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What Is a Dhow?

Angie Bates
Angie Bates

"Dhow" is the general name for several types of wooden Arab sail boats, built since ancient times, that are traditionally sewn together with thongs. These boats are also known by their triangular sails. Seen as early as ancient Roman times, originally dhows primarily sailed on the Indian ocean. Over the centuries the ships have changed, influenced by European design, but modern dhows still sail today.

Though little archaeological evidence has been found of ancient dhows, anecdotal evidence suggests these vessels were different from the European vessels of the time in many ways. Their distinctive triangular, or lanteen, sails made them easily identifiable at a distance, and their hulls, which were sewn together with cords, were vastly different from the European ships which had their hull boards nailed to a frame, called ribbing. Sewing the boards of the ship together allowed more freedom to adapt designs in the middle of construction as well.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Early dhow construction was considered an art and was passed down through generations. Over the centuries, European influences changed the processes of creation and the shape of the ship. There is little known about the actual evolution of the construction of this ships however, only the end result. For example, early ships were double-ended, having the same pointed shape for both stern and bow. With European influence, the sterns became more squared, and starting about the 16th century, the hull boards of the dhows began to be nailed together far more often than sewn.

Although the European ship designs influenced the dhow's design, the reverse is also true. Unlike square sails, which were popular on European ships, lanteen sails could catch the wind on both sides, making them more efficient. Some European ships began to adopt lanteen sails during the medieval period.

The word "dhow" is an English variation of the Swahili term for boat, which is daw. Dhow is a general term that includes several different kinds of ships. Since Europeans classify boats by the shape of their sails and Indians classify them by the shape of their hulls, "dhow" is strictly a European term and includes several ships considered different by Indian standards.

One type, a ghanja, is a large ship which has a curved bow and a flat stern, whereas a badan is a small, shallow-bottomed boat. Many types of dhows are no longer in construction, however. For example, both the baghlah, which was used for ocean voyaging, and the battil, which sported a stern decorated with shells and leather, are no longer constructed.

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