On a wheel and a compass

Built using generations-old methods and tools that have stood the test of time, the trading dhows that berth at Dubai Creek offer a fascinating glimpse into the region’s maritime trading past

Stroll along the Deira side of Dubai Creek and you could be forgiven for thinking you had unwittingly slipped through a secret door and re-emerged into some kind of enchanted land. Moored three and four deep along the dark waters of the Creek is an array of brightly coloured cargo dhows, looking for all the world like oversized toy boats. 

But these jaunty vessels, lovingly hand-painted in sky blues and pristine whites, and sporting prominent wooden prows and elaborately carved railings, are more than just maritime eye candy. Boasting a legendary cargo capacity, they traverse the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean laden with anything from sacks of rice and crates of dates and spices to second-hand cars, tyres, textiles and washing machines.

Watching the dhows being loaded up at the quay for their journeys is fascinating in itself. There are no gantry cranes and forklift trucks here at the Creek, unlike at Dubai’s Jebel Ali mega-port over at the other end of the emirate. Instead, dockworkers load the ships by hand, hefting great boxes of white goods on their shoulders, or resorting to basic nets and
pulley systems.

Dhows have operated and berthed in Dubai since the 1830s, when a free-trade port was established by the first Al Maktoum rulers, with their crews braving tropical storms and pirates to carry goods between South Asian ports such as those in Gujarat and Sindh and the Arabian Peninsula, then on to East Africa. 

dhow trade dubai creek building boats heritage tradition time
The vessels frequently stop in Dubai on their way to the ports of East Africa

Often crafted from teak, and built in shipyards and beaches across the region, the larger vessels can weigh up to 500 tonnes. They are generally hand-made following shipbuilding methods passed down through the generations and the tools and construction techniques used have barely changed over the centuries. 

Today’s dhows trade with Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Oman, India, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan, with many of the wares re-exported after arriving by air or container ship from countries such as China, South Korea and Singapore. The dhows are ideal for shipping goods to some of the less developed destinations along these routes as they are able to dock in smaller, more basic ports that lack the facilities needed for larger vessels.

Crewed by sailors from Iran and South Asia, the ships, which are today powered by diesel, having replaced their sailing predecessors that had huge, curving masts carrying a single lateen sail, can take 15 days to cross the Indian Ocean. They are typically equipped with only the most basic facilities, meaning crew members frequently have to sleep and eat on the deck. And while modern-day craft avail themselves of sophisticated radar and GPS systems, the captains of these wooden dhows often rely on the traditional wheel and compass for navigation.

These unique seafaring vessels represent a slice of maritime history that remains almost untouched by time.