sunset in a dhow zanzibar

Dhow at sunset Zanzibar.

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There are a variety of traditional boats found throughout the Swahili Coast, mainly used for fishing and transport.

Dhow, also spelled Dow, one- or two-masted Arab sailing vessel, usually with lateen rigging (slanting, triangular sails), common in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. On the larger types, called baggalas and booms, the mainsail is considerably bigger than the mizzensail. Bows are sharp, with a forward and upward thrust, and the sterns of the larger dhows may be windowed and decorated.

One theory on the origin of the design is said to come from the skeleton of a whale. With the backbone as the keel and the ribs forming the skeletal structure on which the wooden planking of the hull is fixed. With the frame of the hull complete, boat-builders fix more planks to form the decking. Remaining parts include long poles for the mast, and the spar (the long wooden pole – or poles) that the sail is tied to; and of course the rudder and rigging.

Other influences on the design of these boats and dhows come from seafring nations further afield. The outriggers of the Ngalawa possibly inspired by similar design in Indonesia and Polynesia. The square stern of the dhows not dissimilar to the Portugese galleons that bought explorers such as Vasco da Gama to the Swahili Coast in the 16th century.