Offshore Yachting : October November 2007
SPECIAL FEATURE 82 | offshore The tradition of boat building in Bangladesh dates back several thousand years. However it looked certain to face extinction until Runa Khan Marre stepped in and set about restoring these wooden river boats for a living museum By Professor Julian Cribb Up until a generation ago the 24,000 kilometres of Bangladesh's rivers presented a spectacle from another age: hundreds of thousands of wooden sailing boats jostling to move people and goods along the country's vast aquatic network. Lately the country's riverscapes have transformed beyond recognition as steel- built, diesel-powered craft have taken over completely. Runa Khan Marre, 48, is determined to preserve the 3000-year-old Bangladeshi skill of boat making. She and her husband, Yves, are hard at work supervising the building and reconstruction of more that 40 different types of traditional wooden river and sea craft by a handful of remaining skilled craftsmen. They want to see them sail once more as a "living museum" on the River Dhaleswari, 20 kilometres north of the capital, Dhaka. A recipient of the Rolex Award for Enterprise Associate Laureate in 2006, Runa Khan now has the resources to complete her museum, pay for more boats to be restored, employ craftsmen and bring pride and visitors to a nation still largely off the tourist trail. Bangladesh has 600 named rivers, long enough end-to-end to stretch from Sydney to New York and back, crammed into an area smaller than Victoria. Three major rivers, the Padma (Ganga), Jamuna (Brahmaputra) and Meghna, form the world's mightiest delta. With a million boats plying its waterways, Bangladesh is thought to have the world's largest river fleet. On average the nation's 147,570 square-kilometre land mass lies just five metres above sea level; during the monsoon nearly two thirds the country can go under water. It is little surprise that power boats, whose hulls cost a fifth of the price of wooden ones, have been so successful, especially given that diesel engines overcome the navigational hazards faced by traditional sailing vessels. But the price of modernization is the loss of the traditional fleet, along with all the skills needed to construct and repair wooden boats. Most of the builders are now over 50 years old in a country where life expectancy is 62. The vessel construction techniques of the Bangladeshi craftsmen have been passed orally from father to son for more than 3,000 years, since a time when Phoenicians and Arabs first came by sea to trade on the Delta Vanished Barks Sail Again Runa Khan Marre on the last Malar afloat, a traditional wooden cargo sailing boat, the first that she restored with local craftsman in 1996.
December January 2008