In conversation with Yves Marre

Wafiur Rahman
Thursday, September 21st, 2017


Enayetullah Khan (second from left) and Yves Marre (far right) unveiling two books which were published by Cosmos Books at the Bangladesh National Museum on September 10

 

The dynamic life of this versatile individual is something that not many can live up to.

 

Often imitated, but never emulated – that is how people tend to describe geniuses in life. The same is true in the case of Yves Marre, a French entrepreneur, inventor and adventurer – an extraordinary individual who has accomplished so many things, and yet he intends to complete many more. It is certainly due to his dedication and continuous global action for Bangladesh, particularly in the sectors of Cultural preservation of Bangladesh naval heritage, introducing the concept of bringing health to difficult to reach populations, and improving the boat construction that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had granted him Bangladeshi citizenship in 2013.

 

In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Courier, he talked at great length about his two books; the first one: “BOATS – A Treasure of Bangladesh”(which he co-authored with Enayetullah Khan, Editor-in-Chief of Dhaka Courier and United News of Bangladesh & Chairman of Cosmos Foundation) published by Cosmos Books –and “Barge for Bangladesh” that he first wrote in French and published in France under the title: “Navigateur SoliDaire”, and about the “Maritime Search & Rescue Society” (MSRS), a Nonprofit sea rescue association in Bangladesh.

 

What inspired you to write about boats of Bangladesh?

 

When I entered Bangladesh on the Pussur river with my barge, in 1994, I thought I had sailed several centuries in the past by discovering the traditional fleet of Bangladesh. In Mongla port there were still hundreds of these magnificent and so diverse traditional boats.After I got married with Runa and settled in Bangladesh, I decided to refit one of the most interesting one as a museum piece. This was a “Malar Nouka” of 93 feet.The purpose was also to conduct ecotourism in Bangladesh. This boat soon became the most famous boat, at least for the international community and welcomed most of the international dignitaries including Nobel Prize Laureates and head of states.

 

During our years of sailing with our “Malar Nouka” most known as the “B613” we have been sailing extensively on the major rivers of Bangladesh, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra (Jamuna), the Meghna and their tributaries, especially in the Sundarbans. This is howwe could notice that the traditional fleet was dramatically disappearing, due to the effects of a double technical revolution;The use of diesel motors and the technology of steel construction.

 

During the 1980s, first of all, the noisy Chinese diesel engines invadedall our country replacing the beautiful sails and secondly, thanks to electrification, the steel plates could be welded easily. Building a steel boat became faster, cheaper and its longevity increased by years. That was the end of the era for traditional naval carpenters who had been working in the same way for ages. As the only conscious eye witness of this terrible cultural heritage loss and as a sailor and a boat builder myself, I could not let these marvels of architecture and technologies disappear. I spent 2 years training our team oftraditional carpenters building models in our Uttara garage and they constructedseveral hundreds. I also, with the help of a German Fund rebuilt 2 life scale disappeared boats: the very large “Shampan” from Kutubdia and the beautiful “Patham Nouka” of the Meghna river. We had several exhibitions of model boats first at the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts, then at the Bangladesh National Museum of Dhaka and then they were showcased at famous museums such as the Marine Museum of Paris, the Museum of Brest, the Museum of Douarnenez, and the Museum of Luxembourg and even in Japan. We even sent a life scale “Moon Boat” to be offered to France at the famous International Paris Boat Show – sponsored by Cosmos Foundation.

 

It was then that Enayetullah Khan noticed rightly that a book on that topic was missing and addressed me to supervise it along with him. After several years of insisting, he finally managed to convince me and we are actually very happy that this book came to existence with the help of many other friends of Bangladesh who offered their pictures, expertise and talent to reach the quality that you may appreciate when opening it.

 

What were some of the most important experiences you faced while researching about boats?

 

Firstly, I was amazed by the sheer beauty of these traditional boats. Secondly, that was the astonishing number of different types of boats which puzzled me, followed by the incredible number of boats that made Bangladesh to be the largest fleet of the world. I also cannot forget about the forgotten technologies (by the modern world) that were still so skillfully practicedby the naval carpenters, and the love and dedication they had for their craft.

 

As much as we are losing our rivers, how badly are we losing our boats?

 

The problem of losing river ways comes from siltation. It is to be known that Bangladesh is receiving more than a billion tonnes/year of silt from Himalayan mountains which is depositing in the bed of the rivers and in the continental plateau of the Bay of Bengal reducing the depth of their bed.Maintenance doesn’t seem having been the priority of Bangladesh till now.

 

It should be addressed now that the road transportation is far more expensive than river and reaching the limits of traffic congestion!

 

We are losing our very precious traditional boats but in the same time we are building in the so many shipyards all around the country, steel boats, especially sand carriers and passengers boats which are replacing them, more efficiently in an economical point of view but having lost the beauty which was praised by poets.

 

Do you consider constructing a boat museum necessary?

 

Yes, of course. It is the duty of our generation to preserve our traditional knowledge in boat building as our national heritage and probably the richest in the world of boatbuilding. It is our responsibility for the next generations and for the culture of mankind. The Museum of boats should have been started years ago, but it is never too late.

 

What can you tell us about your second book, “Barge for Bangladesh”?

 

This book is the story of an almost impossible but real sea sailing adventure, which received the French Award for the Best Sea Book of the Year. This is a “Première” in the history of navigation, I would say, but it is also the story of all the challenges, difficulties and happiness which Bangladesh offered me during the last 22 years. This adventure came from a vision, a feeling of injustice and a commitment to do what I can do at my personal level to humbly help.

 

France was destroying river barges, only because their 400 tonnes carrying capacity was not any longer sufficient to feed a family. The administrative system wanted to destroy these boats because they were no longer financially profitable to European mariners.

 

At this time, I was already feeling like a citizen of the world and I thought, if these barges cannot help westerners, let us bring them to populations of other continents where they can keep serving people.

 

I didn’t know Bangladesh at that time but I had flown over it often and looking at the effects of the monsoon floods, from 35 000 feet, I was really wandering how the people of Bangladesh could deal with this adverse situation. It is this view from the air which convinced me to set up course to Bangladesh from France with the Barge I had been given by the French government.

 

Readers will be able to find out how I managed to overcome these first difficulties during kind of an incredible challenge of 3 and half months of sea sailing with a totally unfit boat and crew!

 

No one dared to bet on our success, especially not the insurance companies and the professional sailors. But till today, this barge named Friendship –“Lifebuoy-Friendship-Hospital” has proven to be a unique and strong support for the most underprivileged populations of Bangladesh, the ones of the Jamuna chars.

 

Till now, more than 1 million lives have benefited from her medical support. “Barge for Bangladesh” also tells how I met Runa who became my wife and how we created the Friendship Association with the help of quite a few other friends. We also created “CONTIC” standing for CONfluence of Technologies, Ideas & Cultures. This was the first ecotourism riverine company sailing on the most famous traditional boat of Bangladesh; that I redesigned and refitted; the “B613”.

 

I also designed & built the second floating Hospital of Friendship; the “Emirates Friendship Hopital”, as well as I built the river ambulances of Friendship designed by the most famous naval architect of France,Marc Van Peteghem.

 

After separating with Runa a few years ago, I dedicated my life in improving the boatbuilding technology of Bangladesh, specializing in fiberglass material in a shipyard named “Taratari” and also managing a French association named “Watever” standing for “Water – Ever”.

 

Watever association intends to address the problems of the populations leaving on the shores of the main rivers and of the Seas and Oceans.

 

I hope that the reading of the book “Barge for Bangladesh” will comfort you in believing in your dreams.

 

Why did you createdthe MSRS?

 

The MSRS (Maritime Search & Rescue Society) is a philanthropic institution working alongside Bangladesh Navy, Coast Guard and other maritime organizations of Bangladesh. Its mission is to conduct rescue of seafarers, fishermen, passengers and water users who are in distress at sea or in the waterways of Bangladesh. The mission also includes carrying out study and research about ongoing maritime activities of Bangladesh, with special emphasis on the effect of climate change on coastal areas and subsequently suggest policy options to the concerned government and non-government agencies of Bangladesh.

 

MSRS’ president is former chief of Bangladesh Navy, Rear Admiral Taher, while I serve as its Executive Director. Rear Admiral Kazi Sarwar Hossain is its CEO, while its board of directors include Saber Hossain Chowdhury MP, Dr Baizid Khoorshid Riaz, AK Shamsuddin Khan and Enayetullah Khan.

 

Facing the tragic reality of the living conditions of fishermen in the Bay of Bengal and on the major rivers, the protagonists of the new society refused to evade their responsibility of solidarity. They offer their skills, their energy, their enthusiasm and their lives to the service of safety and rescue to the seafarers of Bangladesh. This commitment and endeavor will allow them to keep believing in “brotherhood and human solidarity”. However, the commitment of a few experts would be nothing without the backing of supporters sharing the same values. We do believe it is also the duty of all the civil Society to care for the lives of millions of seafarers.

 

Looking back, what are some of your favorite accomplishments in Bangladesh?

 

Quite a few actually:

– Firstly, it would be having managed the impossible sailing from France to Bangladesh with a river barge which already provided medical assistance to about one million patients.

Others would include:

– setting up the Friendship Association with my wife Runa and our friends,

– uncovering the almost-lost traditional fleet of Bangladesh,

– creating awareness in initiating the protection of Bangladesh’s naval heritage,

– introducing a river-based ecotourism on using traditional boats,

– having introduced the concept of catamaran with the Emirates Friendship Hopital, the Friendship Service boats, the Friendship River ambulances designed by Marc Van Peteghem,

– unveiling the concept of sailing in safety with the first unsinkable fishing boats, the “Masdoris”,

– improving the standards of Fiberglass building and made it known for the use of vulnerable communities and lastly:

– the creation of MSRS with my friends for  rescuing any seafarers, passengers and users of watercrafts.

 

What is next in your agenda?

 

I intend to keep improving composite boat construction, as well as restarting a training center for improving these technologies. Plans are also underway to use bamboos in boat construction (which are durable, strong and cheaper than Fiberglass boats), in order to use local resources, create employment and produce boats with a lesser impact on the environment. Additionally, I plan to develop with my friends and all our future supporters, MSRS stations all around the Bay of Bengal and in major river routes to increase safety of all seafarers and waterway users.

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