Glimpses of Traditional Boatbuilding in Goa

by Johan Roque

The location of Goa

Ship under construction

Goan ship builder shaping a frame

Unsuccessful mending of a dugout log with one row of topstrakes. Plugs not fully inserted

Lashed plank boat with wooden plugs in the sewing holes

Mending a simple dugout

Bottom hull of an outrigger being repaired. The ropes were used to maintain the inserted planks in place while plugging

The inside of an outrigger aimed for fishing. Notice the additional construction for outboard motor

Goan fishing outrigger boat with dugout and several rows of edge to edge sewn strakes. In the boat: oars and fishing nets

Outrigger dugout with one row of strakes

Goa is a small region located on the west coast of India. Nowadays, Goa is by most people known for its tourist resorts and beach parties. Yet, among the gaiety of colours and the active common life on the streets and the beaches, one discovers now and then that certain occurrences still reveal some old traditional traits.

For Goa, seafood has always been the foremost resource of nourishment and much thanks to that, some fishing and boatbuilding traditions, which origins probably extend over thousands of years, are still in use. During a short stay there in December 1996, I was sitting on the sandy beach one afternoon observing a group of fishermen pushing their wooden boat out to the sea. I was wondering whether what was happening in front of me really was different from what used to happen in prehistoric times. The boat was an outrigger, built in sewing technique and totally made of wood. The bottom part of the boat was a dugout log, on which sides two rows of strakes had been sewn up. The boat had only one outrigger which seemed to be customary here. It was equipped with fishing nets, wooden oars, a small iron anchor and an outboard motor which was breaking down the romantic traditional image I had received. The three fishermen were pushing hard to get the boat in the water. Once floating, they jumped in and started to row further out. Before putting down the outboard motor, they had to get through the waves breaking down near the shore. After the laborious row through the waves, the boat went off to the open sea like a smaller motor-boat. It is quite fascinating, if not alarming, to see how old traditions live in close proximity with modern facilities.

Here, there and everywhere along the Goan coast, one can see long rows of outriggers being prepared before going out to sea. Fortunately all the boats were not equipped with outboard motors. Some of the fishing outriggers belong to the many beach restaurants along the coast while other boats are owned by self-supporting fishermen. I decided to take a closer look at some of these boats and ask one of the fishermen where I had to go if I wanted to see boatbuilders building boats like the ones used here. It wasn't easy to get the answers I was asking for. An aged man, who was giving his dugout a coat of tar, didn't seem willing to help at first but when I once offered him Baksheesh (tip), he could suddenly speak English fluently and gladly explained the way to the two nearest boatbuilding yards. One was located in Chapora and the other in Betim.

The purpose of this text is to present a new photographic material and, on the basis of it and personal communication with boatbuilders, to point out characteristic traits that might have ancient traditional background.


Chapora is a small village on the northern coast of Goa, well hidden under the tall palm-trees. A small asphalted road brought me and my hired Vespa to the fishing harbour of Chapora. It laid far in a creek, well protected from the waves of the open sea. Against the modern quay and further out in the creek, modern fishing boats were moored and anchored together with simple dugouts and small wooden boats. Since the quay was not large enough to receive all the bigger boats, the dugouts and the smaller boats were used as a transport method to get from the shore out to the ships that were anchored in deeper water. Once again, a mixture of old traditions and modernism. The natural creek was still not suitable for deep-going ships and the use of dugouts was therefore still essential.

Within a stone's throw from the quay, on the beach, a large amount of fishing boats had been pulled up to be repaired, stripped or abandoned. Here, there and everywhere on the beach, one could see dugouts, plankboats of different shape and size and bigger motorised fishing boats. Some of them had been totally stripped of and laid there exposed to the sun, like skeletons in the desert, with cracked keels, bottom frames and stems. The boats that were waiting to be repaired or saved for their still usable wooden parts, had been raised up and sheltered with the help from logs and woven palm-tree leaves. Dispersed on the beach, one could also see pieces of wood, splinters, nails, stains of spilled tar, fruit waste and logs of different sizes. A few holy cows walked freely on the beach looking for edible stuffs thrown by the boat builders.

In the middle of this seemingly sad boatyard, a group of boatbuilders were cheering up the dark atmosphere by building a brand new fishing boat. The shining light-brown wooden colour of the future boat was enchanting. I went there and introduced a discussion with three boatbuilders, sitting on the ground near the ship, carving a large amount of new wooden tree-nails. I tried to find out about the different materials they used for building a boat, but because of their limited knowledge in English, the answers were very brief and sometimes incomprehensible. I went on my own among the boats to look for interesting ethnographic details. Anyway, the scarce information the boatbuilders succeeded to reveal says that they were using any kind of wood available for the building of this ship. Mango tree was one of them. The packing material was tar mixed with some kind of wool. The bottom hull of the ship and some strakes had been recycled from an older unseaworthy ship. Otherwise, the timbers were sawn and carved by hand and the planks fastened with large iron screw-bolts.

While walking around on the boatyard, I tried to find some outriggers like the ones mentioned above. I didn't find any, and hoped that the boatyard at Betim would reveal some. Here in Chapora, mainly modern motorised fishing boats were built and repaired. But, except the many dugouts laying around, there was an interesting wooden boat that must have been build according to old traditional methods. It was an open and a bit worn out plankboat. It was about ten meters long, the planks had been sewn up by lashing and the sewing hole plugged in with tree-nails. The boat was entirely built in sewing technique and had upright stems, fore and aft.


Betim is also located in North Goa, to the North of the capital town Panjim. The boat yard was well hidden in a large hut covered with woven palm-leaves within the densely urbanised riverside. Next to the boatbuilding site was a stock of different types of timbers and sawn planks laid up, aimed for boatbuilding.

Once inside the hut, I was received by two open and friendly boatbuilders instantly asking me if I wanted take a look at the boats they were building. It was very dark inside but once the eyes had acclimatised, I could see that the place was full of canoes, dugouts and outriggers. Some were being repaired and others were under construction. I asked if anyone could speak English and an apprentice came forward, told me to follow him as he vividly started to point at different boats. I didn't refuse to a guided show around the yard and hopefully an interesting conversation. The outriggers here were mostly built in mango-wood because it was the most common tree and teak was of course more exclusive but not very current. The boats were all repaired and built in the sewing technique and the packing material was here also made of tar and wool.

by Johan Roque

MA student at the University of Southampton



Edited in 1997 by Graeme Earl, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton. Published in 1998 on Nordic Underwater Archaeology by kind permission.

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