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Wooden boats still alive in South Asia

Updated February 05, 2018

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A BOAT nears completion at the Karachi Fish Harbour.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
A BOAT nears completion at the Karachi Fish Harbour.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: The wooden boats, which have become extinct in the rest of the global shipping arena, are still favourites in South Asia, which fetch handsome economic fortune for the builders and their customers.

The boat-building yard of the Karachi Fish Harbour (KFH) never wears the garb of silence. Its workers, carpenters, artisans, painters and designers find little time of respite from the routine work they have been doing for decades and through generations.

“Wooden boats are no longer in use in the rest of the world, but they are still in vogue in South Asia and parts of the Persian Gulf,” said Mohammad Haroon, a boat-builder, in his den at the KFH.

Workers were seen busy giving finishing touches to a large boat at the boat-building yard. At least 10 artisans and helpers were working on a single boat in the vicinity.

“It takes more than six months to complete it with wooden body, engine and all accessories needed to use them for fishing and cargo purposes,” Haroon added.

He further said that boats ranging from 45 to 90 yards cost from Rs10m to Rs25m. They also built smaller boats for use in shallow waters of creeks and lakes, which were fairly cheaper requiring little effort and dexterity.

The facility showed workers were building several of boats at the same time.

“The wooden boats are our specialty,” said an official of the boating yard, adding that they were favourite in Pakistan and other parts of South Asia.

“These Pakistani boat-builders work for customers from Iran and other countries as well. They manufacture wooden boats with a lot of effort. Most of their work requires great efficiency with the pressure of deadlines,” said Abdul Wahid, another boat-builder.

Unsung heroes

The technical hands and workers at the place remain unsung heroes in their trade though they are in great demand locally and abroad.

“They contribute to the country’s economy a great deal. They know how a boat that can be used for years could be built,” added Wahid with little boasting in his demeanour.

People from Lyari, Keamari, Sandspit, Hawkesbay, Ibrahim Hyderi and other parts of the city work in the boat-building yard.

Officials in the KFH said at least 2,500 such workers relied on the facility to earn their livelihood. They earned modest earnings, but many of them said they were content with what they earned.

LOGS for building boats.—White Star
LOGS for building boats.—White Star

“We are the third generation working here,” said a painter, who preferred not to be named. “It is good to earn a little than nothing. We earn more than our elders, but they don’t match the price hike.”

Boat-builders said they imported raw material chiefly from South-East Asia.

Boats with different length of keels are built there, which require various time frames for completion and vary the amount of earnings.

Cargo boats, which are used in the region of South Asia and parts of Middle East and Africa closer to the Subcontinent, are in great demand.

Their owners are duly registered and licensed with the shipping authorities who transport various kinds of cargo from Pakistan or any other country of the region to another destination.

“They don’t go beyond as they are designed to sail about this region alone. When the world has gone on fibre, the wooden boats become a unique thing in our region,” said an official in the KFH.

Dozens of wooden fishing and cargo vessels of 50 to 80 feet keel length have been built in Karachi in the past few years and sold to customers in Iran and other Persian Gulf countries.

Interviews with various workers, employees and the harbour officials showed that relevant authorities had planned to launch programmes to chisel the skills of the workers and artisans working in the area.

“Though it has taken years, the authorities have now planned for their skill development, which will soon be carried out,” said an official.

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2018