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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bonito Fishing Boats in Maldives

In Fishing in Many Waters, James Hornell describes the practice of bonito fishing in the Maldives, including a description of the boats used. Although he doesn’t name the boat type, it can be termed a dhoni. (Somewhat like dhow, dhoni is a generic term that doesn’t indicate a single type of boat. According to Wikipedia, it means simply “small boat” in Tamil and related languages, while thoni is the equivalent term in Malayalam. We’ve written previously about the very different yathra dhoni of Sri Lanka.)

Drawing: a bonito dhoni of the Maldives (Source: James Hornell)
A bonito dhoni of the Maldives (click any image to enlarge)
Probably no longer in use, the Maldivian bonito boats that Hornell observed were “built (especially) for the fishery, long, beamy, graceful craft, fine of line and shallow draft as befits vessels that have their home in coral-infested lagoons of little depth.” He further describes them as stoutly built, mostly open boats with short decks fore and aft and six or seven transverse bulkheads. The aft deck, from which the fishing was conducted, was “shaped like the extended wings of a butterfly” and extended over the sides of the hull. Hornell noted the distinctive “snakelike” stemhead, which rose high above the gunwales, curving gently aft and then slightly forward near the very top “not unlike that of an old Viking ship which, indeed, the boat as a whole closely resembles.” (This latter is an exaggeration. While the stemhead does indeed call to mind a Viking ship, the differences between the two types of craft are far more dramatic and substantial than the purely superficial similarity between them. Hornell, infinitely more than I, understood this well.)

The two compartments fore and aft of the mast each had four to six plugged holes in the bottom, which, when the plugs are removed, allowed them to serve as livewells for bait. These livewells were managed in a curious manner, described below.

A single mast was held in a tabernacle and could be dropped into a crutch aft. The mast supported a tall, narrow squaresail of woven matting and a boomless gaff mainsail of cotton. Although the drawing shows no shrouds, it appears that the squaresail’s halyard may have served as a combination backstay/shroud. The drawing seems to show a light spar extending upward and forward from the base of the mast, but Hornell did not explain its use. (Perhaps it served as a kind of whisker pole for the squaresail?)

traditional Maldivian dhoni, model (Photo: Badr Naseem)
This model of a traditional Maldivian dhoni shows the transverse bulkheads and butterly-shaped aft deck of the bonito boat, but not its S-curved stemhead, recurved sternpost, or two-sail rig. (Photo: Badr Naseem. Source.)
Although somewhat similar dhonis, with transverse bulkheads and the aft platform extending over the sides, remain in use in the Maldives, none of the recent photos we’ve found show the old style bonito boat’s distinctive double-curved stemhead, recurved sternpost, or mixed squaresail/gaff rig. Lateen rigs are the norm in existing boats (or at least, those that are not motorized), and the stemheads curve sharply aft, with no hint of reverse curve.

Before bonito could be caught, the same boats were used to catch baitfish. A square net was fastened to long poles and lowered to the bottom of a lagoon. Ground bait (bait for the baitfish) was dropped over the net. When the baitfish came to feed, the net was raised. Presumably this was repeated many times before sufficient bait for a bonito fishing trip could be accumulated. The live bait was kept in a huge basket in the lagoon until it was time to go fishing in earnest.

The baitfish were then transferred into the dhoni’s livewells and the plugs were removed. According to Hornell:
“(T)he holes being unplugged, continuous streams of water spout inwards. This inrush would speedily swamp the boat were it not that two men are set to work to keep pace by bailing, with the inrush. By means of perforations at suitable and varying heights in the intervening bulkhead the inflowing water is conducted to the after compartment where the two bailers are located. In this way the water in the wells is constantly renewed and thereby maintained in a fit condition to keep alive the stock of little fishes for use as bait.”
In addition to two bailers, the crew consisted of several anglers with fishing poles, a helmsman, four “splashers,” and three or four boys to tend the squaresail. The poles were about six feet long with a line of about six feet fixed fast to the end. Barbless hooks of bright steel at the end of the lines were shaped to resemble baitfish.

Photo: a bonito dhoni of the Maldives (Source: James Hornell)
Bonito fishing in process. Note the heavy splashing around the aft deck.
Upon approaching a shoal of bonito, one of the bailers would stop bailing and begin throwing baitfish into the water while the splashers would use long-handled scoops to vigorously splash water all around the boat. Per Hornell:
“This is a measure of economy; the bonito have to be gulled into the belief that a large shoal of small fish are about and without the splashing the amount of live bait thrown out would be insufficient to carry through the deception successfully.”
But successful the ruse was. The anglers, crowded upon the stern platform, would drop their unbaited, lure-like hooks in the water and yank bonito from it directly into the hold. The barbless hooks could be disengaged merely by slacking the tension on the line for the briefest moment before they were returned to the water with scarcely a pause.

In an active shoal, a man might average one catch per minute, and a boat might catch a full load of 600 to 1,000 fish in two or three hours. The boat owner received 21 percent of the catch as his share, the rest being apportioned amongst the crew. That which was not eaten fresh was cured for later use or for trade by a combination of boiling, smoking, and sun-drying.

Sources:
Except where otherwise noted, information and images are from:
James Hornell, Fishing in Many Waters, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1950


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