Mr Ali Hassan, or Ali, as he prefers to be called, the CEO and Chief Architect of Maldives Marine Services, is one of the most well-respected naval architects and boatbuilders in the country. Hailing from the boatbuilding capital of our seafaring nation, Raa Alifushi, Ali is not only knowledgeable about the trade and industry but also deft in his observations and interested in the history of naval architecture in the Maldives.
“Being from Alifushi no doubt played a profound role in my deep interest in boatbuilding from a very young age, watching my father building fishing boats as far back as I can remember.” Ali reminisced about his childhood growing up around some of the best boatbuilders to have ever been produced in the nation. “I studied in MES (Malé English School) after my initial education on my island. During my Grade 8 holidays, I came back to my island and found out there were some volunteers from the United Nations there, surveying to find out if Alifushi would be a good island for a boatbuilding academy.”
Ali took up work volunteering as a translator for the UN representatives, and for two months, he travelled with them to di erent islands in their search for validatory data on islands ideal for boatbuilding training institutes.
“I got paid a stipend of 150 MVR to be a translator/interpreter, which was a lot back then in the 1980s, especially for a teenager.” He laughed, remembering his ‘first job’.
Internationally-lauded and Nationally-recognised
When the Rural Youth Vocational Training Centre (RYVTC) in Raa Alifushi opened up some two years later, Ali was among the first batch of hopeful students. He completed a boatbuilding course there between 1984-1986, passing with flying colours as the top student from the batch of 19. Immediately after, he enrolled in and completed a one-year Instructor Training Course, again at the RYVTC Alifushi, his first entry into a life-long love for passing on the knowledge of traditional Maldivian boat-building.
“Tourism was just a fledgling industry back then, but I always knew that it would become big and that boatbuilding would remain an integral part of our lives with or without the tourism industry to provide for,” Ali stated. “So when I got the opportunity to study further in the United Kingdom under a scholarship, I immediately took the chance. I served the government for almost a decade afterwards to cover my bond, most of it was teaching students which I enjoyed thoroughly.”
Ali studied Yacht and Boatbuilding and Designing at Cornwall College’s Falmouth Marine Center in England for two more years, and attained several awards including the Special Endeavour trophy of Yacht and Boatbuilding from Cornwall College UK. He even gained recognition from the former president, H.E Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, with a Certificate of Merit at the national awards.
Ali achieved national recognition for a second time later in his life, as a seasoned naval architect, when he won the national award once again, this time in 2017 with the Presidential Award for Boat Design and Building. His most notable international achievement was the International Quality Summit Award in 2007 in New York, USA.
Dedicated Teacher and Family Man
“My favourite boat I ever designed though, I think, would still be the first one I ever drew, my first design. It was a 52-ft fishing boat that I designed for my father, and it was the first boat to be built on our island from a design drawn out like that. I still smile whenever I think about that boat.”
Family has remained an integral part of Ali’s life, as he speaks about his wife and children with love and pride. His son, following in his footsteps, is interested in naval architecture and Ali hopes to have him take over his legacy someday.
“I am quite proud of my son, who has taken up an interest in my work and learned by my side as I did with my father.” Ali said, “I look forward to him taking over MMS when I retire.”
His students are another source of joy for Ali, and he describes the idea of passing on the knowledge he had learnt, both inside and outside of classrooms, as something that he wants to distribute far and wide into the country.
“I still get questions from my old students daily, and I very much enjoy our interactions,” Ali says, “I trained close to 200 boatbuilders, recognised by the Government, during my time at the VTC. They would still text me to ask about things like fibreglass v/s new carbon fibre, and answering them is something I still make time for even with my busy schedule at MMS.”
An artist at heart, on a mission to preserve history
Ali enjoys an active lifestyle, interested in things such as fishing and badminton, but he remains an artist at heart. “I love sketching, and looking at old drawings of boats from our history. We have always had such interesting shapes, and there is so little literature out there exploring these. Other countries have delved deeply into their historical arts; the Maldives has had such a rich and successful culture of boatbuilding and I think it’s a shame that we don’t have more books and collections about things like this. I am going to change that.”
“When I first finished studying, a lot of people didn’t even believe that Maldivians could design our own boats. My first experience freelancing as a naval architect in the Maldives was a truly difficult time because of these untrue beliefs. Maldives is a seafaring country, we have very stable and proven shapes, the best for the open sea. Our sailboats from our ancestors, those round boats, the hulls are so fair, it is really stable and it’s beautiful. Our ancestors had been designing and building boats for literal centuries, but they kept their ways hidden and secretive, much like a family recipe. Those designs are not on paper, and so we don’t see anything written by our ancestors regarding this, and so no one believed that we have this capacity.”
“Adaptation was probably a very difficult thing in primitive ages unless you see it done, see it happening in front of your eyes.” He mused with a shrug. “I want to take time in my retirement to contribute more to boatbuilding for the nation. I want to teach more students, and make a collection of old traditional boat designs. I don’t want that knowledge to disappear from our memories.”
Bright future ahead
One of the things that Ali is most excited about and looking forward to is the new Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) centre to be opened in Alifushi soon. The centre, announced in early 2022, is in a 38,328 sq ft land plot next to the Polytechnic campus on the island and is complete with a boatyard, carpentry workshop, machine workshop, multipurpose workshop, six classrooms and an ICT laboratory. The centre is planned to be dedicated to boatbuilding and supporting vocations.
“I was very sad to see the previous vocational centre in Alifushi close down, and this announcement gives me hope that the Government is once again showing interest in preserving this ancient tradition,” Ali said. “One of the things that I am most proud of in my life, aside from my family, is that I have been able to help train and educate world-class boat designers and builders throughout my career as an educator. I take great pride in the fact that this has been a part of my service to my nation.”