Sailing Aboard a Ninth Century Jewel

Foreign Service Officer Jeff Khoo spent 28 days at sea, relying on ancient sailing and navigation methods. He shares his experience on the Jewel of Muscat with Gurprit Kaur.

“This ship obeys none of the Estimated Times of Arrival that we are used to. It, and its voyages, reminds us that our mastery over time is a recent accomplishment and perhaps an illusory one, too,” wrote Jeff Khoo, 27, in his diary, as he sailed onboard the Jewel of Muscat.

For the city slicker, time had come to a standstill on the ship that relied not on modern engineering but on ancient sailing and navigation methods.

Jeff and 16 others had begun their epic journey in February 2010, making their way from Muscat, Oman to Singapore. The ship, a handmade replica of a ninth century Arabian ship, is a gift from the Sultanate of Oman to the people of Singapore.

To trace its genesis, one needs to go back 10 years in time when a ninth century Arab shipwreck was discovered, not far from Singapore. Its haul of 60,000 pieces of pottery and artefacts from the Tang Dynasty was bought over by Sentosa Leisure Group.

When Foreign Minister George Yeo visited Oman three years ago, he saw the Sohar, a recreation of Sinbad’s ship. “After describing the shipwrecked Arabian ship to the Deputy Minister [of Oman] accompanying me, I asked half seriously if the Omanis could build a replica for us. I knew the Omanis had an unbroken dhow-building tradition going back a long time,” Mr Yeo wrote in his blog.

The 18-metre ship was built without nails, with hull planks sewn together with coconut fibre, and fitted perfectly to ensure that the ship is watertight. To waterproof it, the ship’s body was coated with a mixture of goat fat and lime.


Retracing History

Dating back several centuries, Asia and the Middle East have been linked not only by the Silk Road and the Spice Route, but also by the Maritime Silk Route, one in which Singapore has a rightful place. This historical voyage was an opportunity for Jeff to witness a strand of Singapore’s history first-hand.

“The Jewel was retracing an ancient trading route through ports in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, with the aid of old navigation and sailing methods."

"It was a marvellous excuse for me to study this part of our history, of which I knew little, until recently,” shared Jeff, who took a basic sailing course prior to the voyage.

The crew were taught the theory of ninth century navigation methods but lacked the experience. Though they struggled initially to use the kamal, an ancient celestial navigation tool that determines latitude, they soon figured it out.

And with no engine, let alone an “auto-pilot” mode, the Jewel was clearly not made for a plain-sailing journey. Controlling the massive spars and sails required at least four to five people each time, relying on teamwork.

“The wind died down yesterday night, and now we’re barely making 1.5 knots, with the current against us. We hope to arrive in five days, but none of us dare to make confident predictions,” wrote Jeff on Day 22.

Although friction was unavoidable onboard the cramped quarters, the intense working experience and long hours together forged strong friendship among the 17-men crew.

I am full of admiration for the Omani crew. They were hardworking and ever jovial, always livening up the mood. These friendships will extend beyond the Jewel of Muscat,

said Jeff, who is not ruling out the possibility of writing a book about his 28-day journey.

This once-in-a-lifetime voyage has given Jeff unforgettable memories, some bordering on the surreal.

“When the ship left Oman, the sea was full of bioluminescent algae. At night, the water disturbed by the Jewel’s passage glistened and glowed, making us feel like we were gliding on a sparkling green carpet beneath the stars,” he said.

The arrival of the Jewel of Muscat at the first port of call at Cochin, India, will be a lasting memory for the crew.

“Three weeks prior to our arrival at Cochin, an Indian Coastal Guard aircraft flew over our ship and hailed us over the Very High Frequency radio, ‘Jewel of Muscat, Jewel of Muscat, welcome to India’. For us that was the moment when we had arrived in Cochin,” said Jeff of the warm and unexpected reception.

After more than 1,300 miles at sea, Jeff bid farewell to his fellow crew members at Cochin while they continued on their voyage to Galle, Penang, Malacca and finally to Singapore in July 2010.

From left: Jeff goes aloft to attach a baggywrinkle on the mainmast backs tay, to prevent the mainsail from chaffing; Jeff (centre) worked closely with the crew from the starboard watch.

Jewel of Muscat is currently berthed at Keppel Bay Marina. Learn more about the Jewel of Muscat on the Jewel of Muscat website.
    Jul 6, 2010
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