Board a traditional dhow and set sail from tropical shores on a private Zanzibar dhow cruise. Enjoy sundowners under the tugging triangle of a lateen sail as the sun sinks over the shaggy palms. It’s perhaps the most romantic way to view this most romantic of African islands.
We stepped onto the beach from our luxurious, makuti-roofed lodge to find a graceful dhow anchored just offshore. My partner and I waded through the shallows and climbed up the ladder onto the deck. Our private Zanzibar dhow cruise had begun…
The boat was a beautiful creature with a gleaming, mahogany hull and teak decks. She was about 12m long and had a triangular, lateen-rigged sail. The vessel could take a number of guests, but ours was a private, sundowner Zanzibar dhow cruise and we had the dhow and its crew completely to ourselves.
The skipper, Hasani, introduced himself while the crew untied the sail and raised the yardarm. One of the lads pulled up the anchor and laid it on the foredeck. The lateen sail unfurled, billowed and set in a beautiful white triangle of tugging cotton. Our dhow cleaved away from the beach through water of a luminous turquoise colour that seemed otherworldly.
I took a closer look at our vessel. The dhow seemed a solidly built, seaworthy craft. She was well-maintained, comfortable and equipped with an outboard engine, communication equipment, a boarding ladder, life jackets, waterproof bags and drinks coolers.
My partner and I soon found ourselves slipping into the soporific rhythm of dhow sailing. There was a primitive pleasure in this marriage of wood and sail with wind and water. The lateen quivered as the prow peeled a sparkling bow wave. There was the creak of mangrove spars and coir rope, the cry of sailing commands and yelps of joy from the crew as a gust surged us down the gentle face of a swell.
Hasani was at the tiller, steering us expertly to take advantage of every breath of wind. From his position at the stern, he told us a bit about the history of dhows: ‘For countless centuries, these boats have sailed the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, but with the coming of diesel engines and cargo ships their importance has, unfortunately, been greatly reduced,’ he said.
‘However, good examples of these ancient boats can still be found in ports all the way down the East African coast from Somalia to Mozambique. One of the greatest dhow harbours of all is right here in Zanzibar.’
He went on to tell us how, propelled by the monsoon winds, dhows sailing to Zanzibar from Arabia and India used to bring cargoes of dates, spices, wooden chests and carpets. When the prevailing winds changed direction at the turn of the season, the fleets returned to Asian ports with gold, ivory, mangrove poles and slaves from the great market in Stone Town.
These days, most of the craft that jostle for position in Zanzibar’s dhow harbour – or are drawn up on the sand at the island’s fishing villages – are smaller, coastal descendants of the large oceanic vessels of the past.
‘The great age of dhow sailing may be over, but here on Zanzibar we keep up the traditions, whether it’s fishing, dhow races, water taxis or tourist cruises,’ he said. ‘The sailing customs are in our blood.’
‘Over there!’ came a sudden shout from the bows. One of the crew was pointing to the east. Hasani swung the helm hard over and the dhow described a graceful turn. The sail was let out and we reached towards a spot where I could just make out dancing fins and splashes on the horizon.
Soon the bottlenose dolphins were surfing at our bows, their smiling faces looking up at us. Then, as soon as they had come, they disappeared into the darkening deep.
By now, the sun had settled on the horizon and from every corner of the compass, sails appeared – fishing dhows heading home for the night. It was a most affecting and romantic sight. This was a scene that could hardly have changed much over the last millennium.
We too, gybed and headed back to Zanzibar, joining a parade of lateen sails: the picturesque rush-hour traffic of the western Indian Ocean. Snacks and drinks were handed out. My partner and I reclined on big cushions, G&Ts in hand, watching the sun slip behind the island. The sky above the shaggy, bat-winged palms turned from orange to scarlet, then salmon and purple as the sun was slowly swallowed by the earth.
We slipped over a shallow reef in the growing dusk and glimpsed the darting shapes of tropical fish just below the keel. Then our prow kissed the beach and we climbed over the side, thanking Hasani and his crew for a most magical Zanzibar dhow cruise. There was just enough time to grab a shower and change before our dinner, which was set up at our own private table on the beach under the tropical stars.