shared with the community but also slaughtered as a sacrifice) in which the whole village partakes. Women wear special clothing for several days before the ceremony. In the climax to the ritual, men, wearing the loincloths that they also wear when fishing, circle the boat several times to guard it from evil spirits, then lift it above their heads and throw it into the air several times.

Boat launching ceremony, Lanyu
Tossing a newly-built chinedkulan into the air: part of the traditional launching ceremony on Lanyu. (source)
Boat Use on Lanyu (Orchid Island)
“Surrounded by sea, the Tao society is a typical maritime one. Their annual schedule corresponds to the flying fish season. The Tao people designed a calendar according to habitual behaviors of marine life and the movements of ocean currents, which includes restrictions and taboos regulating the fishing area, timing and methods.” (source)

The Tao celebrate flying fish season with a festival consisting of 13 distinct rituals. Flying fish are caught from March through June, but “shoulder seasons” at both ends make the period from February to October the most important part of the Tao’s year economically and culturally. Almost all activities during this longer period relate to catching, preparing, distributing and storing the fish for use throughout the year. Flying fish may not be caught outside of the official flying fish season, although other kinds of fishing, especially for crabs, octopus, and shellfish, occur at other times.

To catch flying fish, the Tao boatmen work in concert with free divers. The larger boats are rowed with one man per oar and steered with a steering oar. Nets as long as 8 meters are spread into a U-shaped wall attached to the bottom, their tops 2m to 4m below the water surface. Divers, numbering between 25 and 40 and remarkable for their lung capacity, spread out some distance from the net in a half-circle that can be up to 300m wide. Using large, whisk-like beaters that they sweep through the water and hit against the bottom, they drive schools of fish toward and into the net. They then gather the ends of the net together, and it is lifted into the boat.

“After each drive, the fish are taken to shore, removed from the net and scaled. For scaling the Yami use stone chips. After the fish are cleaned, they are put back into the boat, the net is loaded into the boat as well, and the group performs one or two more drives. On a lucky day the catch may total over a thousand fish, but such days are rare. Usually a good catch brings in five or six hundred fish.”

The catch is processed communally and distributed by a formula that takes account of who owns the boat, the net, and who participated in that particular drive.

R.H. Barnes, "Yami Boats and Boat Building in a Wider Perspective," in Ships and the Development of Maritime Technology in the Indian Ocean, David Parkin and Ruth Barnes, eds.Routledge, 2002
"Tao: Introduction to the Ethnic Group," in Digital Museum of Taiwan Indigenous Peopleshttp://www.dmtip.gov.tw/Eng/Tao.htm
"A Minority Within a Minority: Cultural Survival on Taiwan's Orchid Island," in Cultural Survival Quarterlyhttps://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/minority-within-minority-cultural-survival-taiwans-orchid
Jerome F. Keating, "The Driving Forces and Scope of the Mapping of Taiwan," in Mediascapehttp://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Winter2012_Taiwan.html
"Orchid Island (Lanyu)" in Taiwan: The Heart of Asiahttp://eng.taiwan.net.tw/m1.aspx?sNo=0002123&id=650
"Offshore Islands: Penghu; Kinmen National Park; Matsu; Green Island (Lyudao); Orchid Island (Lanyu)" in Taiwan: Heart of Asiahttp://go2taiwan.net/monthly_selection.php?sqno=7
"Yami People" in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yami_people
Dezso Benedek, The Songs of the Ancestors: A Comparative Study of Bashic Folklorehttp://asian-lp.uga.edu/jpn_html/yami/
Katherine Kuang, "Yami Creation Myths": http://www.laits.utexas.edu/doherty/plan2/kuang.html

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.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Bundle Boats in Oman and Elsewhere

In the last week or so, two bundle boats from Oman came to my attention. First, a reader sent me a link to this travel article in Daily Kos, containing this photo:
Mangrove root bundle boat, Oman
Caption from original article: "This old, traditional, fishing boat is made from “barasti”, the aerial roots of the mangrove.  I took this shot on the beach near Sohar, the third largest city in the country located near the UAE border." (Click any image to enlarge.)
This brought to mind the following photo of a shasha, another Omani bundle boat, from Tim Severin’s The Sinbad Voyage, which I reproduced in a post several years ago. But unlike the boat in the Daily Kos photo, this one was made from palm fronds.
palm frond bundle boat, Oman
A shasha -- an Omani bundle boat made of palm fronds (Source: The Sinbad Voyage)
The very next day, an image of another Omani bundle boat, also apparently made of palm fronds, appeared in my Facebook feed. I found it surprising that, even in the present day and within the confines of a rather small country, two methods of bundle boat construction, based on different materials, remain in use.
palm frond bundle boats, Oman
Original caption: "These are fishing boats in Oman. They are filled with polystyrene and paddled out to sea. At night the catch is landed and the village builds bonfires to cook supper. Which is fish." (Posted by Jonathan Savill to the Facebook page Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle)

Bundle boats are not really boats: they are boat-shaped rafts that derive their buoyancy from the materials of their construction, which are themselves buoyant. In contrast, true boats achieve buoyancy enclosing air within a watertight shell (or, to phrase it another way, by excluding water from a watertight shell).

In most cases, bundle boats are made from soft, flexible materials like grass, rushes, reeds, or leaves, large amounts of which are wrapped with cordage into long bundles – generally pointed at both ends – and then tied to other bundles into a boat shape – i.e., pointed at the bow (and often, at the stern), and usually with something approximating either raised gunwales, also composed of bundles, or a cockpit formed by leaving a cavity in or between bundles.

Sticks, roots or branches may also be used for construction. In most cases, these are tied into bundles in a manner similar to that used for soft, flexible materials, but in others, they are arranged and lashed side-by-side and not truly bundled. This method reduces the craft’s buoyancy and freeboard, also reducing its payload and leaving the boatman’s bottom constantly wet, but it also reduces its weight and makes it easier to dry, probably prolonging its life.
ambatch bundle canoe, Upper Nile
A canoe-like bundle boat used on the Upper Nile by the Dinka and Shulluk people. In this example, ambatch branches are tied into bundles, then the bundles are tied to each other into a boat shape. Indigenous to parts of Africa, ambatch is a  large shrub or small tree with a lightweight wood. (Source: Hornell)
ambatch bundle boat, Angola
An ambatch canoe on Lobito Bay, Angola. In this example, the branches are not truly bundled, but are lashed side-by-side into a boat shape. This photo and the one above it are from Hornell's 1946 work, Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution. I don't know if such craft are still in use.
Absent gunwales or a cockpit, a bundle-built craft would have no “inside,” and lacking this characteristic, it would be a stretch to to call it boat-like. But that’s hardly a firm definition. Some models of papyrus bundle craft from ancient Egypt lack “insides” but are so boat-like in shape that it is hard to deny them the name bundle boat. (The models do have very low bundle-built toe-rails, however, which approximate the function of gunwales in a minimal way.)
Egyptian reed fishing boat model
Ancient Egyptian papyrus-bundle canoes pulling a trawl between them. (Source: Hornell)
Somewhat similar reed “boats” remain in use on Lake Titicaca, although they have substantial bundle gunwales, and thus a definite “inside.” What most distinguishes these craft from Egypt and Lake Titicaca from the Omani, Upper Nile and Lobito Bay types shown above, however, is the large volume of the bundles in comparison to the load, placing the boatman and his cargo well above the water and giving fair promise of keeping him and his cargo dry.
Reed balsa boat, Lake Titicacas
A fishing balsa made of totora reeds, on Lake Titicaca (Source: Hornell)
The bundle boat was an technological dead end in the sense that it apparently never evolved anywhere into a true boat. Although stick-built bundle boats appear superficially to be a step in that direction, they are still solidly rafts in concept.

But technological evolution is not the sole measure of past or present validity. The fact that bundle boats remain in use in more than one culture in the 21st century testifies to their practicality and the soundness of the concept. 

Basil Greenhill, Archaeology of the Boat
Paul Johnstone (Ed., Sean McGrail), The Sea-Craft of Prehistory
James Hornell, Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution
(and as noted in text)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Bronze Age Carpow Logboat Moves to Permanent Home in Perth

We haven't had time for a post lately, so to keep the pump primed, we'll bring this recent news item to your attention, courtesy of The Courier.

The Carpow boat, a 3,000-year-old logboat excavated in 2006 from the River Tay in Scotland, was recently moved to a permanent home at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. The 9.25-meter-long boat was recovered in generally very good condition, and it includes the transom board that closed in the stern. It is the second oldest logboat discovered in Scotland. Sadly, much of the bow is missing, but it is still one of the best-preserved Bronze Age logboats in Britain. This short video summarizes the excavation.

This next video shows the boat after conservation. The transom board is not in place, but you can clearly see the bosses that held it there, which were left standing on the inner surface of the boat when the trunk was carved out.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Yathra Dhoni - A Single-Outrigger Ship of Sri Lanka

yathra dhoni beached
The large vessel is a yathra dhoni. Its outrigger allows it to sit upright on the beach without temporary supports (from Devendra, "The Lost Ships of Lanka.") (Click any image to enlarge)
Seagoing ships with outriggers are a rarity. If one defines “ships” as “(floating mobile nautical) structures which constituted significant elements in the economies of the societies which built and operated them” (Basil Greenhill, in The Earliest Ships: The Evolution of Boats into Ships), then a few of the larger traditional single-outrigger canoes of Oceania would qualify, but based on their size, burthen, and the fact that they are “canoes,” most modern observers would still call them “boats” without hesitation. Some motorized bancas of the Philippines might be (just) large enough to be thought ship-like by some, but no one of these double-outrigger vessels would qualify on the grounds of economic significance.

The yathra dhoni of Sri Lanka and the Coromandel Coast on India, then, may be the only traditional outrigger vessel that was undeniably a “ship.” Large and burthensome enough so as not to be mistaken for a boat, and used as a cargo carrier on both coastal and short oceanic voyages, the single-outrigger yathra dhoni (also spelled yatra dhoni, and also known as the maha-oruwa or maha oru, meaning “big outrigger canoe”) was in use for centuries – possibly thousands of years – and remained in common use into the early twentieth century.

Admiral Paris's drawing of a yathra dhoni
Admiral Paris's drawing of a yathra dhoni (from Essai sur la construction navale des peuples extra-européens ou Collection des navires et pirogues construits par les habitants de l'Asie, de la Malaisie, du Grand Océan et de l'Amérique dessinés et mesurés pendant les voyages autour du monde de "l'Astrolabe", "la Favorite" et "l'Artémise")
Outrigger ships in Sri Lanka were noted by Strabo (65 BCE-19 CE) and Pliny (23-79 CE), and if these were not yathra dhonies per se, they were probably their direct ancestors. A temple carving in Borobudur, Java, dated to the 8th to 10th century CE, shows “the arrival of Aryan emigrants to the Indonesian Islands” (Vitharana) in an outrigger vessel with features similar to the yathra. (The original Aryans, however, were from the area that is now northern India, not Coromandel or Sri Lanka.) Near the end of their history, yathras were known to be trading as far as the Moluccas, so their earlier use transporting Aryans or their neighbors to Java (which, like the Moluccas, is in Indonesia, but closer to India) seems credible.

Most yathras were 50 to 60 feet LOA with a main hull beam of 12 to 15 feet. The largest were 100 feet long with a 20 foot hull beam. Vitharana states that they were 10 to 15 feet in height, although it is unclear what points of measurement are implied. Cargoes ranged from 25 to 75 tonnes, with 50 being typical. The main hull was double-ended, with slack bilges, full midsections, and a slightly hollow entry.

Vosmer's drawing of Dodanduva yathra dhoni model
Tom Vosmer's profile drawing of the Dodanduva yathra dhoni model (from Devendra, "The Lost Ships of Lanka)
The outrigger varied in length, from about a third (Paris) to well over two-thirds (Vosmer’s drawing of a highly detailed model built in the former yathra center of Dodanduva, Sri Lanka, that is widely accepted for its authority) the length of the main hull. It was always mounted on the port side, fastened directly to substantial, downward-curving booms that extended right through the main hull at the level of the deck beams. (One simplified model exists with the outrigger to starboard, but this model lacks a rudder and may represent a different vessel type, or the difference may be due to imprecision on the modeler’s part.) Guys leading diagonally from the main hull to the outer ends of the outrigger booms helped stabilize the outrigger float fore-and-aft.

Dodanduva model of a yathra dhoni
The Dodanduva model of a yathra dhoni (from Green) 
The yathra’s rudder followed the curve of the sternpost. The rudder on the Dodanduva model is enormous and wide, but other reliable sources show rudders of more graceful shape and conventional proportions. From this, it appears that rudders were fitted in a range of sizes and styles. Vitharana refers to a “secondary rudder to act as a leeboard … in the region of the main mast touching the water on the starboard side,” but in no models or drawings that I know of does such a feature appear. A leeboard would appear to be unnecessary, since the hull was built on a keel that provided significant lateral plane to resist leeway. Some models and drawings also show a “gripe” at the bow and a skeg at the stern (upon which the rudder’s lower end was hung), both of which added to the lateral plane and directional stability.

Hornell's sketch of a yathra dhoni
Hornell's sketch of a yathra dhoni
The common rig was a ketch with square headed, loose-footed cloth lugsails and a jib on a bowsprit, said by Green to be “a rig common to the region of the Indian subcontinent.” Some smaller yathras may have had a single mast. Hornell’s sketch of the ketch version shows a second headsail inside the first one, apparently set flying, with its tack led to the port bulwark or possibly to the foredeck. Admiral Paris’s drawing shows a whisker pole holding out the luff of the mainsail. Standing rigging included shrouds, fore- and backstays, and a stay between the mastheads. According to Green, “The arrangement of the halyards was such that they prevent the mizzen yard from passing around the forward side of the mast. It must therefore be concluded that the mizzen sail on the yatra was never tacked, but went aback against the mast when occasionally on a starboard tack.”

Two bulkheads divided the hull into three sections: small bow and stern compartments, the use of which I have not found described, and a large cargo hold between them. Much of the deck was covered by a light, removable deckhouse roofed with split bamboo, leaving only narrow walkways along the sides for the crew to move fore and aft. Sliding cargo hatches were offset to starboard, and a simple cargo handling crane was located to port. In order for this to come in use, lighters – probably small dugout canoes – must have come alongside the main hull between the outrigger booms. But because the vessel would sit upright on a beach, supported by the outrigger, it may be that loading and unloading was often done on land. One assumes that the deckhouse roof was removed before cargo was handled.

The hull of the yathra was of a carvel construction using an unusual combination of stitched and nailed fastening. The planks, a minimum of 2” thick, were stitched to each other with coir rope and nailed to the frames with iron nails and roves. Accounts differ on whether the stitching holes penetrated straight through to the inner surface of the planks or exited on the plank edges. In any case, it is clear that the stitching served only to hold the planks against each other and not to the frames. Details on the order of construction are lacking, but one presumes that the planks were stitched first to make them tight, and nailed second. Joints were caulked with coconut husks and leaves inserted before the stitches were drawn tight.

yathra dhoni construction drawings
Vosmer's construction drawings of the Dodanduva yathra dhoni model (from Devendra, "Pre-Modern Sri Lankan Ships")
Stem and sternpost were fastened to the keel with hooked scarfs held with locking wedges. The frames and deck beams were few in number and widely spaced but of heavy scantlings, providing sufficient overall strength. Deck beams extended through the planking on both sides. Green says the frames were continuous from sheer to sheer, but given their scantlings and the hull’s shape, this seems impossible. Perhaps his information, which is not footnoted, stems from observation of a model which used continuous frames for expediency.

Tom Vosmer took careful measurements of the Dodanduva model, fed the details into a hydrostatics program, and found that the main hull, even without the outrigger, was “reasonably stable.” The outrigger, of course, significantly increased the vessel’s righting moment (by a factor of 100). It also increased drag, and therefore, the ship’s powering requirements. The rig, therefore, could have been smaller and simpler if the (still seaworthy) hull did not have an outrigger attached.

Yathra dhoni at anchor in Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka
Yathra dhoni at anchor in Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka, 1913 (from Devendra, "The Lost Ships of Lanka") 
Yathras were mainly short- and medium-haul cargo vessels, serving ports large and small throughout Sri Lanka and the Coromandel Coast and making regular voyages to the Maldives (550 miles from Colombo, Sri Lanka), although they also sailed at least occasionally to the Moluccas (3,600 miles). Typical cargoes included textiles, rice, salt, fish and fish products, tea, and tiles. A large one carried a crew of 18.

The outrigger was always kept to windward except, perhaps, in the most benign conditions – an unusual and highly limiting practice for a tacking single-outrigger vessel. Working within these limits required coastal voyages to make use of the daily reversal of land and sea breezes: the vessel sailed only during the part of day when the prevailing breeze allowed the outrigger to be kept to windward. On longer voyages, the monsoon breeze dictated direction. This would have meant just a single round trip from Sri Lanka to the Maldives in any given year, whereas a vessel that could sail with either side to windward would be able to make several round trip voyages of that distance each year.

Most accounts tell of the yathra succumbing to competition from steamships around the turn of the twentieth century. Vitharana claims that 40 of them were still serving Dodanduva in the 1930s, but all other accounts tell of the last one being built there to some fanfare in 1930; that is was wrecked on its first voyage in the Maldives; and that that was the end of the tradition.

Somasiri Devendra, "Pre-Modern Sri Lankan Ships" in Ships and the Development of Maritime Technology in the Indian Ocean, David Parkin gand Ruth Barnes, editors. Routledge, 2002
Devendra, "The Lost Ships of Lanka," from Maritime Heritage of Lanka: Ancient ports and harbours. National Heritage Trust Sri Lanka, 2013
Devendra, "The Mansion of the Sea," The Island Online - Saturday Magazine
Jeremy Green, "The archaeological contribute to the knowledge of the extra-European shipbuilding at the time of the Medieval and Modern Iberian-Atlantic tradition" Proceedings: International Symposium on Archaeology of Medieval and Modern Ships of Iberian-Atlantic Tradition
James Hornell, Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 1946
The National Trust of Sri Lanka, "The Annapoorani and The Amugoda Oruwa: The Forgotten Ships of Lanka" on Facebook
Corioli Souter, "Travellers and Traders in the Indian Ocean World Curatorial Audio Guide," WAM Audio Tours, Western Austrian Museum
Vini Vitharana, "The ORU & the YATRA" Nautical Archaeological Society, 1992, republished 2012