Photograph by Heine Pedersen, Rolex Awards
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Runa Khan stands on a malar, a traditional wooden cargo sailing ship that she restored with craftsmen in Bangladesh.

Photograph by Heine Pedersen, Rolex Awards

Anchoring Bangladesh's Ancient Boatbuilding Technology

Preservationist Runa Khan is saving her country's wooden sailboat heritage, which dates back 3,000 years.

As rapid economic growth propels Bangladesh into the future, Runa Khan wants to ensure the country retains part of its past.

With 60 percent of the country enmeshed by a massive network of river deltas, Bangladesh has the world’s largest fleet of inland boats. But thousands of wooden sailing boats, rowboats, barges, and dugouts whose designs date back 3,000 years have all but vanished, replaced by faster, more efficient powerboats.

After restoring a wooden sailboat in 1994 with the help of locals steeped in traditional boatbuilding skills, Khan became enamored with old-world technology and decided that Bangladesh’s boat heritage needed to be preserved for future generations.

“The beautiful, ancient boats were disappearing, and the old-world carpentry skills were dying before your eyes,” says Khan, a Rolex Laureate. “We had to fight to preserve what was becoming only a memory.’’

Preserving an Ancient Craft: Building Boats in Bangladesh

Craftsmen had passed on boatbuilding techniques from generation to generation largely by demonstration and word-of-mouth. So Khan began hiring master ship's carpenters, sailmakers, ropemakers, and blacksmiths to build scale-model boats, helping them amass expertise and craftsmanship while providing scores of jobs.

“Once we saw the first models, and the success they enjoyed, we realized we had to do more,’’ says Khan, 56.

Khan earlier established a security firm and fashion business and is the co-founder of Friendship, a nonprofit healthcare and social services organization serving remote regions of Bangladesh.

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A master craftsman passes his boatbuilding acumen to workers and apprentices.

With the revival of old boatbuilding skills, more than 150 replicas have been built so far. That's led to the development of the Bengal Friendship Boat Museum, which has begun construction along the Bangshi River, near Savar.

"It will be a place where people can experience the reality of boats and watch carpenters as they work—a living museum with boats floating on the river,'' says Khan, who hopes the museum will open by late 2018.

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Khan and other explorers will be featured on the Rolex Awards for Enterprise 40th Anniversary program, airing on the National Geographic Channel Friday, November 18, at 7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 CT.