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Omani sailors voyage back in time aboard 9th century ship

By Anouk Lorie for CNN
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From Oman to Singapore: The ancient Indian Ocean spice route
  • Omani sailors are setting off on a voyage from Oman to Singapore a replica 9th century boat
  • "Jewel of Muscat" was built using ancient techniques -- no nails were used
  • The crew of 16 will live in cramped conditions and eat dried fish and dates
  • Sailing
  • Oman
  • Singapore

London, England (CNN) -- A group of Omani sailors are setting off on a voyage into the past aboard a faithful replica of a 9th century Arab sailing ship.

Using ancient navigation techniques, the "Jewel of Muscat" will navigate a key Indian Ocean trade route once used to transport precious cargo from Arabia to the Far East.

It will take five months to travel from Oman to Singapore and the crew plan to live just as their counterparts would have a millennium ago.

"We have tried to think back a thousand years," captain Saleh Al Jabri, a former captain in Oman's Royal Navy told CNN.

"We all understand life must have been very difficult and very hard then and we will try to do almost the same," he said.

This means Jabri and his 16-man crew will live in cramped, austere conditions and eat the same food as their predecessors -- dried fish and dates, Jabri told CNN.

He and his crew will use very simple navigation tools to keep the 18 meter-long ship on course: observing the sky, sea color, marine and bird life.

The closest any of them will get to technology is the "kamal" -- a small block of wood connected to a piece of string -- used to calculate latitude.

"Jewel of Muscat" is a copy of an Omani trading vessel discovered wrecked off the coast of Indonesia in 1998.

Map: Oman to Singapore

Using ancient techniques, "Jewel" was hand-stitched using coconut fibres, instead of using nails. Layers of goat fat mixed with lime will protect the ship's wood from leaks.

"Jewel's" timber planks come from Ghana; the sails were constructed from palm leaves in Zanzibar; and the teak masts were made from Poona trees found in Southern India.

Ninth-century ships would have carried everything from frankincense and myrrh to porcelain and food stuffs like dried fish and dates across the Indian Ocean -- and so will "Jewel."

Jabri hopes to reach Singapore by June 2010, with short stops in India and Malaysia: "The boat, like those at the time, is very slow," he explained. The boat is likely to sail at an average of 2 knots (3 miles) per hour.

The project was born from a collaboration between the governments of Singapore and Oman.

Situated at the foot of the Arabian Peninsula, midway between the Spice Islands of Africa and the Holy lands to the North and the Far East, Oman enjoyed a powerful place in key Indian Ocean trading routes for hundreds of years.

Oman is hoping the project will help reconnect it with its strong maritime heritage and reposition it as a prime sailing destination.

"With the 'Jewel of Muscat' we are witnessing and celebrating the return of an aspect of Oman's maritime heritage that is still within us with great pride," said Sayyid Badr, Secretary General of Oman Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"It will be a challenge," said Jabri, "but I can't wait to recreate this glorious passage to Singapore."