ONCE UPON A TIME there really was a man called "Sindbad the Sailor" - at least according to the crew and captain of the Sohar, a replica of a ninth-century Arab dhow that they sailed from Oman to China.
The point of the voyage was to prove that Sindbad's legendary voyages are rooted in historical fact - and they certainly proved that the voyage itself is possible. In a hand-built craft stitched together with coconut string, and navigating with medieval navigational instruments, British author-explorer Timothy Severin and a crew of 25 sailed the dhow 9,600 kilometers (6,000 miles) between Muscat and Canton.
Severin and his crew, of course, did not have to cope with the innumerable monsters that plagued Sindbad's voyages, but they did face other hazards. On several occasions they were nearly crushed by giant tankers; another time their mainsail spar broke; and for almost a month they were becalmed with little food and water. Finally, as they raced the monsoons across the South China Sea, they faced the threat of pirates.
In all, the voyage took just under eight months. In addition, however, Severin spent some three years in research, travel and construction during which he traced the history of Arab seamanship back to Egypt and followed its development in places like Oman, China and India.
The first people known to have used the sail were the ancient Egyptians; the earliest record of a sailing boat - a drawing of a ship with a mast amidships and a broad square sail hung from it - dates back to about 3900 B.C. And it was an Egyptian who provided the first known mariner's tale: an anonymous first-person account of a shipwreck in the Red Sea around 2000 B.C. - in which the mythical embellishments of the Sindbad period are instantly obvious.
"I had set out for the mines of the king in a ship 180 feet long and 60 feet wide; we had a crew of 120, the pick of Egypt. A storm broke and we flew before the wind. The ship went down; of all in it only I survived. I was cast upon an island... then I heard the sound of thunder and thought it was a wave; trees broke and the earth quaked. I uncovered my face and found a serpent. It was 45 feet long and its beard was two feet long. Its body was covered with gold and its eyebrows were real lapis lazuli."
The serpent's looks, it turns out, were deceiving; it was a most considerate creature. It took the sailor tenderly up in its mouth, carried him to its lair, listened sympathetically to his story and then comforted him with the news that one of the Pharaoh's ships would soon come along and take him back home. When the rescue ship, as prophesied, did come along, the serpent sent the sailor off with a cargo of incense, and two months later he was safely home.
Later, and farther east, the people living on the shores of the Arabian Peninsula also learned to sail and in time discovered that they could earn a profit by risking their lives on the sea. Among them were the boat builders and sailors of Makkan (or Magan) - today's Oman - who traded copper and ivory with Mesopotamia. Copper was mined in Makkan itself, but the ivory could only have come from India - or Africa and the implication seems clear: Omani traders, even in 1000 B.C., probably ventured beyond the Arabian Gulf and sailed the open waters of the ocean.
About 500 B.C. these seamen - the early Arabs - also introduced the dhow: a broad-beamed, shallow-draft vessel with lateen-rigged sails, ideally suited for the coastal waters of the Arabian Gulf and the comparatively mild waves of the Indian Ocean. Although relatively flimsy, it was light and maneuverable and could speed quickly out of the path of threatening weather. Its triangular sails, moreover, were designed to catch even the slightest breeze.
The key to their success, however, was the ancient secret of the monsoon winds: the fact that they could rely on prevailing winds to carry them eastward in winter and westward in summer across the Indian Ocean. They could not explain these "monsoons," but this is not surprising since even today there are mysteries about them. One theory is that when the summer heat of India causes the air to rise over the subcontinent, winds from the Indian Ocean rush into the vacuum left by the rising air; by the same token, the comparative coolness of Indian winters causes a reverse movement of winds from India to Africa. Whatever the cause, by the first century A.D. the south Arabian merchants were riding the monsoon winds eastward as far as Ceylon, and by the sixth Century according to one geographer, had established a monopoly of the sea trade with China.
In that era, the 6,000-mile voyage from the Arabian Gulf to China took at least 120 days and was then the longest sea trading route in the world: the ocean equivalent of the old Silk Road. It was probably the most dangerous too, with corsairs from theHadhramaut prowling the Indian Ocean and Vietnamese pirates preying on shipping in the Gulf of Tonkin. Those that survived, or bought off the pirate threat, might still disappear without trace: sunk to the bottom of the sea, wrecked on some lonely, hostile coast or blown completely off course into the Pacific where, the Chinese believed, the drain spout of the world's ocean sucked the unwary sailor into oblivion.
For those who did succeed, however, profits were high. Because no European power had ever found a sea route to China, the Arabian role as intermediary in East-West trade grew and flourished. By the middle of the eighth century the flow of such precious goods as gold, ivory and gems from India, and silk and fine porcelain from China, had made Baghdad the most important commercial center in the world, and for the next 500 years Muslim dominance of East-West trade continued.
In the 13th century, however, the Mongols appeared and, in conquering China, razed the great port towns. As a consequence, Far East trade waned, and though it continued sporadically for some time - with Arab merchants meeting their Chinese counterparts in Ceylon and Malaya - the heyday of Arab trade with China was over - partly because of the Mongol destruction, but mostly because, 200 years later, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened a new trade route between Europe and the East.
This voyage, completed in 1448, effectively ended more than 700 years of Arab domination of Eastern trade. Ironically, though, it was an Arab seaman, the great navigator Ahmad ibn Majid, who guided the Portuguese on the last vital leg of the voyage.
By then, of course, the Arabs had left an indelible mark on Southeast Asia; their dhows had not only carried merchandise, but had also spread Islam and Islamic culture as far as Indonesia and China. By then, too, the intrepid Arab sailors, roaming through 9,600 to 16,000 kilometers of unknown territory (6,000 to 10,000 miles), had brought back endless tales of mishaps and adventures - as well as reports of exotic kingdoms bordering the Indian Ocean and China Sea. These stories-repeated, embroidered, expanded and exaggerated - were the basis of the epic of Sindbad the Sailor, as immortalized in A Thousand and One Nights.
Until recently, the consensus among scholars was that Sindbad, the world's most famous sailor, never actually existed. The scholars said that the fables spun around him may have been versions of actual exploits and gave examples. One was Sindbad's method of collecting diamonds from a serpent-filled canyon: by dropping chunks of raw meat into the canyon and retrieving the meat - with gems stuck to them - through the use of large birds. This story, they said, was first told by troops of Alexander the Great returning from India.
Another example was a story of an island that turns out to be a great fish. This tale, as Severin had cause to know, also figures in the life of the Saint Brendan, the medieval navigator-monk; on his voyage to Newfoundland, Saint Brendan and his Irish sailors did exactly what Sindbad and the Arab seaman did: they aroused the huge creature by lighting fires on its back.
In Oman, however, where the modern Sindbad voyage was launched, some Omanis firmly believe that Sindbad was real. "We believe," said Musalam Ahmad, one of the nine Omanis on Sohar, "that there really was a sailor called 'Sindbad' who had some adventures."
Severin agrees. "The Sindbad chroniclers took one captain and added other adventures to his own," he said, adding that it was this embellishment and expansion of his exploits, that eventually turned Sindbad from a man - "who came from Sohar but operated out of Basra" - into a myth. Severin and the Omanis, in fact, believe this so strongly that they named the dhow that they planned to sail to China Sohar, after the town in Oman where they say Sindbad was born.
In a sense, Severin, a tea planter's son born in India, is the ideal man to explore aworld where fact and fantasy mingle. While an undergraduate at Oxford, he rode a motorcyle along Marco Polo's route to China - a trip resulting in his first book Tracking Marco Polo. This was followed by Explorers of the Mississippi - for which he navigated the length of the river by canoe and launch - and four other books on the history of exploration.
Those journeys, however, were just practice for his first major success: sailing an open leather boat across the North Atlantic to show that Irish monks could have been the first Europeans to reach North America, as medieval legends about Ireland's sixth-century Saint Brendan suggested. In a boat of oxhide - a type used by medieval Irish sailors - Severin survived fierce storms off Greenland and a puncturing caused by a small iceberg and then wrote a book about it: The Brendan Voyage which became an international best seller translated into 16 languages.
The Saint Brendan voyage, Severin says, also led to the Sindbad voyage. "We were sitting off the coast of Newfoundland, when I suddenly realized I had a winner: building and sailing replicas of ancient boats."
But to create public interest, he went on, he also had to have a character like Saint Brendan. "Suddenly/' he says, "the figure of Sindbad appeared in my mind".
It was a natural. The legendary voyages of the world's best known mariner, never seriously studied before, "were ripe for investigation." On publication of The Brendan Voyage? therefore, Severin began to pore over ancient trading documents, maps, shipwrights' plans and museum exhibits. Later, when his research led him to Oman, he also began to walk the coastline - measuring and sketching the rotting rib-cages of long-abandoned dhows half buried in the sand.
At first, the Omanis took little notice of the stranger poking around their beaches. "I had written to tell them about my project but apparently they had forgotten," says Severin. But then, on the eve of his departure, he was asked by the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture to give a lecture and showed his audience, which included the minister himself, a film he had made of The Brendan Voyage.
Severin, of course, thought he had finally attracted some attention, but though he was presented with an old Omani sword in appreciation, nothing more was said. Hardly had he returned to his home in County Cork, Ireland, however, when he received a telegram asking him to return immediately to Oman. There the ministry, with approval of His Majesty Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman, offered to sponsor Severin's Sindbad project.
"I never actually asked them to sponsor it," says Severin, "they simply decided to do it themselves".
At that point, the research phase ended and the construction phase started. With the help of Omani shipwrights, Severin set about building an authentic replica of the kind of boat Sindbad might have sailed to China over 1,000 years ago. Based on early Arab and Persian sketches and written descriptions of ninth-century, deep-sea trading vessels, he and the shipwrights designed a ship 26 meters long (87 feet), with a 6.4 meter beam (21 feet), and two meter draft (six feet). It was built of hand-sawn wooden planks sewn together with hand-rolled coconut rope - no nails - and was powered by two Triangular cotton sails-no engine. They quickly found out, however , that both the materials for such a craft - and the craftsmen were scarce. To find both, Severin had to scour the most backward and remote places of the region – where traditional boat – building methods still survive. He found some shipwrights in Oman, for example, But to recruit the resst also had to go to Laccadive Islands, a territory of India off India’s western coast. For timber for the hull he had to go to the forests of southern India ; there Arab shipweights of long ago had found and selected their timber and had it hauled out by elephants. The coconut rope,also from India, was far more difficult to find. As it would be the only thing holding the ship together,it had to be very strong, but most Indian rope makers had long since abandoned the practic eof socking it in seawater- a process once used to give it the strength Severin needed . For weeks, therefore, Severin roamed the west coast of India chewing rope – literally. "People thought I was mad, but it was the only way I could tell it had been soaked in salt water," says Severin .
Finally, form the island of Agatti, came some coconut rope soaked in seawater. But as he was forbidden by government restrictions to go there himself, Severing had to remain on the mainland "tasting" coils of rope sent over by the islanders until he had enough: in all 640 kilometers (400 miles).
At last, however , Severin was able to assemble his men, his wood and his rope at Sur, on the southeast tip of the Arabian Peninsuula. Once one of the busiest boat building and trading towns of the Gulf, Sur, when Severin arrived, was a ghost town in which declining trade with India and East Africa, had forced its traders to sell their boats,and had compelled its famous shipwrights to put away their tools .
The arrival of Tim Severin, his 45-man work force and their tons of materials and supplies soon revived Sur. Spurning modern accommodation, for example, the boat builders chose as their headquarters a 300-year-old, sea front home, empty since the drowning of the owner and his six sons in a sea tragedy 30 years before. Severin and his "green shirts" - so called because of the green smocks his Arab shipwrights wore - gave the rambling, two-story house a fresh coat of whitewash, moved in and set to work building the Sohar.
The first step was to shape and lay the single 16-meter keel log (52 feet). Next, hand-shaped planks were placed edge-to-edge and sewn into position with criss-cross stitches of coconut rope. Then wadding, from 75,000 coconut husks, was packed into the seams; when wet they would swell and make the hull watertight.
Those steps, of course, are only the basics; in addition, the finished dhow would require four tons of rope for rigging, hawsers to carry its 23-meter-long main spar (76 feet) and four tons of sail. Nevertheless, the Sohar was completed in a record seven months - two years before western shipwrights had predicted - partly, says Severin, because of the dedication of the workmen. "It seems to have touched a chord," he said, "some appreciation of their heritage."
Next, Severin and his crew had to learn to sail their ship - as well as test it. They took a shake-down cruise across the Arabian Sea to practice ancient Arab sailing techniques and methods of navigation; their aim, after all, was to live and sail as Sindbad might have done 1,000 years before, not simply retrace his route. Apart from scientific apparatus and essential safety gear, the Sohar had no modern equipment aboard. There was no auxilary power, all meals were prepared on a charcoal fire on deck, and their only guide to China were the stars - plus an early Arab navigational aid known as the kamal.
The oldest known instrument for latitude observation at sea, the kamal dates back to before the 10th century and is still in use in some Arab dhows even today. It is a rectangular board with a cord running to its center point and with knots in the cord - or wooden tablets strung from it - corresponding to the latitudes of the ports of call.
To use it, the navigator holds the selected knot or tablet to his eye - the board in front of him at the full stretch of the string - aligns the star with the top edge of the board and the horizon with the bottom edge and measuring degrees of latitude in isba, the width of one finger; the depth of the board is four isba and 224 isba were considered to equal 360 degrees.
Ingenious though it was, however, the kamal was but one of a number of navigational instruments developed by Arab mariners. Indeed, says Severin, "the Arabs invented astral navigation."
This is not just rhetoric. Arabs, for example, wrote navigational treatises in the form of poems to make it easier to memorize the immense amount of data - and one, by Ibn Majid, has 1,082 verses containing such data as Pole Star altitudes for places on the coasts of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, "compass" bearings, sailing dates and distances. The poems on record today date from the 15th century, but the tradition dates back to 1000 A.D. and possibly earlier.
The Arabs were not only master navigators, but also experienced meteorologists and geographers - true scientists of the sea. In keeping with this tradition the Sohar carried three marine scientists, who carried out numerous experiments during the voyage, along with a film crew, an artist, a photographer, a driver, a radio operator, a doctor and a cook.
On November 21, 1980 - almost three years after Tim Severin first conceived the Sindbad project - the Sohar set sail from Sur. As its departure coincided with celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of Sultan Qaboos' accession to the throne, the dhow was given a rousing send off and was escorted to international waters by ships of the Omani navy. Severin's last words, shouted back across the waves as the Sohar headed out to sea were: "Thank you Green Shirts" - a heartfelt tribute to the men who built his boat.
At first the ship was a brute to handle. "It didn't sail well at all," says Peter Hunnam, the expedition's scientific leader.
One of the problems was that the European and American scientists and technicians, who had also to double as crew, were not experienced sailors like Severin and the Omanis. "We had to teach them," says Musalam Ahmad. To raise the enormous mainsail, for example, was a tremendous task; hauling it and its 23-meter spar to the top of the mast (76 feet) took at least eight men. "The Omanis," says Severin, "would break into old sea chanties and continue until the task was done."
With experience however, the performance of crew and boat greatly improved. "Things got much better as we went along," says Hunnam. "Lashings improved and you got to know which rope was going to be a 'pig' and which wasn't." And soon, says Severin, the Sohar was sailing "like a witch." With a good wind behind her, he said, she "rose out of the water like a high-speed train." In fact, added Ahmad, a former merchant seaman and officer in the Omani navy, the Sohar proved a "better ship" then any of the modern ones he had ever sailed in.
From Sur, the Sohar had headed east across the Arabian Sea, then south down India's Malabar Coast to the Laccadive Islands and the expedition's first landfall was Calicut, on the south-west coast of India, just before Christmas, 1980. Here the crew gave the Sohar a "1,000 mile service check" - removing and cleaning her ballast, and checking the coconut rope stitches that held the ship together. "She was in remarkably good shape and had stood up to the first leg of our journey in a way that made us all truly proud of her," said Severin.
It was at Calicut too that Severin learned that three weeks after the Sohar left Sur, a French archeological expedition had dug up in Oman a porcelain Buddha astride a Chinese lion - establishing, beyond doubt, Oman's long trading links with the Far East. "And there we were," said Severin, "on our way to China."
On January 10,1981, the Sohar resumed its journey in what turned out to be the most pleasant leg of the voyage - sailing down the coast of India to the southern tip of Sri Lanka. The wind pattern led them to the port of Galle, and there, says Severin, "not 500 meters from our anchorage (1,600 feet) was the first Islamic shrine ever to be built on Sri Lanka."
This indicates he says, that "this was the area the first Arab sailors came to all those hundreds of years ago on their way to the East," adding that the now-famous gem mines of Sri Lanka may have been Sindbad's "Valley of the Diamonds."
The Sohar's average speed during the two-month voyage from Sur to Galle was between three and a half and four knots-its fastest speed in a storm was seven knots. After leaving Sri Lanka, however, their progress slowed; caught in the Doldrums or Equatorial Trough, renowned throughout history as a serious sailing hazard, the Sohar was becalmed, in merciless temperatures, for nearly a month. Eventually, as a result, food and water began to run short and the 25 men on board had to exist on a diet of Omani dates, rice and fish caught from the sea and to catch rain water in hastily rigged tarpaulins during the occasional rain storms. As undoubtedly happened during the original Sindbad voyages, tensions developed among the crew. "Trivial things," says Hunnam, "became major issues." As the days crept by with nothing to do but keep watch, read, play cards and listen to cassettes - one of their few modern comforts aboard - one British biologist developed a "longing for cream cakes," while another lamented later: "We couldn't even make a cup of tea."
Finally, however, the wind rose and the Sohar set her sails again for Sumatra. But hardly had the ship escaped from the Doldrums when she was once more crippled - this time by too much wind. At 4 a.m. one morning, when most of the crew were sleeping, a sudden gust caught the mainsail on the wrong side of the mast, sending the 23-meter horizontal spar (76 feet) holding the sail crashing into the upright and snapping it in two. Fortunately no one was injured in the incident, but it led to further delays, and only by jury-rigging a spare sail was the crew able to continue. Finally, nervous and exhausted, the crew and their crippled ship limped into Sabang, on the northern tip of Sumatra, on April 19th.
Their problems, however, were not yet over. They were now in a main shipping lane, and sailing through the narrow straits between Sumatra and Malaysia they were nearly run down several times at night by giant freighters.
"One ship came within 50 feet of us," says marine biologist Andrew Price, a former Aramco consultant. "We flashed lights against our sail to attract attention but there seemed to be no one on watch. We changed course by 90 degrees but they still kept coming at us. Then at the very last moment they saw us and veered away?'
After that incident, the crew fixed a powerful strobe, used for light while filming, to the top of the Sohar's mast. "It was so bright," says Hunnam, "that one ship actually took us for a lighthouse and stopped."
Sharks proved bothersome too. Once, when the diver went overboard to renew frayed ropes lashing the rudder to the hull, a particularly vicious White Tipped shark suddenly appeared close to him. But the diver turned around and growled at it - a personal technique he had developed for scaring off sharks - and it swam away. On the other hand, sharks also provided food while they were becalmed. "We once caught 15 sharks in 15 minutes," says Musalam Ahmad proudly. Grimaced Severin: "It was shark for breakfast, shark for lunch and shark for dinner".
The Sohar crew was also on the lookout for whales - but for a very different reason. One of the marine surveys they carried out was a "whale watch" to chart their types, numbers and positions in the Indian Ocean. The fact that they saw very few, says Hunnam, should provide further ammunition for conservationists fighting to protect whales.
Hunnam also hopes that information collected by the Sohar will prompt some action to save the dugong or sea cow - whose nursing breasts may have given rise to stories of "mermaids." Sea cows are an even more seriously endangered species than whales. "We sighted only two dugongs in 750 square kilometers (300 square miles) of prime habitat off Sri Lanka, which indicates they are now almost extinct," says Hunnam.
Yet another Sohar survey focused on barnacles. The purpose of this study was to collect information which may help chemists develop a barnacle repellant paint for ship's hulls.
Curiously, the Sohar, although a replica of a 1,000 year old craft, proved far more suited for some types of marine research than many modern vessels. Because the boat was relatively small and slow moving, it provided an excellent platform near the sea surface from which scientific observations and recordings could be made.
Because fair winds in the Strait of Malacca enabled Sohar to make up some of the time it had lost in the Doldrums, it sailed into Singapore on June 2, only two weeks behind schedule.
Again, though, there was danger. Entering the third-largest port in the world, and one of the busiest, was terrifying. "We came at night under full sail the wrong way (against outgoing traffic)," said Severin. "We went right under the anchor chain of a super-tanker. My hair was going white."
Finally, though, Severin dropped sail and waited for a tug to tow them into harbor, where they were greeted on the quayside by a traditional Chinese dragon dance welcome. "When I was small I saw an Indian movie about Sindbad the Sailor and grew up thinking he was Indian," said a cheery Port Authority official watching the arrival. "Later I saw an English movie about Sindbad and thought he must be English. Now after all these years I finally learn the truth - he was an Arab."
Correcting Western and Eastern misconceptions about the Arabs is one of the main purposes of Severin's voyage. "Most people consider Arabs people of the desert," said the tanned and bearded explorer as he relaxed at Singapore's famous Raffles Hotel after landing. "But they are also people of the sea. I want to prove that the Arabs are a people who have not only come to prominence recently because of oil, but also have great seafaring history."
Evidence of this abounds in Singapore's old Arab quarter - you can still buy Omani dates in "Muscat Street" - although it is fast disappearing as developers bulldoze the old parts of town to put up new multi-story buildings.
The last leg of the voyage, from Singapore to Canton, was the one that worried Severin most. "There are still pirates in the South China Sea and we could run into storms," he said before leaving Singapore.
For this reason, one British scientist said, they were "armed to the teeth," and had aboard an Omani "weapons expert" and an ex-member of the famous British Special Armed Services.
As it turned out, however, there were neither pirates nor storms in the South China Sea, and the Sohar reached the mouth of the Pearl River in the last days of June, well ahead of schedule. In fact, they had to cool their heels for more than a week at Whampoa before sailing triumphantly up to Canton, on July 6, for the official Chinese welcoming ceremony that, some thought, probably equalled the reception given Sindbad.
From Canton, Severin sailed the Sohar to Hong Kong for transportation, via the Omani navy, back to Sur, where, perhaps, the gallant dhow may become either a tourist attraction or a training ship. Whatever happens to it, the story of its epic voyage will certainly go down in the annals of Arab seafaring history -alongside "The Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor."
John Lawton is an Aramco World correspondent.