Zanzibar Dhow Trips
Taking a Zanzibar dhow trip is almost obligatory, and it is a very relaxing way to pass a day. You’ll constantly be approached while walking along the shore of Zanzibar or Bagamoyo beaches waterfront by people wanting to take you out for a trip includes fishing and snorkelling, although both are largely fruitless exercises because it’s virtually impossible to catch fish at midday, and the best snorkelling is a couple of minutes away. Make sure you take a hat and some sunblock as there is rarely any shade on the dhows, despite assurances to the contrary.
Since taking tourists around the archipelago is one of the easiest ways of making money for dhow owners in Zanzibar, there’s a lot of competition and you’ll be asked constantly by different people if you want to go on a trip. Negotiation over the price and what is included is essential both to avoid misunderstandings and being overcharged. The price of day trips is usually settled quickly because a lot of travellers will have been on them and the cost will be well known.
Likewise, dhows are dependent on the tides. You can’t sail up creeks if the tide is out and there’s not enough depth of water to float the boat. This will be the main factor determining departure and return times.
Zanzibar Dhows History
Dhows have been sailing along the coast of East Africa for centuries and, until fairly recently, were the principal trading vessels used between the eastern coast of the African continent and the Persian Gulf and India. They once numbered in the thousands but, since the turn of the century, they have declined rapidly in the face of competition from steamships and these days no one makes the journey to the Gulf. Those that remain confine themselves to sailing between the mainland and the offshore islands and between the islands themselves and even then only in certain areas. Their romantic appeal, nevertheless, remains and a dhow trip around the Zanzibar archipelago is an extremely popular activity amongst travellers.
Essentially, all dhows are wooden vessels — either planked or dugout — along with a rudder, mast and lateen (triangular) sail. Like all sail-boats, unless motorised, they’re completely dependent on the wind but, unlike boats with only square sails, they’re capable of tacking into the wind.
There are several categories of the dhow and what name is applied to any particular type is often a contentious issue mainly because Swahili has a rich vocabulary of terms for boats. The essential factors, however, are size and shape.
The largest of the Zanzibar Dhows are known as “jahazi” which are planked, ocean-going vessels with broad hulls and ruggedly designed to be capable of withstanding constant bumping along rocky shores and submerged coral reefs. They can have either one or two lateen sails. Most have woven coconut fibre matting fixed to their sides to reduce splash and a wooden ‘eye’ attached to each side of the bow below a decorated or carved tailboard. Dhows of this type built in the Lamu archipelago often have a perpendicular bow whereas those from Zanzibar have sloping bows. A jahazi often has a toilet hanging off the stern of the boat.
Motorised versions of the jahazi are known as boti. The only difference is that these have an inboard motor instead of a sail.
Smaller craft goes under the generic name of Mashua and there are many different types. Around Lamu, they’re usually known as kijahazi. These dhows differ from the Jahazi in being smaller, much narrower in the hull and having only one sail. They can be remarkably fast given a favourable wind and are the ones you’re most likely to utilise for trips around Zanzibar and Kilwa.
Another common type of dhow yet smaller still is the “dau la mwao” — a sort of dugout canoe with a narrow hull, small mast and no keel which sits low in the water and is frequently used for transporting soil, sand and coral rag building blocks. Most do not have a square stem. A variation of this type from the Zanzibar area is the Mtumbwi which is somewhat smaller and faster and fitted with a keel.
Sailing on a dhow along the East African coast is one of Tanzania’s most worthwhile and memorable experiences. There’s nothing quite like drifting along the ocean in the middle of the day with the sun up high, the only sounds the lapping of the waves against the side of the boat and subdued conversation. It’s enjoyable at any time of day, even when the breeze drops and the boat virtually come to a standstill.
There are no creature comforts aboard these dhows so nothing to worry about. You’ll probably get off these boats smelling of fish since fish oil is used to condition the timbers of the boat — nothing that a shower won’t remove! Take drinking water and food with you. Dhows can be picked up in Zanzibar, Pemba and Bagamoyo. Many of the smaller dhows these days have been fitted with outboard motors so that progress can be made when there’s no wind.