Most of us remember sitting at the edge of our seats in 1997, staring spellbound as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet fell in love on board the Titanic. Except, I wasn’t just watching the two star-crossed lovers — I fell in love with the ship, too. The sound of footfall on the wooden decks of ships and boats is music to my ears, the roar of the sea only adding to this rhythm.
One bright Sunday morning, I was lucky enough to watch these magnificent contraptions come together, as I watched a boat being built at the Karachi Fish Harbour. In Karachi, boat-building yards are located primarily at Ibrahim Hyderi, Sandspit, Hawksbay, and Baba and Bhit islands
The boats instilled a sense of wonder over the power of nature. How small are we, and yet we consider ourselves a supreme creation of the world, I mused. Some of us, however, were not as transported by the hulking structures of the boats — one of my friends clambered aboard a boat that was under construction and headed straight for the upper deck, throwing his arms out in an imitation of Jack Dawson’s famous ‘I’m the king of the world’ scene in Titanic.The thrill of watching the boat come together was more than enough to mask the strong fishy smell at the boat-building yard. Sturdy planks of wood were scattered across the yard and the skeletons of the boats awaited completion. For the photographers in my group, the interlocking frames of the wooden parts offered a fresh perspective at each angle.
Boat-building is an age-old art that dates back to the time of Hazrat Nooh (Noah) (A.S); over time, technique and tools have evolved, of course, but the process remains no less captivating. Near the skeletons of the boats, three men, Haji Kareem Ilahi, Fareedul Haq and Abdul Shakir, sat in the shadow of one of their constructions. I was amazed to learn that these men did not follow any blueprint or drawing while constructing the boats. They have memorised their methods and do not need any graphs, pictures or drawings to guide their hand. It is astonishing to consider the skill of workers like Ilahi, Haq and Shakir when you learn about European cutting edge techniques in boat-building.
Abdul Shakir, the youngest of this group, told me that the boats are designed to meet international standards and boats built in Pakistan can rival any others on the market. While many boats here cater to local demands, Shakir said that Pakistan exports boats to Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to Shakir, even members of royal families of Saudi Arabia order boats from the Karachi Fisheries Harbour as the quality is excellent.
Boat-building is a game of money. The more money someone is willing to invest in the boat, the better the quality of wood used. A single boat can take a minimum of two years to complete and prices start at Rs5o million. The cost is determined by many factors, including the size of type of the ships or boats, and the kind of wood used — Burma teak wood (sagwaan), for instance, is the most expensive, at a cost of Rs12,500 per cubic feet).
Many workers at the Fisheries Harbour agreed that Burma teak or teak from Indonesia is the ideal wood to use due to it’s longevity and sturdiness. Additionally, local wood types such as Keekar, Laachi and Saras are also used in the construction process. However, many of the workers in the yard expressed fears that if deforestation in Pakistan continues at the same rate, the availability of wood for boats will become scarce and more expensive. The engines used in the boats are imported from Singapore, China and some are smuggled from Afghanistan, the workers said.
The men at the Fisheries Harbour make all kinds of vessels, including cargo ships and ferries. It is a testament to their expertise that they have such a vast range of experience. By the end of my visit to the Fisheries Harbour, I was convinced — I wanted to see the world from a boat now.
Mehar-un-nisa is a Research Associate at the National Centre for Maritime Policy Research and tweets @mehar_un_nisa
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 16th, 2015.