The old boat maker, Rajan, was working under a neem tree ,by the Morjim jetty. He was glum and taciturn but worked methodically, day after day. He was making the last dug out canoe of his life, the kind he had made for many decades till his now impending retirement , the kind his son no longer used. Rajan had insisted however , that he would make one final dug out canoe before he downed his tools, as a gift to his son.
He patiently sawed and filed every day , working on the log of mango wood. Initially , he was very impatient about our questions and would hardly grunt a reply ,but as my friend and I kept dropping by daily to check how he was getting along , he slowly unbended.
Later on he would show us details that we did not know enough to notice …that planks would be added to the sides to add to the depth of the boat, that the planks would be attached ,not with nails or rivets that would rapidly rust in the warm tropical waters ,but stitched in place!
He savoured our amazement at the prospect and then sharply corrected our assumption that he would use the ubiquitous coconut rope for the purpose. Coconut rope would hardly do, he snorted, it would soak up the sea water, swell up and then wear down very fast. To stitch the planks together he would use the non absorbent fibre from the silk cotton tree, and the whole planking would be liberally painted with the organic tar from the cashew nut to keep out the shipworms.
Shipworms are a major fact of life for all those who use wood around the tropical seas ,especially in areas near mangrove forests where these bivalves thrive. Pier ,weir gates , jetties and of course boats can all be damaged seriously by the wood-boring bivalves. Thick layers of cashew tar painted all over keeps these molluscs at bay, but gives all the dug out canoes an uniform black colour.
In case you wondered what the silk cotton tree looked like ,here is a pic. The pods burst open in the summer heat releasing 3-4 inch long silky, non water absorbent fibers that are also used to stuff pillows.
Like most specialised skills in India, the art and science of boat making is also a hereditary profession, with each generation passing on their know how to the next. It is not to be assumed though, that the methods remained unchanged through the years. Most notably, the use of Cashew tar for the water proofing must only have come about after the Portugese colonialists introduced the cashew nut tree to India in the 14 th century.The times though are changing and our boat makers son is a fisherman, and he uses fibre glass boats, as do most of his generation.
The traditional methods of boat making are dying out nowadays as hand-made dugouts are being replaced by fiber glass boats that cost a fraction of that of hand-made boats and require very little maintenance. However, apart from the occasional re-stitching and fresh coats of cashew tar, hand-made boats are near indestructible and easily last a fisherman his life time. That is what our boat maker friend, Rajan, is banking on…. with a wicked grin he told us, “Let my son but tether her in the salt water, in time, she will outlast all his fancy fibre glass boats and one day he will come to appreciate his old father’s gift”. Amen to that.