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Another ancient sailing ship to set forth

by Nadim Kawach,Emirates Business/Sail-World on 12 Jan 2010
Jewel of Muscat in her first sea trials SW
When 15 Omani sailors set sail from the port of Muscat next month, it will mark the beginning of yet another attempt to recreate the journeys of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years ago.

In other examples of what seems to be becoming a world-wide trend, the Phoenicia, an ancient replica of an Egyptian sailing vessel, is currently circumnavigating Africa, and last year a Chinese vessel, the Princess Tai Ping was tragically split in two when just one day from completing a double trans-Pacific crossing when it was hit head-on by a cargo ship.

In the new effort, the ninth century wooden square-rigged sailing ship will be heading for Singapore. It has been modelled on the famous Tang Treasure ship that sank in the Indian Ocean while laden with gold and other precious items belonging to the old Chinese Tang dynasty.

The 18-metre long Jewel of Muscat, a reconstructed ninth century sewn-plank ship, has started sailing in the Sea of Oman on the first sea trials ahead of its formal voyage to Singapore towards the end of February.

The sailing vessel is scheduled to start its journey across the Indian Ocean with transit stops along the western coast of India and other south Asian countries. It will keep to ancient trade routes and stop in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia before arriving in Singapore five months later, where it will be given as a gift from Oman to the people of Singapore.

'Singapore is one of Oman's oldest trading partners. Jewel of Muscat will be displayed in Singapore to highlight the awareness of the old trade routes between the two countries,' Badr bin Hamoud Al Busaeedi, Director-General of the Omani Foreign Ministry, said at a launch ceremony this week.

He said Jewel of Muscat was modelled on the wreckage of the ninth-century Tang Treasure ship that was carrying more than 60,000 pieces of Chinese ceramics, silver and gold artefacts, spices and other commodities. 'The idea of this was inspired from the Tang Treasure that was discovered in 1998 in Indonesian waters… it took us about 12 months to construct this vessel, which represents an important Omani cultural and heritage initiative,' he said. To reconstruct the vessel, a 1,200-year-old method of sewing the hull planks together with handmade coconut-fibre rope was used to make the vessel extremely resilient. No nail or screw was used during the process of shaping the first plank for hoisting the palm-leaf sails that were woven in Qantab.

Captain Saleh Al Jabri, who will co-head the mission, will soon begin the sailing process by testing the two steering systems. He is a former instructor with Oman Sail and second in command of the training ship, Shabab Oman.

The first sea trial of the Jewel went well, but the captain admits there is still much work to be done to prepare her for her voyage.

'All our efforts have paid off; Jewel of Muscat is a magnificent initiative and an authentic symbol of Oman's heritage. She is now all set for her sea trial and as her captain I am really looking forward to steering her along the old trade routes from Muscat to Singapore via India and Malaysia, just as our forefathers did.' According to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), the Tang Treasure shipwreck which was discovered in 1998 contained rare and well-preserved pieces of stoneware, and centuries-old gold and silver pieces including the largest Tang dynasty gold cup and an exquisitely decorated silver flask.

Later uncovered by professional salvage divers, the 22-metre long traditional vessel provides strong evidence to suggest that the early Chinese seafarers were trading in items that suited the global market more than 1,000 years ago. The treasure was purchased by the Sentosa Leisure Group in 2005 and is on loan to the STB.

The sailing ship, constructed on a beach in the Omani town of Qantab, is made from Afzelia african timber from Ghana. The planks are are sewn together with coconut fibre and must fit perfectly to ensure that the ship is watertight. The wood is protected by a layer of goat fat mixed with lime.

'The Tang Shipwreck Treasure is a priceless find that provides firm archaeological evidence of the existence of a maritime Silk Route between the East and the West via Southeast Asia centuries ago,' the Board said in a statement.

'Behind the artefacts is a story that needs to be told – one of how people lived and traded in the early days, how they interacted with people of other lands. It also has a special meaning for Singapore, which has a long and distinguished maritime history being strategically located at the cross-roads of maritime trade routes and home to the treasure.'

During the journey the crew will use 9th century navigation techniques, reaching Singapore by June 2010. The project is jointly funded by Singapore and Oman.

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