East African Sailing Boats

May 9, 2016

A  wide variety of traditional wooden boats and small ships can still be seen in use and being built on the mainland of Tanzania and the islands of Zanzibar. Here are a few of the ones still in use:


The Ngalawa




 The ngalawa is a traditional, double-outrigger canoe of the swahili people living in Zanzibar and the Tanzanian coast.
 It is usually between 5 to 6 m long and has two outriggers, a centrally-placed mast (often inclining slightly towards the prow) and a single triangular sail. It is used for short distance transport of goods or people, as well as for coastal fishing.


 Nagalawas are also a common mode of travelling along the coast and to and from islands, capable of carrying up to 8 to 10 people depending on its size. An ngalawa hull is generally constructed from the trunk of a mature mango tree. The trunk is partially ‘dug out’ and shaped by hand using an adze (an ancient axe like tool used for rough-carving wood). Once the hull begins to take shape, and has become lighter and easier to transport, it will be moved to a fishing village closer on the coast where the digging out and shaping work is finished. Fire is sometimes used to harden the wood and kill off any insects that may still be living and eating away at the new boat.



The Mashua



Masuhas are generally larger fishing vessels than Ngalawa’s. They are used for both fishing and trade purposes, and are an integral part of the Swahili economy and tradition. The larger Mashua can carry heavy and bulky loads such as timber, firewood, charcoal and coral rag. They are fitted with a single mast and do not have decks (unlike the jahazi), except for occasionally at the bow or stern.



The Dhow



Dhows were one of the earliest types of boats to sail the Indian Ocean. They were made from planks sewn together with no deck.  There are still dhows that are used as trading vessels, that can carry a large crew across the ocean with cargo and trading goods and, in spite of the growth of technology, this type of vessel is still largely used along the East African coasts of Tanzania as well as Kenya.


Nowadays, some Dhows have been converted into tourist boats taking tourists around the islands of Zanzibar.







The jahazi is much larger than a Dhow and can measure up to 20 meters long. Jahazis need a proper skilled crew.
For many decades, Jahazis have sailed and served and linked various Indian Ocean coasts transporting all kinds of goods.
They are no longer in use. More technological boats have taken over due to poorer sailing safety, less speed and the difficulty of manoeuverability.


Dhow Building - Materials and Design


The basic dhow design proved so seaworthy that they are still used today. These sailing boats are trading vessels primarily used to carry heavy items such as fruit, fresh water or other merchandise along the coasts of East Africa. Larger dhows have crews of approximately thirty, smaller ones typically around twelve.


Masts and sails
In early times the masts and yards were probably made of coconut wood and teak, although a number of woods were used in later construction. Originally sails were woven from coconut palm leaves, and eventually cotton cloth became the favorite for merchants on long voyages.



Dhows in Zanzibar Harbour

This post was researched and written by Cesare Giacomelli of the House of Spices, Zanzibar




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