Last Hands On Deck

A boatbuilder’s unyielding commitment to a once-profitable trade now in deep water

Murthy at his workshop in Jagannadhapuram village, Andhra Pradesh. GBSNP VARMA FOR THE CARAVAN
01 April, 2012

PAST THE BRIDGE over the Upputeru salt creek in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, which empties into the Bay of Bengal; past the skeleton of a split-open boat; past a garage crammed with dead engines; past a huge trawler abandoned midway through construction; past a herd of pigs rooting through mounds of trash—here is P Narasimha Murthy standing next to a boat, instructing his assistants to hammer nails into its hull.

His boatshop, a ramshackle thatched shed, is located on the potholed Wharf Road in Jagannadhapuram village in Kakinada district of Andhra Pradesh, just beside a creek in which clumps of hyacinth float in muddy, jet-black water. Once the hub for boatbuilding in the village, this stretch of road now is home to just a handful working in the trade, prominent among who is Murthy.

The acrid stench of molten tar and paint rides the wind, mingling with the pervasive odour of fish guts. Along the banks of the creek, about 500 boats and dinghies are tethered to stakes driven into the mud. On many decks, weatherbeaten boatmen chatter with one another, or with themselves, about the adventures they had the previous night. They smell of Thati kallu (country liquor) and toss around colourful swear words that would singe many a high-brow ear. Their banter forms a constant background to engines being tested, nets being tied. About 50,000 people in the village and surrounding areas live off the sea.

“I have been building boats for more than 45 years,” says Murthy, the 57-year-old carpenter. He joined the profession right after his first and only year in school, and went on to inherit the boatshop from his father.

Murthy’s workshop is bursting with pieces of wood in countless shapes and sizes, along with all the tools needed to transform that wood into boats. For a man with almost no formal education, he is an engineer of sorts. His training in boat design, he says, began 40 years ago when, by chance, he met a clerk at the boatyard. “I got a drawing of a boat design from him and started to experiment with different models based on it.” Over time, his hands developed a mind of their own, intuiting the intricacies of structure, seaworthiness and safety. “I can make whatever goes on the water,” he says with a big grin.

But times change, and once a reliable source of income, the trade has hit choppy waters, at least in these parts. Over the past 50 years, boatbuilders around the world have shifted to working with iron and fibreglass, which have become widely preferred alternatives to wood because of their strength and leakproof quality.

Murthy and his team, however, remain wary. With iron and fibreglass, “we have to make a mould, which is costly, and if there are no orders, it is wasted”, says Babji, an assistant to Murthy, as he chews a wad of gum. Murthy, who has seen the ebbs and flows in the business firsthand, says he will never give up on wood.

But some types of wood are now priced out of Murthy’s boatbuilding market. “We used to build boats with teakwood for smooth flow,” he says, running his hand over the gunwale. “Now, we build with non-teak varieties of wood like Tapāsi, Maddi and Guggilam.”

Huge investment (big boats cost more than R2.5 million to build, smaller boats between R1-1.5 million) and dwindling catch are thwarting the fishing business here, and boats are often left unfinished when clients retract their orders.

“Fifteen years ago, I used to employ 80 to 90 people,” Murthy says, “but now I can only pay seven or eight.” He spent all his savings in marrying off his two daughters, and suspects that ongoing boatbuilding contracts might push him further into loss. “I keep it going for the workers who I have been associated with for many years.”

Perched on the keel of the upturned boat, workers drill, screw, scrape and squeeze coir into the gaps between the wooden planks. Then they smear tar over the plugged gaps and cracks to waterproof the hull and then, bit by bit, paint the entire structure.

Soon, the boat will leave the workshop and the team will start work on a new one—if, that is, Murthy can land another order—or even if he doesn’t, he says: “I take what the sea gives me.”