Offshore Yachting : October November 2007
offshore | 83 coast. They represent a body of human knowledge kept alive since before the time of the ancient Romans. For indigenous river craft they may even date back further. Leading a project to preserve boat-building is an unusual occupation for a woman from an aristocratic Muslim background. Early in her career Runa demonstrated her resourcefulness by setting up a fashion house and a security firm. Then in 1998, after overseeing a major education program, she established the Friendship Association to provide health care in a floating hospital, flood relief and educational assistance to the impoverished inhabitants of the islands of the Brahmaputra River. In 1994, she met Yves Marre, who was staying in Dhaka with her parents after sailing a 34-metre river barge from France to Bangladesh. The barge was to be used used for humanitarian purposes. Marre brought not only romance into her life but his passion for boats proved contagious. "I discovered a new world," Khan Marre recalls, "and within months I was hooked." One of their first joint achievements was the restoration of a malar, a 30-metre sailing boat they bought in 1996, which took local craftsmen over a year to bring back to life. She explains that her husband's technical expertise, coupled with her own ability "to get things done", helped them establish a bond of mutual trust with the marginalized river boat-builders. The couple then set up Contic River Cruise, which runs up-market river excursions on the malar. Established initially to repay the money they had borrowed to restore the craft, the business now attracts influential foreign clients vital to Bangladesh's fledgling tourism industry. In 1999, determined to rescue the country's fast-vanishing boat-building skills, Runa combed Bangladesh for master ships carpenters, commissioning them to build scale models, each about 65 centimetres long, of boats from all over the country according to the old traditional designs. These replicas (there are now hundreds of them, reproducing 27 different types of boat) are built using the same techniques and materials as full-size boats. They provide an accurate record from which carpenters are able to build life-size boats. "Once we saw the first models, and the success they enjoyed, we realized we had to do more," Khan Marre recalls. The idea of a living museum was born. The craft include the palowari, the podi, the shampan - based on a design borrowed from China - the panshi (a boat for running domestic errands) and the dingi, originally one of the commonest small boats on the rivers, whose name has crossed into nautical tradition around the world. Since 2004 carpenters, blacksmiths, ropemakers and sailmakers have been working at the Living Museum of Traditional Country Boats of Bengal, which opened to the public in April 2007. Carpenters from the Brahmaputra River have restored one of only two remaining 15- metre-long palowary boats, which have stapled hulls, while their counterparts from the Meghna River have reconstructed the world's last remaining patham, a fine example of a smooth-skinned boat. A team of carpenters from an island in the Bay of Bengal is building a sea-faring shampan using techniques forgotten in Bangladesh, but revived with the help of Western marine architects and ethnologists, as well as museum documents and oral history. With her Rolex award funds, Runa Kham Marre says she will be able to rescue more boats. For each vessel, naval architects are documenting every stage of the boat-building, and their records will be made available to marine archives worldwide. The project has given boatbuilders back their dignity and pride as skilled craftsmen, at a time when it seemed their profession was extinct, BELOW: Khan Marre (left) observes carpenters adopt traditional techniques to turn one of only two remaining staple-hulled Palowari boats on its side by using bamboo scaffolding as a winch. RIGHT: Boats are the main means of transport in Bangladesh, a country with 600 rivers. Khan Marre's project will restore or build over 40 difference types of traditional, wooden watercrafts. LOWER RIGHT: The living Museum aims to preserve and revive the craftsmanship and skills necessary to restore and build traditional boats such as this 18 meter, sea-faring.
December January 2008