Wary of wood’s short life, fishermen don’t want to miss fiberglass boats

HYDERABAD: Boatbuilding still seems to be a booming industry in the coastal areas, despite different community’s raising hue and cry over depleting sources of income in the coastal areas, which was mainly because of declining catch or unstable seafood prices.

Majeed Motani, a boatowner and once an experienced fishing boat captain, says now boatowners are motivated to convert their wooden boats to fiberglass ones to save maintenance cost and increase the life of vessel.

Belonging to coastal village Ibrahim Hydri, Karachi, Motani said, “Majority of traditional wooden boatbuilding yards have been shut, except a few, where artisans have changed their skills to building fiberglass boats”.

He said Karachi Fish Harbour, where some years back boatbuilding yards used to provide huge space to artisans, but now it did not have any capacity to attract traditional wooden boat building business. “Thus, some boatbuilders have shifted their workshops to Ibrahim Hydri to continue with their work and earn little to run their families’ affairs,” Motani said. A 27-ft wooden boat can stay for a monthlong period under seawater. These boats carry two engines, one for operating it, while the other for pulling fishing nets with heavy catch.

The larger boat has a capacity to take 1500-kg ice, 4,000 gallon diesel, and ration for one-month with around a dozen crew members. They bring heavy fish catch, measuring 2000-5000 kg in a trip.

Sharing his observations, he said wooden boats after some years started developing cracks because of staying under water for long time.

“This may be one reason for boatowners to have fiberglass boats, which are stronger, and their life may be longer, compared to wooden boats,” he said.

Ibrahim Hydri has around a dozen jetties, including two government-run fish landing sides. All jetties provide little space for developing boatbuilding yards and facilitating boatbuilders to continue their work at their premises.

According to Motani, around 10-12 workers, including one master/lead artisan, three foremen, and skilled helpers work for eight months or one year to complete a larger wooden boat, depending on its capacity, bottom, length and height.

“Now artisans/ carpenters use electric tools instead of traditional manual ones. Thus, they (artisans) can work faster,” he added.

Ustad Akbar Wadho, a master boatbuilder in Ibrahim Hydri village, said “It is not our choice. Boatowners cannot afford high-quality wood, as it is not easily available at the local market either”.

“When people look excited to invest on having a new fishing boat, it is understood that the business has a value despite much changes taking place around,” he explained.

“We have been given tasks to work for one-year long periods, despite the lockdown restrictions. We have our workforce, mostly skilled to help build parts of boats, which we later assemble, giving the structure a finishing shape accordingly,” he said.

“We do not burn wood but build a boat with pieces. It is a specific art only these artisans know,” he justified.

These artisans have continued the practice set by their forefathers many generations back. They do not take unnecessary leaves being daily wagers. Despite the lockdown following coronavirus pandemic, these workers come regularly and stay at workplace till sunset.

For boatbuilding these artisans need higher ground where they can work safely to avoid any high tide or disturbance by rainwater.

The Ibrahim Hydri village has a population of 150,000, mostly fishermen families, deriving source of living through fishing business, directly or indirectly.

The ban on fishing started from July 1, 2020, and fishermen can be seen repairing their fishing nets, sitting on boats to resume work in the new season in August.

Around 20 years back, there were boatyards in coastal villages like Kaka Village, Abdul Rehman Village and Younusabad in Keamari town. But now those business activities are no more due to diversification in boatbuilding profession. Asif Bhatti, president Native Indigenous Fishermen Association (NIFA), said, “Majority of boat owners have converted their old boats into fiber boats by spending as much as Rs100,000-Rs150,000”. “Now different companies have taken reign to provide raw material, including engines to artisans for preparing fiberglass boats and artisans in Younisabad village, located near famous picnic resort Sandspit Beach, now again have resumed the work and earn little to ease their families.”

A once popular boatbuilding yard was closed for short period due to declining demand of building new wooden boats, because of unavailability of quality wood, Bhatti said adding now the artisans had shifted their skill to prepare fiberglass boats and hired trained workforce to continue it.

Akhtar Shaikh, who belongs to fishermen family in the village, says around 700-800 workers, including artisans are engaged in boatbuilding business in these boatyards. “In fact, quality wood is not available in the market, therefore the people have to bear more cost to buy wood for the purpose.”

Compared to a wooden boat, the fiberglass one, measuring 27ft, required Rs1.8 to 2 million to build and could sustain for 30 years, compared to former, whose lifetime is 15 years, only, he said.

Wooden boatowners have to spend Rs5000-Rs6000/month for its maintenance.

Young artisans, who start learning this skill from scratch become experts after spending two-three years. They work with full concentration to mend wooden pieces one after another to prepare a new boat and follow carefully to give it finishing touches.

Reports gathered from local fishermen show that some of them prefer to operate wooden boats, which are comfortable compared to fiberglass boats.

They justify that wooden boats protect crews against heat, cold and noise. Furthermore, these boats better absorb engine and other unwanted vibrations. Compared to it, the fiberglass boats are plain, almost sterile looking.

Some elderly fishermen still recall wonderful moments when they used to launch newly built boats with crowds of family members, close relatives and friends, carrying boats on their shoulders to set it at the seashore carefully, following distribution of sweets and exchange of greetings.

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