Foul Bottoms Indian Ocean 

I must go dhown to the sea again …

A youthful Quirky discovers Elizabethan seafaring alive and well.

The first time I met old Ali, it was in the mid-sixties and he was scrubbing his bottom with half a coconut shell on a beach in Mombasa Harbour, Kenya ... scrubbing the bottom of his boom to be precise ... this boom being a double ended sailing dhow about 80 feet long.
There were scores of them in those days, plying the ancient routes of Sinbad with cargoes of Masefield magnificence to ports around the Indian Ocean. A look at the annual wind patterns shows that these ocean traders, like Victorian yachtsmen, chose their seasons and never sailed to windward. Diesels were being introduced in some dhows but generally, all voyages were under lateen rig.
No cheap tin trays for these guys, but handcrafted brass ones and beautifully carved Arab chests. There were carpets, dates, coconut oil, coffee, and, before their export became illegal, elephant tusks ... (some say when a Kenyatta family member was put in charge of stopping the Kenya ivory trade it ... er … actually increased.)
The dead straight boriti (mangrove) poles were harvested to be used as scaffolding in tree free areas of the Middle East … that was before they needed half the world’s cranes. Some say the most valuable cargoes were hidden away in the captain’s quarters: gold and assorted drugs. But there was one cargo you could not hide: dried fish. You could smell Mombasa’s main export 10 miles out of town.
Foul Bottoms mired boatAll this stuff was loaded aboard, Sinbad style, by barefoot, loin clothed labourers sweating up narrow gangplanks with shoulder loads of cargo. You got the feeling that the wharfies union had yet to make an impression here.
Their owners never referred to their vessels as dhows; there was a specific name for each type from the sleek double-ended booms and bedeens, to the Elizabethan galleon-styled Sambuks, Ghanjahs, Baghlas and Khotias with their broad sterns and aft cabins in which Drake would have made himself comfortable.
Well he would … if it wasn’t for the smell of fish. Galleys were just as primitive as his, an open brick fire box on deck whose menu varied with the weather. Whatever it produced; it came with rice and dried fish.
Construction was a bit Elizabethan too. They were built in India or in ports in the Middle East; from great baulks of hardwood, mostly of Indian teak, which were fastened together by eye and square iron nails which gave a distinctive pattern of rust streaks down the oil-finished topsides from the day of launching. Masts and spars were assorted tree trunks bound together and the lateen sails were hand stitched from rough, porous canvas. Reef points are for wimps in dhow sailing.
Due to the paucity of decent marina berths and hoists in their cruising grounds, Ali and his fellow owners would careen their vessels or dry them out with sheer legs at low tide. After a coconut scrub, Ali checked for teredo worm holes. Yes, even in teak. If he found any, he would hammer a teak plug into the hole and trim it off.
Foul Bottoms aftAnti-fouling was a thick mix of lime and animal fat, either camel fat or beef. And when I say it was applied by hand, yup, no brushes or rollers. Just grab a handful and smear it on the hull, filling up any imperfections as you go. Real toughies these guys, neither gloves nor hand lotion afterwards. Purists used to use a mix of lime with shark oil.
When I asked Ali why he did not, he pointed out it was easier to catch a camel or a cow than a shark. Strangely, this very effective anti-fouling does not show up in the Whitworth’s catalogue.
Since biblical times, the Arabs have developed a system of star sight navigation for crossing vast treks of sea and sand. Although Ali had the benefit of British Admiralty charts from Aden at seven shillings and sixpence each and a battered sextant, he still relied on star sights and traditional navigation than the RYA Yachtmaster’s course.
Most of their voyages are coastal until they cross from East Africa to India and back. As one who once completely missed the Island of Alderney from 80 miles away, I was interested how Ali found the low lying Cochin on the Malabar Coast, from a distance of over 2,000 miles.
With my basic Swahili and his English strained to their limits, using gestures and drawing marks in the sand, I am beginning to get the picture. But what is this he is saying?
“I cannot expect to see land until my … bowels are … smiling … happy.”
Again please. Ah, gottit. By a series of graphic gestures, Ali intimates that on ocean crossings, as opposed to coastal sailing, he is often constipated for the first part of the trip. (Maybe it was nerves.) During that time, no land will be seen. But when normal service is resumed, and if the stars are in agreement, his crew can keep an eye out for land. And when it does show up, he simply gets put ashore and asks.
“Cochin? Left or right?”


Foul Bottoms book cover*John Quirk has been writing about and illustrating the joys of messing about in boats for over half a century. He is the author / illustrator of Foul Bottoms, published by Adlard Coles and available from Boat Books in Crows Nest and from Amazon.