'Dhow' shipbuilders sunk by anti-piracy ban

The working day begins at the crack of dawn with a dizzying ascent up a ladder pitched steep to the side of the boat.

Shailesh Madiyar forlornly surveys the giant shipyard in the Indian port of Mandvi. A place synonymous with wooden boat-building for centuries, it now lies largely deserted.

"Four years ago, around 20 ships were being made at any one time, now there are just two," says Madiyar, of the Mandvi shipbuilders' association.

"These days, no more than five or six are made in a year," he said, gesturing towards around a dozen half-built boats which have been shored up like carcasses after construction was abandoned.

Mandvi stands on the banks of the Rukmavati river which flows into the Arabian Sea. A sleepy town located in western Gujarat state, it's a place where shipbuilding and sea trading have traditionally gone hand in hand.

But both industries have been pummelled by a ban from sailing in the pirate-infested waters off Somalia, once a lucrative trading destination.

The restriction on certain Indian-registered vessels was introduced in 2010 shortly after Somali pirates captured eight boats from Gujarat and almost 100 Indian crew members in a flurry of attacks over a period of several days.

For four centuries, generations of craftsmen from the small town have built ships prized by traders for ferrying goods along the ancient Indian Ocean trade routes that link Asia to the Middle East and Africa.

Today, using techniques passed down through generations, the few craftsmen who still have work build a kind of mastless dhow favoured for its durability and also its size, which allows easy access to the region's smaller ports.

The working day begins at the crack of dawn with a dizzying ascent up a ladder pitched steep to the side of the boat.

The craftsmen then use traditional tools such as hand-saws, hammers and chisels to cut and shape planks of sal, a hard wood native to South Asia.

But more recently, the boats have been seen as easy prey for pirates operating in one of the world's busiest shipping routes, according to the ban imposed by India's Directorate General of Shipping (DGS) in March 2010.

Much smaller than tankers and lacking sophisticated tracking equipment, the boats are easier to seize and then use as mother ships from which to attack larger vessels.

But Sameja said traders are prepared to take the risk and would have preferred to employ private security to protect their ships.

Meanwhile, business to Somalia for traders based mainly in the United Arab Emirates is thriving.

The sun may be setting on shipbuilding in Mandvi, but the skills of its craftsmen will stay in demand in the coming years for the upkeep and repair of existing ships which are usually seaworthy for at least 40 years.AFP

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