A shipwright gives a peek into his craft

Meet C Mathi, who has been transforming wood into sea-going vessels

K Jagatha stands patiently next to us in the hot sun. Dressed in faded green, she will hopefully get a new attire when she’s ready to go home. Next to her, we look like billy goats near an elephant. Jagatha is a mammoth trawler boat. C Mathi walks up to us from behind her. Mathi and his men have been working on the boat for the past few days. A shipwright at the boat yard by N4 beach, Mathi is the mesthri, meaning captain; he has been sawing, nailing, and shaping wood into boats for the past 40 years.

“I’m from OT in Cuddalore,” begins the 53-year-old. “My father was a fisherman.” Mathi walked by the banks of a lake to school every day. “I saw men saw wood to make boats,” he recalls. It fascinated him. “I loved wood,” he declares. One day, he decided to join them. “I was 12 then,” he remembers. “They asked me to hand them blocks of wood, nails and such, and help around the yard.” He did this after school hours and finally quit school to work full-time with the shipwrights. “The mesthri there was Joseph. He taught me everything, right from sketching to the construction,” says Mathi.

A shipwright gives a peek into his craft

“That’s it. Can I get back to work now?” he suddenly asks, flipping a hand towel on his shoulder and preparing to leave.

Standing in between two massive boats, the thump of metal against wood, the dull screech of cardboard being torn, and men hollering instructions that echo from deep within a boat’s hull...Mathi doesn’t have the heart to slacken at his work place. But we request for a detailed narration and he continues…

Mathi came to Chennai in 1981. “I arrived at Kasimedu,” he says. “I took a house for rent in MGR Nagar and started work under mesthri Ram. I was with him for a year.” Chinna Bhai, Periya Bhai… Mathi then worked under other people before he landed his first order. He was just 18 then. “The fisherman had seen my work and asked around about the quality of my craft. He was confident enough to trust me with his boat.”

Mathi will never forget the first boat that he made. It was a 38 feet-long IB boat that cost the owner ₹65,000. “Today, I work on boats that cost ₹20 lakhs to ₹1 crore,” he says.

Mathi starts by sketching the boat on paper. Wood — such as kaatu vaagai or the more expensive aini is sourced from places such as Tuticorin and Kaniyakumari to craft it. Boat makers use the term kuzhi to speak of quantities.

A shipwright gives a peek into his craft

“One tonne equals 20 kuzhi. For one boat, we use 1,200 kuzhi of wood,” he explains. He adds: “It takes a team of six men around three months to build one. We work from 6 am to 6 pm every day.” The most labour-intensive parts are the atti (stern) and the aniyam (bow). For these, the men heat wood after smearing it with neem oil so that it can be bent into any shape.

Although well-paid — the men make around ₹1,000 on a good day — shipwrights do not have work through the year. “We get repair work during the yearly ban on fishing using mechanised boats,” says Mathi. “Then there are the odd ones that come in when damaged by water.”

Mathi has made 150 boats during his career. His best creation? “My first boat. She was called Mariamma,” saying so he trudges between two elephantine boats. We watch him walk deeper and deeper, until he disappears into one of them.

The next step

Once the wooden body is ready, the gaps are filled with cotton fibre, following which it is given a fibre glass coating. Then, electricians, mechanics, and painters get to work. One boat feeds up to 100 families. Once it is ready, it is launched after a short prayer on an auspicious day, many fishermen consult an astrologer for the purpose.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 5:59:09 PM |

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