Along the ancient Maritime “Silk Route,” connecting China with Southeast, South and West Asia, the great mariners of yore sailed their dhows, bringing porcelain to Persia and cotton to China.

The dhow dates from the time of Babylon, even meriting a mention in the great epic Gilgamesh.1 Despite the primitive technologies of the age, master craftsmen could produce a boat that navigated choppy, treacherous waters, especially in the Malay seas, with relative ease.

When building a dhow, the shipwrights would–counterintuitively–construct the outer shell first, and add the frame in later. The planks were “sewn” together by cords threaded through holes drilled along the plank edges. Such shell-first sewn vessels can be seen even today off the southern coast of India.

Next, the holes along the edges of the planks had to be made watertight, and this was done by plugging them with either small wooden pegs or tufts of fiber. That this was critical can be seen by the fact that it was the only step in the construction process to be explicitly described in the Gilgamesh.

The sewing and plugging were followed by the process of oiling, whereby the cordage in the hull was made waterproof by liberally applying oil to it. Any kind of oil would do, whether vegetable, cashew or even shark oil. The cords would have to be oiled again at a later point, for which casks of oil were stored on the ship. If this step was omitted, the cords could rot and well, disaster would ensue.

The final step in the construction was “paying” or the process of protecting the dhow from the toredo or shipworm (incidentally, a delicacy among the Kamoro tribes of Papua) that would bore holes in exposed wood. It involved smearing (by hand) a mixture of lime and oil on the outside of the boat below the waterline.

Paying was a ceremonial occasion, marking the completion of the boat. It was accompanied by singing, dancing and sometimes even animal sacrifice. Thus, the dhow and its crew were launched into the great, wide world.