Schooners ply the coast of Madagascar

Madagascar schooner and Pecho on the bow - a relaxed life
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While modern ships are searching for ways to reduce their carbon footprint by using sails to assist their passage across oceans, there's one corner of the world where the sailing ship has continued its dominance of the commercial maritime world - it's Madagascar.

Along the west coast of the African island nation of Madagascar, isolated villages remain linked by a fleet of sailing ships - schooners - that look as though they could have been built by 19th century French shipbuilders.

That’s because the skills involved with building the ships, which link remote enclaves, was brought to the village of Belo-sur-Mer in the 1800s by French tradesmen, who taught the craft to locals.

Commercial Madagascar schooner, at rest in Belo-sur-mer
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It has been passed down generation through generation, so that the same style of ships are being built today, according to Agence France-Presse.

Approximately a dozen schooners a year are launched annually, and one shipwright said he gets so many orders he can’t keep up with the work.

Boats are the only transportation along Madagascar’s west coast. Even where roads do exist in the western region of the impoverished nation, they are in poor condition, while rising gas prices have made road transport more expensive.

'Schooners are ideal for whisking among the creeks along the rugged coastline, visiting far-off villages practically unreachable by land,' reports Agence France-Presse. 'Their holds transport 80 tons of cargo from Mahajanga in the north to Toliara in the south.'

'I get all my goods over the sea,' says a hotelier in Belo-sur-Mer. 'It’s unthinkable to do that with a 4X4, and then the roads are cut off during the rainy season,' from December to April.

Favoring the country’s wooden shipbuilding industry is the wealth of forests in Madagascar’s hinterland. In addition, there are several types of wood available, with each being used according to the need for strength or lightness.

Madagascar schooner fleet, photo by Philippe Aimar
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This expert knowledge is vested in the 'fondy,' master shipwrights like Fama, who goes by a single name. 'I learned the job from my father. First I was his apprentice, then I took over the craft 20 years ago.'

With no electricity in the region, the technique has stayed unchanged since it was brought to the island in the 1860s, Agence France-Presse reports.

'At the time Madagascar’s King Radama II invited the Joachim brothers, shipwrights from the French province of Brittany, to teach new shipbuilding techniques on the island,' the wire service added.

But the locals have adapted the own flavor, as well, mixing the Breton style with 'fomba,' a construction tradition watched over by local healers.

Shipowners consult the healers at the beginning and end of construction, with these authorities choosing the date to launch the schooners.

The whole village then comes together for a feast to celebrate the occasion of a new launch. And still the Western world looks for solutions...