The “Pinto” or “Nina” – in Oman in the Twenty-First Century

by garrycraigpowell

Sur, on the Indian Ocean, is a one of the last strongholds of the traditional shipbuilding industry. There are dozens of ocean-going dhows being built there at any time, like this one, made entirely of wood, with lateen sails, so they can tack into the wind. These ships are almost identical to the Portuguese caravels that Columbus sailed to the West Indies in 1492. The Portuguese simply copied the Arab ships, because they were far faster and more maneuvrable than the cumbersome carracks, like the Santa Maria, his flagship–which didn’t make it home.

I know of nowhwere else in the world where you can still find a fleet of ocean-going sailing ships. It’s a very evocative sight. Further down the Swahili coast, in Kenya, I’ve helped sail dhows on the Muslim island of Lamu, north of Malindi, but these are much smaller, yacht-sized vessels–so small that they use sliding seats like racing dinghies, so you can have your weight entirely outside the craft–you just rest your feet on the gunwale, and you don’t wear any kind of harness either! I’ve always felt nostalgia for the age of sail. If you’re an Englishman, even an inland Englishman like me, you can hardly help feeling that you were born to be a seaman, that it’s in your blood. I should have liked to have been on one of the voyages of discovery, perhaps with one of the great Portuguese navigators, Dias or da Gama or Magalhaes (Magellan), or one of the lesser-known (in the west) Arab explorers like Ibn Batutta. In the west we tend to think of Arab rulers as despots, but in the past the nomadic desert tribes, as well as the sea-dwellers, had tremendous physical freedom: if they didn’t like their sheikh or sultan, they could just move somewhere else. Perhaps this is why Arabs seem such natural anarchists–and anarchy, which simply means “without ruler” is a form of political organization that appeals to me.