The adventures of Captain Juma, the sailor

Will God fulfill the prayers of old men whom time forgot?

Will God heed to the desire of a proud, old Omani sailor?

These queries played in our mind as we talked to a venerable old sailor, a former ship (dhow) captain, and an icon of a proud part of Oman’s history, who while lovingly caressing a miniature model of a dhow at his home in Al Hail South, was also saying that given a chance he would sail an Omani dhow once again. Even though he was old, tired and his sailing days were all behind him.

Captain (former) Juma Said Salem Al Ruzaiqy pointed to an elevated spot on the vessel and said that from that vantage point he could see everyone on board the vessel and the sea. “This is where I used to stand,” he told Black & White, his once-tired eyes gleaming with a mixture of emotions: pleasure, pride, and perhaps a tinge of sadness. He could not take his eyes off the miniature vessel, made in the likeness of Al Ghanja (a type of Suri dhow/boat).

“My sailing days are over,” the 75-plus sailor and captain who had sailed for more than 50 years wistfully tells Black & White, adding however that he wished to sail once more. “I want to become the master of a ship, steer it to safety…just once more,” he said in a voice heavy with experiences and remembrances of sails past.

Praying somehow that his dreams would come true, we listened to Captain Juma Ruzaiqy reciting some moments of a glorious past. He told us the tale without remorse, regret or self pity. It was a hard life on the sea that he described, but here was a man who took everything that fate threw on him and accepted it. If life was tough then, it just so happened that he was a bit tougher.

For a boy who took to sailing at a mere age of nine, sailing was the only profession and life that he knew. But the sea has taught him the most valuable lessons that life could ever teach anyone. And, one of the most important lessons was patience, Captain Juma added to B&W.

For Capt Juma, patience was the key to his success; to a successful sailing and trading career. On the sea, the odds that they faced were mostly insurmountable. “But with the fortitude of patience in us, we could face anything. Because we knew that the bad times would not last and even if we were totally away from land for months, we would still somehow reach our destination. Despite confronting the worst of moments, worst of storms and despairing moments when we would be lost and off track for weeks, we still had the patience to wait for the seas to calm, for the path to clear, the winds to settle and from dark moments of loneliness and fear of the unknown to turn into utter bliss, togetherness and happiness,” Capt Juma said.

Good old years

“I would love to live those days all over again. I still prefer to go back to my old life and be part of the older generation,” Capt Juma said, slightly bent over on his chair at his home. “Our focus was not comfort and easy life. Yes, it was a tough life, but we were tougher. We were people with tremendous amount of inner strength; our hearts were more open and we were not burdened with guilt like the youngsters of today.

The comfort and easy life has made the younger generation weak and dependent on others. We were self reliant and self dependent. But, then we had no choice. We had to. I have had a full-fledged and a satisfying life. I have fulfilled my mission. I have no regrets whatsoever. I had a good life and I am still enamoured by the sea…”

At that time, Capt Juma was one of the youngest one to have sailed on a dhow. He was merely nine then. “I had completed my certificate course at the Quran School. Formal education was not easy to come by. I did perform well at school; after passing the course, the only option I had was to join my father on board the dhow.”

Harsh sailing life

But, life was not hunky dory. “A life of sailing is a harsh one; but it makes you strong. A sea never hurts you and it teaches you what you need most in your life – PATIENCE! I learned it the hard way, it taught me strength, it taught me team work. Those unexpected storms and strong winds and dead winds were the dangers we faced those days. Imagine being on a wooden ship, with no engine or motor totally dependent on the winds? If there was no wind, life would literally come to a stand still…”

Memories: sweet and sour; salty and bitter

Capt Juma had an answer to almost everything we asked him. At times, he mentally pored over a query and then unveiled slices of his sailing life. At one point, he went very quiet and then slowly, he told us of an incident on the sea, when they were lost in sea, in the middle of nowhere. Capt Juma and his crew were stuck between two opposing winds and they literally stood still for days. Strong westerly winds then blew them off course and they had to literally resort to an alternate route on their return journey to Muscat from Mumbai. Their reserves had run out and they were on their last leg. He put his distress flag out and finally a passing steel oil ship yielded to their SOS. By this time, they were somewhere near Sugatra (near Yemen). A boat was sent by the oil liner to the captain of the dhow.

Kid with a strong heart

Capt Juma gently rubbed his cheek with a glint in his eyes and a hint of a smile on his face as he recalled these moments. “In shipping circles, I was just a kid and I looked it too, without even a hint of a growth on my face.

“The captain was quite taken aback when he met me and asked several times whether I was actually the captain.” Seeing the youngster who claimed he was at the help of the vessel, the captain feared that the dhow was in danger because of a rank inexperienced hand at its helm.

“The captain looked down at me and gave me a series of tasks to do to prove that I could handle my vessel. ‘You are too young to be the captain of the ship. Tell me the position of your ship,’ he asked me sternly. He got a map and asked me to pinpoint our current position.

“This was not a difficult task for me: I pointed to the map and said, ‘we’re here – 12 noon!’

The captain’s eyes popped out: ‘Dead on,’ he said, slapping me on my back. ‘Dead on, lad,’ he said, almost hugging me. Then he transformed himself from a doubting Thomas to a fountain of plenty. He gave us water, provisions and even a gift for me. “The experience was a lesson for all of us!”

Sailing at nine

This was nothing unusual for Capt Juma was just nine when he joined his father on the ship to India. “They say necessity is the mother of invention and that is how I took up sailing. My family had the necessity to take up sailing. My sister, older to me by two years had some eye problem and since Mumbai had good medical facilities, my father decided to take her there.

This is how I began my sailing career. I became a trader for many companies and started sailing to Mumbai (It was called Mumbai then during the 1940s, not Bombay, he clarified).

“If the winds were favourable, it took me and my crew just seven days to reach Mumbai. Otherwise we could be sailing for over a month, from Muscat to Mumbai and back. Normally we stayed one month at our destination, before we start our sailing back.

“In those days Sur was a trading centre and its only other competitor was Kuwait. Sur and Kuwait were filled with demand and supply of merchandises from Mumbai, Karachi, Burma, and Madras etc. Sailing was not new to Oman. It started very early and many Omanis set off from Sur, to the adjoining AGCC countries and other coastal towns to far China, India and Africa in search of fame and fortune.

I have sailed to India frequently and to Pakistan, all the AGCC countries and Africa

My father and grandfather have sailed up to Madras, Siam (Thailand) and even Madagascar.” Capt Juma’s family owned over seven ships – at one point they had three ships sailing — and we had our own shipyard. Sur was the only centre in Muscat that had trading at its peak.”

Salted fish, lemons, and dates

Other than Arabic, Capt Juma could also converse in Hindi. He could also handle English and a bit of Swahili.

“Have you heard of Surmai machi?” he asked us in Hindi… “That fish is named after Sur and I am sure it is still available in Mumbai. We used to fish for 30 days or more and salt the fishes and take it up to Mumbai to sell. Other stuff traded included salted lemons and dried dates. We brought back rice, cereals, spices, medicines and many more things from Mumbai.” He also remembered his connection with Kerala. “Calicut (Kozhikode) and Beypore,” he said, his face breaking into a smile.

Cut out for sailing

Capt Juma noted that he was dependent on ships, throughout his life. “As sailors, we had our lives cut out for us. We were alive and everyday was a challenge. Yes, it was a very tough life. We were out in the vast, empty ocean and at the mercy of harsh nature for days and months. Our family owned seven big ships which we acquired for trading purposes. We had contracts with various companies and we brought cargo for them. The 1940s saw Sur as a busy trading centre and without any other transportation facilities ships were the only means for trade. Two of our family ships were biggest in the whole region.”

Omani ships, built to last for 100 years

Omani ships, which can last for 60 to 100 years, are distinguished by their variety of types although some are no longer made. The largest type was the ocean-going cargo vessel, the Baghla with a length of 135 feet and a load capacity of 150-400 tonnes, which could be distinguished by its high poop deck and quarter galleries.

Al Ghanjah was very similar to the Baghla, and is considered by many Omanis to be the most beautiful of the large dhows, Capt Juma noted.

No one wants the long, hard route

“The seas and sailing were the only means of money for our family and we chose sailing as our profession. No regrets till date and I am still wanting to sail more. Sailing is my life and it is sad to see that the younger generation will never experience it on sea.

It is not modernity, it is the progress of technology and transportation that has created newer sources of trade that has brought a decline in trading by sea. Today no one is dependent on the sea routes. The air cargos, the land transport has developed by leaps and bounds – so why choose the long hard route?”

Oman’s only master ship builder

Sur, on a sleepy February afternoon is just that: sleepy. But, along its harbour, considered to be one of the oldest in the world, there are some buildings dedicated for shipbuilding. Enter one of these and you will bump into one of the only Omani ship craftsman/builder alive, who is still fully engaged in the ship building trade.

Ustad Juma bin Hasoon Juma Al Araimi, 70, is neither sleepy, nor lazy. And neither are his workers, all immersed in the activity they know best.

Master craftsman Juma Hasoon is still active as the first time he took a ship-building tool, some 55 years ago in Kuwait. He returned to Oman 16 years after, taking up the reins of shipbuilding in 1971 and thereafter building more than 2000 vessels, most of them costing over 90,000 rials (to be built).

He is the only active Omani ship builder left in Oman. But, neither is he a relic or a man with a singular past alone. Juma Hasoon is today a timeless reminder of the glorious shipbuilding past of Oman.

He is also keen that this ancient craft of building wooden vessels does not die with him. “I have trained my three sons in the same trade and I have 10 expatriate workers too,” Juma told Black & White, taking some time off from his busy building schedule to talk to us.

Juma was keen to spend some time with us so that he could unveil some nuggets of information of his past, thereby preserving some salient points of a glorious era to posterity.

But, he is neither sad nor depressed. Although times are tough now and there is hardly any shipping activity to speak of, Juma is confident that he could spark the ship building desire in young Omanis to continue, as he noted, a “glorious tradition”.

Legendary ship builders

In the earlier days, Juma used to have over 40 workers under him. “The demand for ships was very high then. I remember a time when there were six shipbuilders (including him) in Sur. Five have passed away. Only I am left today. Mohammed Khamis Al Shagagh, Yakuth Suleim Al Ghailani, Ismail Hasoon Al Araimi, Rubaiya Hamad Al Araimi and Mohammed Hamad Al Shagagh were the other five,” he said, reeling off the names of his now-dead contemporaries. “They are no more today, but they were some of the best builders Sur ever saw.”

Juma also described a former legendary ship builder, Khamis Al Jhowi, who, he said, could merely feel the wood and instruct how to build. Khamis died last year. “Another good ship builder was Zubait Khamis Al Alawi, but he is too old today and has retired from the trade.”

Passing a legacy

Most of the Omani ship builders have left the trade because of the lack of demand. “I will not blame anyone, it is just that life styles have evolved and modernity has made lives easier and faster for all. Ship building is not a fast-paced activity. A person or business house building one will have to wait for nearly six to eight months minimum. We do not build a ship for ourselves. We do not hold stocks too. Only after the order is placed we start to build.

“My three sons, Saleh, Ali and Khalid are trained in this trade. I don’t have the heart to let the ship building die. It will eventually, but as long as my family continues in this trade, I feel there will be someone to take the trade forward.”

Seven shipyards in Sur

Juma explained how during the time when the ship building trade was at its peak, Sur used to have more than seven shipyards. Today at the place where the largest shipyard used to be has been redesigned as a park!

Juma noted how ship building was not just a passion, but more importantly, a family tradition. “My father, grandfather, uncles were into ship building. So I was groomed, taught and trained by the best in the field then. I dot keep count of how many ships I build, but I can say definitely over 2000. I have built ships for Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.”

Day begins and ends with ship building

For Juma, building a ship is like breathing. He has to do it to keep himself alive. And Juma, despite his age, was as sprightly and energetic as a teenager. “My day starts and ends with the making of the ship. It is a tough job, but very satisfying.

“For me it is a family tradition. I don’t know of any other trade. Being a native of Sur, the sea is an integral part of my life. Other than Sur, Kuwait is one of the major centres for trading and ship building. These ships were basically created for trading. The sea route was the chosen one for trading since centuries. That made ship building a part of Sur and its people. Sur can boast of many talented and professional shipbuilders and traders.”

Building a ship is tough

Then and today, building is a ship is tough business. “First of all there should be a demand for ships, which is slowly declining. Today, the trading or business houses are not dependant on dhows or wooden ships. The fibres have taken over. And it is easier and faster with fiber building. A wooden ship takes a lot of craftsmanship and time. It is expensive too. It requires 90,000Rials to build a big ship. It takes around eight months to build a big ship, while a small one takes around six months. Wood is a dependable element. Oman’s temperature gets the wood in a proper and perfectly dried condition. I only take time off for my prayers in a day. I have dedicated my complete day to the ship building trade.”

Six types of ships

Sur boasts of six different types of ship: Al Ghanja, Boom, Sabookh, Badan, Jalbooth, and Shuwaiei. Al Ghanja is the best and popular one from Sur. These ships are mainly created for shipping cargo – trading — and fishing. Nowadays it is used predominantly for races and for tourism. “I only wish and hope that the authorities will take up the trade and pass it on to the future before it becomes extinct and just history,” Juma opined.

The wood for these vessels usually came from Malaysia, India, Burma, Africa etc. But the designs came from the craftsman’s head. “We carry the design parts in our head. I do not follow a blueprint or a design. The building process depends on the length and breadth of the ship. Once that is decided and ordered, the other parts can be created,” Juma said.

Omani dhows – the best

Support or interest from Oman Inc is still not very forthcoming, but the Omani corporate does order ships for taking part in boat races. “I am very proud to say that I have built many such ships for races and these ships have always emerged as winners.”

“I remember one such instance where the organisers of a race in Dubai actually said all ships should be of the same origin (as the country where the race was being held) and thereby the Oman team was not allowed to use Omani dhows…,” Juma said, adding with a laugh that this rule was applied because Omani dhows always won in such races.

Was there any special vessel that he created and was there any one of them very close to his heart?

The master craftsman loved all of his works of art: “I love all the ships that I have created. Yes, one special dhow, which is close to my heart is the one largest ever dhow – Al Messarrah — made in Oman – it was made for the Royal Yacht Affairs, in August 2005.

Like father, like son

We also spoke to one of the sons of the master craftsman, who Juma fondly hopes will carry on with the trade. The ship building yard of Juma also houses a mini-show room for miniature models and other paraphernalia of ships and ship building. Khalid Juma Al Araimi, one of Juma’s three sons, who is also a

shipbuilder, said he was proud to have obtained an opportunity to take his family trade forward. “I am confident that I can build a ship on my own, but I am fortunate to learn it from my father. He is one of the best teachers anyone can have. Sometimes my father tests us, asking us to do certain jobs on our own. And we try to perform to the best of our capacity. We have a good team of workers with us, who do great work.

Ship building is a great trade, it is slow and steady. I only wish the demand is more.”

Proud lineage

Saud Al Ruzaiqy, who led us around in Sur, comes from a proud lineage of famous ship builders. He

agreed that it was quite tragic that the ship building activity was no longer in the fore as it used to be in the past.

But, he said he was quite confident that the sons of Juma Hasoon would carry on the trade. “I come from a family of ship owners and traders. At a particular time there used to be an exclusive shipyard to house our ships. My father used to be a captain too. For trading purposes, our family used a great number of ships. I remember the elders of my family telling me that one of the ships we sold to Yemen was embedded in one of the Yemeni coins.

It is sad that the younger generation will now only see the ship as a souvenir. There is very little ship building activity because the demand for these ships has reduced phenomenally.”

Proud to be from Sur

Black & White also spoke to some of the locals about Sur’s glorious past.

Suhail Al farsi and Basim Al Araimi, natives of Sur, were having a lazy, sleepy afternoon session at the beach front when we approached them. They knew of Sur’s past and said they were proud of that, but were as sad as any for seeing a loved tradition dying in front of their eyes: “Yes, we are aware and very proud that we are from Sur.

“Sur is very famous for wooden dhows, but, it is sad that the trade is slowly dying. We know there were many shipyards here and we have seen plenty of ships docked, but today it is just tourist attraction. Al Ghanja is the best ship from Sur. We know Juma Hasoon is one of the best shipbuilder here.”