Before the Yanmar diesel power plant found its way into Maldivian waters in the early 1970’s, the dhoni usually came in at between 20-30 feet. This ultra-versatile craft that could brave the deep swells of the inter-atoll channels, the choppy seas of the monsoons or the sharp coral of the shallows around the reefs served well as a fishing vessel and as a mode of travel between the thousand islands of the archipelago. Vessels that looked similar existed in different sizes but were usually called other names like bokkuraa, odi and baththeli, depending on size and use.
It is said that when Mohamed Thakurufaanu the Great liberated the Maldives from the Portuguese in the latter part of the 16th century, he used a traditional Maldivian dhoni called Kalhuoh Fummi to outrun and outwit the clumsier vessels used by the invaders. The Kalhuoh Fummi, like many of its proud successors today, was built with the wood of the coconut tree and was steered from the stern with a wooden tiller controlled by the legs of the helmsman. History also has it, though, that the famous vessel used a square sail made of coconut leaves woven together, unlike the canvas lateen sail of years later.
Then came the inboard diesel engine, almost at the same time as tourism came to the Maldives. Maldivians were quick to combine their traditional dhoni with the new technology to derive a highly successful mechanised dhoni, with exceptionally good rough-weather handling capabilities and the ability to sail directly into the wind. This effort proved to be so successful that many daring young sailors gave up the older, longer, wind determined routes of the sea in favour of shorter, more direct routes. Through it all, the dhoni took it in good stride.
Today the dhoni design has proved itself in imported tropical woods and even in fibreglass. The new fibreglass dhoni is sleeker and significantly lighter, which results in significant gains in speeds and fuel efficiency due to decreased drag and increased load-bearing capacity. In addition to its traditional role as a fishing vessel and a fast passenger vessel, the dhoni now serves as a very versatile platform for pleasure diving, game fishing and even pleasure cruising.
As a time-proven design that has adapted, and continues to adapt to changing times and technologies, the dhoni has become one of the most versatile contributions the Maldives has made to tropical island seas.
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