Aki selecting some cengal planks for his boat.

“BAKA. Tak boleh bina bot baik tanpa baka.” (Pedigree. It’s impossible to build a good boat without pedigree.)

Master boat builder, Muhammad Akhir bin Sapie insists that this important prerequisite must be present first and foremost before he accepts an apprentice. Known among the local Terengganu residents simply as Aki, this 58-year-old is among the handful of boat builders left on Pulau Duyong, the traditional boat-building centre in the state.

With the years clearly showing on his weather-beaten face, Aki explains that it’s useless to accept an army of apprentice if the skills haven’t been ingrained in them over the generations. His memory is obviously very good as, in a split second, he starts recalling incidences on the island where other less experienced boat builders enthusiastically embarked on projects with more than 10 apprentices who were selected randomly, regardless of their background.

“The builders were hoping that their superior number of workers would result in increased efficiency. But, in just a matter of weeks, all were either dismissed or left on their own accord,” shares Aki with a cynical snigger. “Here in Pulau Duyong, we all know that inexperienced novices will not last long. Boat building is a tough trade, which requires long hours and endless sacrifices.”

As to his “pedigree” theory, Aki divulges that apart from having the basic skills already genetically embedded in the person, people who come from boat building households are also aware of the hardship endured by their male family members. As a result, they know what’s expected of them when they start building boats themselves.

“It’s an accepted fact for the boat builder to spend a majority of his time at his work place once construction starts in earnest. Sometimes we don’t even have time to go home for meals. It’s left to the womenfolk to send food over. Even then, we’d brain storm ways to improve our work ethics during lunch. The only time boat builders stop work completely is when they perform their solat. Our duty to the Almighty takes precedence over all, including our precious boats,” quips Aki as he offers me a glimpse into his daily routine. “Why don’t you go explore the yard? I need to find my hammer,” he says to me.

The strakes are hidden once the deck is put in place.

The elusive boat builder

The events leading to my unexpected visit to Pulau Duyong began much earlier in the day while I was admiring the Terengganu State Museum’s amazingly comprehensive traditional boat exhibits. The wide array of intricately-carved and well made vessels of various shapes and sizes instantaneously fired my interest.

Noticing my obvious fascination, the museum’s helpful staff began giving me helpful tips, pointing out tiny but yet significant details that I’d have definitely missed if left on my own. While bidding me farewell later, one of them suggested a visit to Pulau Duyong to see how boats are still being built the same way like those made more than a century ago.

That very afternoon I find myself at the entrance of Aki’s workplace. Right from the beginning, I noticed something distinctly different. The air is heavy with the sweet, spicy smell of freshly sawn wood. I quickly scan the large boat yard hoping to locate the man reputed to be the best among all on the island but alas, there’s no one in sight. I feared that Aki might have decided to call it a day much earlier and gone home to be with his family.

Resigned to the fact that my hope of meeting a master boat maker could very well go up in smoke, I decide on the next best thing — take a few extra steps inside, whip out my camera and start clicking away. This way, I can at least go home with something to remind me of this brief visit.

It’s while approaching the hulking mass of an unfinished vessel that I suddenly hear soft rustling noises overhead. Tilting my head upwards, I catch the face of a rather stern looking man who suddenly appeared over the half completed stern. It’s the elusive Aki.

His hitherto stern expression softens upon learning of my interest in the traditional art of boat making. Raising his right hand, Aki gestures towards a narrow gang plank running parallel to his boat. He then uses his index finger to trace my route up. It’s an invitation to view his work in progress!

Mohd Azwwa hopes to be a master boat builder one day.

The apprentice

Gingerly, I walk up the crudely made five inch wide foot bridge, all the time praying that the support beams at the bottom would hold up under my weight. Step by step, I make slow but steady progress. Thankfully my adrenaline-fuelled excitement manages to temporarily suppress my fear of heights. There’s an overwhelming sense of relief when I find Aki’s reassuring hand at the end of the steep incline.

The view from the top is completely different from the one below. For the first time in my life, I get the rare opportunity of seeing the attractively arranged strakes in full view. These thick pieces of planks, arranged lengthwise at fixed intervals from the bow to the stern, essentially function to support the transverse deck beams on which the deck is laid.

Shifting my gaze closer to the vessel’s starboard side, I suddenly realise the presence of another person apart from Aki. Emerging from behind a large tarpaulin sheet, he’s busy picking up wood shavings from the floor. Noticing my gaze, Aki quickly introduces me to his apprentice, Mohd Azwwa bin Saidi. The topic about pedigree surfaces when I politely question Aki about the wisdom of having a solitary assistant.

Left to my own devices as I wait for Aki to return with his hammer, I approach Mohd Azwwa. I’m hoping to learn more about him and his family history. Clearly dedicated to his profession, the 30-year-old who hails from Pulau Duyong, continues with his task while relating the milestones in his life leading up to his apprenticeship with Aki.

Upon completion of his secondary school education, Mohd Azwwa signed up for a basic boat building programme in Kuala Terengganu. At that early stage, he professes that he had absolutely no interest in boat building. He signed on merely because it was better than just sitting aimlessly at home.

The boats built in Pulau Duyong are mostly fishing vessels.

A few months into the programme, a well known boat maker came looking for a potential apprentice. Mohd Azwwa was surprised when he was the only one chosen from the group of 10 students.

“He didn’t even bother to talk to me. He merely took a good look at me and made the choice on the spot,” recalls Mohd Azwwa, detailing the incident that changed the course of his life. This tale causes me recall my earlier conversation with Aki. Perhaps there’s some truth in what Aki said earlier — that master boat builders possess the uncanny ability to instantaneously detect the right pedigree in their prospective students.

Under the watchful eyes of his first mentor, Mohd Azwwa started off by doing menial tasks. It took him more than a year to gain his teacher’s confidence and begin actual boat building work. Gazing into the distance, Mohd Azwwa recalls the day when he started on his first boat. “It was also a fishing boat like this but slightly larger. About 100 feet in length, I think. I managed to help build about four boats there before joining Aki,” he explains, all the while sweeping the remaining bits of sawdust from a nearby strake.

He lets out a small chuckle when asked if Aki will be his last mentor before he branches out on his own. “It’s impossible to learn everything from just one or two master builders. There’s still a long way to go. I plan to work for as many mentors as possible to acquire their wisdom,” he confides, before adding that his grandfather worked with six different mentors before he was confident enough to set up his own boatyard.

I later discover that not every male member in the family is bestowed with the inborn skill. In Mohd Azwwa’s case, it skipped a generation. His father, it seems, simply didn’t have it in him when it came to building boats. “He really couldn’t, no matter how hard he tried. I really feel sorry for him,” shares Mohd Azwwa, his expression serious.

“He’s special. He has what it takes to be a master builder one day,” Aki’s voice resonates in the distance. I’d been so captivated by Mohd Azwwa’s tale that I hadn’t noticed Aki’s return. In his hand is a really large hammer.

Aki hammering the planks in place.

Art of boatmaking

Leaving Mohd Azwwa to complete his task, I head off with Aki to the port side of the vessel. There I watch him skillfully apply measured force on the hull planks to make them watertight. Aki tells me that, from the beginning, all Terengganu boats have been built using the cengal hardwood that can last for hundreds of years if cared for properly.

He points to the rows of dark wood planks baking under the sweltering afternoon sun. “Those are cengal as well, delivered earlier this week when I informed the owner of this vessel that I needed more. Boat builders only charge for the workmanship when commissioned to build the boat by the owner. It’s then the duty of the owner to supply all the necessary materials needed to complete the task within the stipulated period of time,” explains Aki.

Eager to learn more about boat building, I ask Aki to show me the vessel’s blueprints. He immediately bursts out laughing. “What blueprints? Here in Pulau Duyong we don’t use blueprints!” he says, trying his best to suppress his amusement. “All the owner needs to do is inform me about the vessel size and expected delivery date. I will do the the rest up here,” he adds, pointing to his head.

Master boat builders use a wide array of traditional equipment.

As my ‘tour’ nears its end, our conversation turns to the topic of the future of the industry. Aki remains silent for some time as he contemplates my question. Finally, he draws a deep breath and gesturing towards the water, he says, voice choking with emotion: “In the past, the shores here were lined with numerous boat yards. Orders for boats came in by the dozen and jobs were aplenty. The boat making community then was huge. Today. I really don’t know what to say.”

Faced with the perfect storm of soaring cengal prices and stiff competition from cheaper fiberglass boats, the few remaining Pulau Duyong boat builders dare not place too much hope for this industry which is already in its sunset years.

My heart goes out to Aki. Perhaps his only hope now lies in young motivated apprentices such as Mohd Azwwa who are still keen to learn this dying craft. Perhaps one day they’ll become master boat builders in their own right. Like Aki, I also hope that the relevant authorities step in to ensure that this unique cultural heritage lives on for many more years to come.

Aki uses the plumb line to make sure this vessel has a steady keel.

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