Saturday Snippet: “An elephant is better than a tractor”


We’ve met the late explorer and adventurer Tim Severin in these pages several times before.  Today, I’d like to bring you an excerpt from my favorite among all his books, “The Sindbad Voyage“.

The blurb reads:


Perhaps the greatest fictional sailor of them all.

But could his amazing voyages, recounted in the The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, be recreated in the modern world?

Or were they just the stuff of legend?

Tim Severin was determined to find out.

After three years of research, he created a precise replica of an early Arab trading ship. Not a single nail was used in her construction – her planks were held together with 400 miles of coconut cord.

With a crew of twenty, including eight Omani sailors, his ship Sohar (named after the town said to have been Sindbad’s birthplace) completed a 6,000 mile journey by way of India, Sri Lanka, and across the Indian Ocean to Sumatra and Singapore, and finally through the China Sea to a tumultuous welcome in Canton.

Along the way, the crew had to swim among sharks while repairing the rudder, catch rainwater to drink while becalmed in the doldrums, and endure the battering of violent seas off the coast of Vietnam.

‘The Sindbad Voyage’ is the remarkable story of that amazing journey. An enthralling saga of the 7 ½ month voyage, it is one of the most memorable sailing stories of modern times.

It’s an enthralling story, not just in its account of the voyage, but in the enormous logistical difficulties Severin had to deal with in sourcing the materials for the ship, and building her in traditional Arab style.  Here’s how Severin found the wood and other materials for his vessel.

Today Calicut’s merchant community, which caters to the Arab trade, has withered to just two merchant houses – the Baramys and the Koyas. The two families occupy almost identical houses strategically situated on the beach which overlooks the anchorage. Each house is a large, low bungalow. Behind it are a courtyard and various sheds in which lie boxes of ship’s nails, coils of rope, tins of clarified butter, mysterious packing cases, and a jumble of homemade anchors. The focus of life is the long, elegant veranda. Here at all hours of the day, but especially at the time of sunset prayers, can be found a sprinkling of Arab merchants, taking their ease on benches and cane chairs, sipping cups of tea or coffee, and gazing out over the roadstead, where the waves of the Arabian Sea crash and rumble on the beach, and an occasional beggar sidles up to the railings to seek alms in the name of Allah.

The head of each trading house, Baramy or Koya, is a man of considerable standing in the Calicut community. He virtually controls all the contact between the Arabs and their suppliers of timber, spice and trade goods. Abdul Kader Baramy, whom we went to see, had all the world-weariness of a harassed international business executive. He had seven brothers – a sure sign of Allah’s favour- but in the tradition of such enterprises, nothing could be done without his consent. His brothers, all in identical smart white robes, were strategically scattered: one ran the Baramy shipyard ten miles down the coast at Beypore, where they built modern motor dhows for the Arabs. Another travelled regularly to the Gulf to visit Arab clients. A third might be sent off to negotiate with the civil servants in Delhi. The others were kept on hand, hovering expectantly to run errands.

Abdul Kader himself knew as much about the timber trade and boatbuilding as any man on the Malabar coast. He was distinctly pessimistic about our chances. It would be extremely difficult to find teak logs of the large size we were looking for, and impossible in the time available. Moreover, the Indian government had banned the export of teak: Abdul Kader produced a government notice which carefully listed a whole range of hardwoods, including teak, which could not be sent out of the country as unworked timber. As for constructing a sewn ship, he had heard of such vessels, but it was out of the question to build one nowadays. The men who knew such work, the shipwrights in rope, simply did not exist any longer. Abdul Kader recommended that we drop the idea of a sewn ship, and of building it in Oman. He could build us a nailed ship in India, and it would be ready in a year’s time. Of course we were free to keep on looking for timber, but he held little hope for us.

It was a disappointment, but not a final one. The previous year, while on a trip to India to look at Indian traditional ships, I had found my way to a small creek north of Mangalore in the State of Karnataka. It was an isolated, sad place, a graveyard for ships that were hauled up on the mud in retirement. What had rewarded my visit was the fact that three of the beached vessels were sewn ships, fastened together exactly like the boats I had seen on the beaches of Oman. The timber of these ships was not teak, but a very similar wood called aini.

I looked into the characteristics of aini. The tree is a cousin to the breadfruit, and the timber can be used for fine housebuilding, for doors and window frames – and for ships. Technically it is virtually identical to teak – it has very nearly the same strength, density and weight. It grows to a good size, and is easily worked, but it has a major drawback: it tends to split if nails are driven into it. But of course I was not intending to nail my ship together – I was building a sewn ship, and this was precisely why Indian sewn ships were often built of aini. I also chanced on the fact that aini contains a very high proportion of lime in its fibres, which makes the timber difficult to paint because the lime burns away the paint. For a ship, however, the lime in the timber may actually help discourage attacks by teredo shipworms. Indian shipwrights told me that aini lasted far longer in water even than teak. To make aini even more attractive, it was only about half the price of best teak. But the deciding factor which made me select aini for the replica ship was that the Indian government had omitted it from the list of banned exports – Abdul Kader Baramy carefully scrutinized the entire inventory of timbers the government had forbidden for export. The list included nearly every hardwood, but by an oversight, or because it was an obscure timber, the Indian authorities had failed to ban the export of aini.

Encouraged, my companions and I found the timber we were looking for in the hills behind Cochin. There, fine stands of aini were being felled for logs by Indian timber merchants. Our arrival in the hills caused a sensation. On the one hand the timber merchants joyfully anticipated making huge profits from any Arab customer; but on the other hand they were totally unused to their customers coming up into the hills and tramping around the forests, measuring trees, banging the logs enthusiastically with a hammer to try to detect hidden flaws by the sounds of the reverberations, and chatting with the foresters. Hoodaid, Sheikh Said and Dharamsey had to go back to Oman, but I stayed on in the forests, determined to find the very best logs for my ship, and also to receive an education in the tricks of the timber trade.

By reputation the timber dealers of India are the biggest rogues in the country, and in a curious way they are almost proud of their fame. I was warned never to take anything on trust, to check every log for faults, and to make sure that the logs I bought were actually the same logs which reached the sawmill and were not substituted on the way, and so forth. To my secret delight I discovered that the timber merchant I was dealing with was steeped in the rules of the game. On the very first day, at his office on the edge of the forests, I produced my own brand-new tape measure, with which I intended to check the measurements of every log. The tape measure was still in its box, and the timber merchant asked to look at it, expressing admiration. Five minutes later I noticed that the tape measure had vanished. I made an excuse, left his office, and went round the back of the building. There I found the timber merchant’s foreman carefully laying out my tape measure on the ground so he could check that its markings matched those on his own tape. It seemed that the merchant suspected me of bringing along a fake, specially marked tape measure of my own in order to cheat him!

The excursions into the forests were great fun. I enjoyed homing in on the ringing blows of the axes of the woodsmen as we pushed our way through the undergrowth, or hearing the huge, rending crash as a large tree toppled and fell. Then, for a moment, the whole forest went silent except for the eerie pattering sounds of hundreds upon hundreds of twigs and leaves raining to the ground, tom adrift by the giant’s fall.

I spent hours watching the elephants at work as they tugged the logs out of the forest and down to the logging paths. The intelligence and grace of the huge animals never ceased to amaze me. An elephant would move up to the fallen log with almost catlike grace, and wait with its ears fanning steadily back and forth while the axemen stripped the larger branches and cut a hole in the butt of the log for the hauling chain. Then, nudged by the heels of its driver, the elephant would move deliberately into position. The trunk would reach out, curl round to pick up the chain, and tuck the fat, soft end-rope into the great jaws. Then the elephant’s massive feet would shuffle into a good hauling position. The trunk slid back down the chain like a black python and wrapped itself around the links in order to hold the chain at just the right angle. Then the elephant would lean back to put its whole weight into the heave. Charmingly, just before the animal gave a mighty tug, it would screw up its eyes tight shut, just like a child. Then with one smooth jerk of its whole body the log was sent skidding ten yards through the mud. A few ponderous moments later, and the elephant was at a different angle to the log. Another jerk of the chain, and the log was angling down between the obstructions and roots to land on the roadway in front of us.

‘Elephants are very costly,’ murmured the timber merchant, who was standing prudently clear of the great beast and obviously saw no romance in its performance. ‘I must hire them by the hour from the elephant hire company, and so much time is spent washing them. They must be bathed three times each day, or their skins will trouble them, and they will not work. Also I must pay their food. But,’ and here he brightened up, ‘I am just purchasing my own elephant, and it will work for many, many years. If it does not get sick and die, maybe it will be working too for my sons. An elephant is better than a tractor. I have looked into this matter. Tractors cannot work on such steep slopes, and in the forest there is no one to look after the engines. Also spare parts are very difficult. Yes, an elephant is better.’

Eventually I came to be quite fond of Mr Sunny, the timber merchant, as he made a valiant effort to keep up with his eccentric customer. He would accompany me on each of my timber-buying trips, bouncing along in an ancient car which squelched up the muddy tracks. His courage only failed in the late evening, when after dark I insisted on visiting the log parks to try to pick out a few more fine pieces of timber.

As I scrambled out of the car on to the squelching mud, and the rain rattled down, Mr Sunny would wind down the window, hand me a torch, and call out mournfully as I disappeared: ‘Be careful for snakes. You will see many poisonous snakes. They come out after darkness, looking for frogs … cobra, krait, viper … there are many types of viper, and over two hundred species of snake in India.’ But despite much stumbling and slipping in the darkness I never saw a single snake.

I carried a shopping list for my timber, an inventory of every plank, beam and frame, its size and curve. The list was worked out from the technical drawings of a replica boom which had been produced by Colin Mudie, the brilliant naval architect who had also prepared the lines plans for Brendan. I had complete confidence in Colin, and he had begun by making a preliminary set of lines plans based on the shape of surviving booms and the historical data that I had been able to glean from the early texts. Then I showed a scale model of this preliminary version of the replica to the Omani dhow-builders at Sur, and obtained their suggestions for modifications, which Colin had incorporated in his final drawings.

All agreed that the keel of the ship was the key to its construction. The keel of a boom is long, straight and massive; it is the very backbone of the vessel, and its dimensions dictate the remainder of the ship, for an Arab shipwright builds mathematically. Once the keel is laid, every other timber relates to it at a particular angle or size, so that if one tells an Arab shipwright the type of vessel – boom or sambuk or whatever – and the length of its keel, he will know exactly the final size and shape of the finished ship. Where European shipwrights measure the size of a vessel by its length overall or on the waterline, the Arab shipbuilder calculates a ship by the length of its keel.

The problem was that the keel piece to my replica needed to be 52 feet long, 12 inches by 15 inches in cross-section, and dead straight. Also Colin wanted it to be cut from a single baulk of wood, which meant a superb log, of a size in hardwood virtually unobtainable in Europe. Even the Indian timbermen shook their heads in astonishment when they heard that I was looking for such a log, but in the end my persistent search was rewarded. In July I found the great tree that would provide the keel of my ship. It was a magnificent tree, owned by a family who had tended it for half a century, trimming away the lower branches so that the main trunk kept pushing upward. What is more, the family had a daughter who was about to get married, and they were willing to sell the tree to find her dowry.

I bought the tree where it stood. A forester shinned up it to attach a rope that would guide its fall, two axemen came forward, and within two hours the giant had been cut down. The branches and bark were stripped away to reveal the characteristic banana-yellow colour of fresh-cut aini, which would change to a dark reddish brown in the next few weeks. The timber, I had been assured, did not need to be seasoned. Fresh aini could be used for boatbuilding.

It needed two elephants to manoeuvre the great log down to the road. There it was put on tresses, and cut square by two men working a huge double-handed pit saw. One man stood on the log, while his partner crouched underneath on his knees to pull down the blade, showered by the rain of damp sawdust. It took four days of solid labour to trim the log, but at last it was ready, and with two extra feet in length to spare. It was loaded on a lorry and, accompanied by an elephant to manoeuvre it around the hairpin bends, the keel piece began its journey down to the coast.

By now my visits to India had produced for me a small, permanent entourage. This was the nature of the country: I was discouraged from being too self-sufficient, and my presence was a chance to create jobs for other people. Thus I found I needed a driver who knew the roads and could look after the car; a carpenter who would talk with the foresters about timber; and an interpreter-cum-assistant who could make all the thousand and one arrangements, from finding overnight accommodation to calculating the correct amount for bribes. For instance between Cochin and Goa, the stretch of coast where I was hunting for materials, at least four different languages were spoken by the local villagers, and my quest was constantly taking me into small hamlets and quiet backwaters where strangers were rare, and foreigners unknown. So my interpreter had to be versatile – and he was.

He came with a letter of introduction from an Indian marine biologist who had encountered him while collecting marine samples on the remote coral islands of Minicoy some 220 miles off the Indian coast. ‘He is a man in a million,’ announced the letter. ‘He can speak fourteen languages, and will follow up any subject that interests him.’ Man in a Million, as I tended to think of him from that moment onward, lived up to his recommendation. His real name was Ali Manikfan, and he was the son of the last headman of Minicoy Island. Now he lived on the mainland, having found the island too restrictive for his talents. He had a well-honed sense of his own dignity and abilities, and could be very haughty towards other Indians, but at a pinch he could cook and sew, sail a boat, mend an engine, or make up a book of accounts. From his marine collecting days he knew the Latin name of every fish and shell on his islands, and spoke a certain amount of classical Arabic, because like all the Minicoy islanders he was a Moslem and had studied at the Koranic school. He also shared with Dharamsey Nensey the ability to travel light. Every time I arrived in India Ali would be there to meet me, smiling broadly under the little white cap perched on his head, and holding a small briefcase which was his only luggage.

The men of Minicoy have an excellent reputation all along the Malabar coast. Living in isolation on their island, which is only 40 miles square, they have developed a remarkable self-reliant culture. Every man is expected to be able to look after himself, to fish and tend the coconut trees, build his own house, cook and swim, and work as a member of a team. Minicoy men are also said to be the best seamen in India, and were the original Lascars who, for generations, have signed on as deck hands with foreign ships. Often they served long years abroad before returning to their island home. Even in the huge, pullulating port of Bombay the men of Minicoy were renowned: almost exclusively they staff the boats of the Bombay Pilot Service, and it is said that not only are the Bombay pilot launches the smartest, best handled boats in the whole of the port, but whatever happens, in foul weather or emergency, the Minicoy men keep their boats on station. Moreover, in perhaps the most remarkable claim of all, it was said that in Bombay’s labour-troubled port the Minicoy men never go on strike.

Minicoy is one of a group of islands where medieval Arab ships picked up the coconut rope used for shipbuilding, and until this century the only export from the Laccadives was coir, the rope made from coconut husks. So it seemed logical for me to try to obtain coconut rope for my replica sewn ship from the same source as the Arabs. But the Indian government restricts foreigners from visiting the Laccadive Islands on the grounds that intruders would disturb the fragile native culture. This was where Ali Manikfan was doubly important: he could put me in touch with Laccadive Islanders when they came to the mainland on rare visits to buy rice, cigarettes and provisions.

The key islander I ambushed on such a visit was a genial rogue from Agatti Island named Kunhikoya. Quick-witted, active, and with an engaging grin, he was a likeable scoundrel. Kunhikoya also possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the coconut rope trade and had done a bit of sewn boatbuilding himself. He told me that what I needed for shipbuilding was a very special quality of coconut rope. It had to be hand rolled from the best-quality coconut husks. These husks had to be soaked, or retted, in sea water to loosen the fibres. Most coconut fibre is retted in fresh or brackish water, said Kunhikoya, and this type of fibre was useless for my purposes – it was not strong enough for a ship. After retting in sea water, the coconut husks had to be dried in the sun, then pounded with wooden clubs on wooden blocks to loosen the powder. If metal hammers were used for the pounding, the fibres would be crushed and damaged and the rope would again be too weak. After that, the fibre should be twisted by hand into string. If twisted by machine, the threads would be too feeble.

Kunhikoya announced that I would need about fifteen hundred bundles of coconut string to build the ship I needed. I calculated the total length, and it came to four hundred miles! This seemed a colossal amount, but events proved Kunhikoya right.

With his help, Ali and I tried at first to buy good-quality coconut string in the little villages hidden along the backwaters of the Malabar Coast. It was highly entertaining to watch the two islanders at work. They were experts. They knew exactly what they were looking for, and they also knew most of the ruses which would be used to trick them. Offered a sample piece of coconut twine, Kunhikoya would grimace theatrically, take the sample between his hands and with a quick twist of his wrist would unravel the spiral of string. Then, with a seemingly effortless flick, he snapped the string like a cotton thread, and let the two broken ends drop to the ground with an expression of total disgust. Of course there was a trick to the way of snapping a piece of thread, but Kunhikoya was such a good actor – and he had immensely strong forearms – that he could make even the strongest twine look fragile. Nor would he accept the vendor’s protestations that the twine had been retted in salt water. Snatching up a sample he would stuff it into his mouth like spaghetti and chew on it, trying to detect the characteristic salty flavour of seawater-prepared coir. Not finding it, he would turn to me, and offer me a sample to taste. Reluctant to spoil the pantomime, I too would munch solemnly on the coconut rope, trying not to think of the stagnant ooze of the fetid backwaters where the coconuts were retted.

Eventually I had to accept that the only place I could get proper seawater-prepared coconut string was the Laccadive Islands themselves, via Kunhikoya as my agent. I was not altogether surprised to discover four months later, when the bundles were delivered and Kunhikoya was safely many miles away, that Kunhikoya had included some machine-made string in the consignment. But it was worth it: in India Kunhikoya had saved me from far greater swindles.

Some of the items he said I would need for the construction of a sewn vessel were truly bizarre. There were the husks of 10,000 coconuts to be used as a kind of wadding, two particular thicknesses of string, and forty bundles of a curious knobbly wood from the islands which I suspected was mangrove root. This wood was immensely strong and hard, and Kunhikoya said it would be used for the levers which the ropeworkers would need when they were tightening up the lashings of the ship. There was also a quarter ton of a tree gum called chundruz, a natural resin which is more usually employed for making cheap incense. The boatbuilders would use it as a type of shellac, painting it between the planks. To select his chundruz, Kunhikoya would take a handful of the granules of resin, and set them alight in order to see how they burned. It took almost a day of these fiery tests before he was satisfied with the selection of the chundruz but, alas, our efforts were in vain. We bought six large sacks of chundruz, sealed them, marked them, and stored them in a bonded warehouse. But when the sacks reached Oman and we opened them, we found that two-thirds were filled with pebbles: we had been victims of the notorious ‘substitution’.

Kunhikoya also wanted half a dozen barrels of fish oil, which was to be mixed with melted sugar and painted on the outside of the completed hull. The oil came from tiny fish which were boiled down in vats near Mangalore and the grease skimmed off. The stench of the oil was indescribable. Next there was half a ton of lime to be plastered to the underwater surfaces of the ship as a form of anti-fouling. To obtain the lime, we went to a lime burner near the fish oil vats. It was like a scene from Hell. A long file of women carried buckets of seashells on their heads to dump them in a heap outside a long, low hut, which had smoke billowing up through the thatched roof. Inside a very old man, a mere skeleton, pedalled a wheel to force air into the charcoal fired tubs of burning shells. More gaunt men, with cloths bound around their heads, stirred the tubs with long wooden spades. Two children staggered back and forth in the choking heat to dump more shells into the tubs. Every worker dripped with sweat, coughed whenever the wind changed, and was red-eyed with the acrid fumes, all for a subsistence wage.

Item by item, we assembled the ingredients in Kunhikoya’s recipe for building a stitched vessel: six augers; soft iron chisels for wood cutting; a hank of flax rope, purpose unknown; four large crowbars; two sledge hammers; an old-fashioned beam balance scale; several large boxes of assorted tools. The only items I was utterly unable to find were the tails of six stingray fish.

‘What do you want those for?’ I asked Kunhikoya.

‘For making the holes in the planks when they are drilled for stitching.’

‘But what do you actually do with the rays’ tails?’

‘We use them for making the holes smooth so they do not cut the rope.’

I realized what he meant. The Laccadive islanders were so isolated that they used the rough tails of rayfish instead of wood rasps. Relieved, I explained to Kunhikoya that I could get metal files to do the same job.

Kunhikoya’s final triumph, and his ultimate disaster, came when we went back to Beypore to purchase the masts and spars for the ship. Now we were looking for a very special timber which the Indians call poon. Like a tremendous spearshaft, a mature poon tree sometimes rises 50 feet before it puts out a single branch. For centuries seamen have known that poon makes superb masts and spars. Indeed the Royal Navy used to send agents to India to purchase what the Royal Navy called ‘poonspars’ for its sailing vessels. The poon grows, not in stands like aini, but usually as an isolated tree difficult of access.

Today such trees are chopped up to go to plywood factories, but at Beypore logs are still floated down river and held in the shallows for the occasional Indian sailing craft that may require them. Along the river bank lie rafts of poon logs, half submerged like soggy crocodiles in the backwaters. The water itself is putrid, foul with slime and rotting vegetation and the sewage of the upriver settlements. On a hot day the smell is gagging, and hangs like a miasma over the backwaters, but the stench did not deter Kunhikoya. He was at his most cheeky that morning, skipping from log to log like a squirrel, followed by the foreman of the timber yard, clutching the skirt of his loincloth to prevent it being soiled in the disgusting water.

Kunhikoya was brandishing a little hatchet, and whenever he came to a possible log he chopped out a small piece from the timber so as to inspect the inner surface. The foreman’s assistant carried the measuring tape because the spars would be sold by length, and fortunately I remembered my last experience and asked to inspect the tape. Sure enough, the first 3 feet of the tape was missing, so I would have been buying a non-existent yard of timber every time. The foreman was quite unabashed: the end of the tape had rotted away in the damp conditions, he explained. But I also noted that he had another cunning technique. As we stood on a floating log to inspect a flaw, the foreman would spin the log under his bare feet so I had to dance about like an acrobat to avoid falling into the foul soup of the river, and was distracted from looking too closely at the quality of the logs.

By lunchtime we had found the spars we were looking for, marked them with Kunhikoya’s hatchet, and bought them. All we lacked was a log for the main mast. The rest of that day we hunted, nosing around the sawmills and the holding yards until finally, on the beach itself late that night, we came across the perfect log, 65 feet long and tapering to exactly the right dimensions: it would scarcely need to be trimmed to make the main mast of my ship. Jubilandy Kunhikoya ran up and down the log, banging it with his hatchet to produce solid thumps that showed the timber was perfect. It was so late in the evening that even the timber sellers had gone home. So Ali and I crouched by the butt end of the log while Kunhikoya struck matches so we could copy down the reference mark which the timber merchant cuts into every important log he owns.

 Just as we were making our notes there was a terrific commotion, and a mob of angry Indians came charging up the beach at us. There were shouts of rage and menacing gestures, and some were waving sticks threateningly. I wondered what on earth we had done wrong, what local custom had we offended? It was a very ugly scene. The mob swept up to us. Screaming and yelling they pounced on Kunhikoya, ignoring Ali and myself. Then the mob dragged Kunhikoya away, haranguing him and threatening him with violence. To my surprise Ali was shaking with laughter.

‘What’s he done wrong? What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘Will he be all right?’

Ali grinned in pleasure. ‘Oh, he will be all right,’ he replied. ‘Someone has recognized Kunhikoya. Those men are relatives of his wife. He married her in Calicut, and then ran away. He hasn’t been seen since. Now the wife’s brothers and cousins are taking him back to his wife. He will have to go before the judge – he will have to pay dearly for all the time he has been away.’

The rest of the tale is just as interesting, if not more so.  As I said earlier, it’s my favorite of all Tim Severin’s books, and I recommend it very highly.  It’s sad to think that with his recent death, there will be no more of them.

If you’d like to learn more about the voyage before reading the book, the Aramco World magazine’s issue of September/October 1981, Vol. 32 No. 5, contained a lengthy article about it.  (Aramco, a Saudi Arabian company, was one of the sponsors of the Sindbad Voyage.)



  1. Peter, I really enjoy your reviews and the book excerpts that you post and have purchased a number of the books you recommend. Thank you for doing this.

  2. I was able to read this book on Kindle Unlimited over a year ago and enjoyed every page!

    If you are interested in historical reproductions, this is a great one.

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