Dhow

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The English name dhow (archaically spelled dow), pronounced to rhyme with 'now' and 'cow' (IPA: /daʊ/), denotes a sailing vessel (now virtually always fitted with an outboard motor) found in the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Such vessels are much used on the east coast of Africa, all around the Arabian peninsula and around the Indian sub-continent. They are identifiable by their lateen rig. Traditionally, the planking of a dhow was fastened by coir (coconut fibre) rope, sewn through the planks. The arrival of the Portuguese in 1506 introduced nails as fasteners.

Dhow presents an etymological conundrum. Although many current dictionaries state that the root of dhow is the Arabic داو dāw, there is no evidence of actual origin; the word (like the vessel itself) is as likely to have originated on the west coast of India, where Marathi is spoken: the word in Marathi for this type of vessel is dāw. A tava, with the same meaning, is recorded by OED in the Persian Gulf in 1470, so Farsi may be the origin. Swahili has also been suggested, although this seems unlikely in view of the age of the word.

In modern Arabic, the word dhow is rarely used, and many speakers do not recognize it. Arabs themselves recognize different classes of lateen-rigged sailing vessels which are grouped by Anglophones into one over-riding class of 'dhow'. The classification does not rely on such European considerations of defining types of sailing vessel as the number of masts, the shape and number of sails; the Arabic classification is more by hull shape, size of vessel, details of stem and stern and so on. Many names are recorded, some variants by region. These include:

  • A baggalah (or baghla, bakala, bugla, buggalow) was a large cargo-carrying vessel with an elaborate square stern, modelled on a 17th century East Indiaman. (OED doubts the derivation from Arabic 'she-mule', regarding it as mere coincidence between languages.)
  • A bateel (battil, battela) has a curved stem with a large oval head and a planked transom stern
  • A boum (boom, b[h]um; dhangi) is a simple cargo-carrying vessel, broad and deep, with a low flat deck.
  • A sambuk (sambuq, sanbuc, zambuck, etc.) is a smaller work-horse cargo boat, used also to ferry pilgrims to Mecca. It has swept-back 'wings' of ornamental planks reaching aft from the stern.
  • A shu'ai (saiyah, say, shewe[e], shouee, shei) is a small (under 50 feet), elegant fishing boat with a straight stem, having a double curve at the head. Shu'ais too have the 'wings' at the stern, where there is also an elegant platform, the 'captain's bed'.
  • The ganja (ghanja) is the largest of the common dhows. It is probably a purely Indian variety, not native to Arab waters. It has an elaborate figurehead.
  • A zarook (zarooq, garook[uh]; bedan) is a double-ended dhow mostly seen on the Red Sea. It has steeply sloping stem- and stern-posts, and elaborate steering gear.
  • A jaliboot (jalbut[i]) is the only dhow known to Howarth, 1977 with a straight (vertical) stem. This, he feels, is sufficient to support the folk etymology that the name is a crruption of jolly-boat, the smallest of the rowing boats carried by a Royal Navy ship in the days of sail.
  • Belem is a generic name for small boats "from dugout canoes upwards", virtually flat-bottomed.
  • An abra[h] (abari, abri) is a small boat used as a water taxi. It is not really a dhow, having no sails; it is propelled by oar, or nowadays, a motor.
In 1980-1981, a remarkable replica dhow from early times, built traditionally with planking sewn with coir and called 'the Sinbad dhow', repeated an ancient voyage from Oman to Beijing, proving the possibility of such legendary journeys. It is now preserved on the Al Bustan Roundabout in Muscat.


Much of the information on this page comes from Howarth, 1977.