It was a sea voyage to Africa back in 1946 that helped Shivji Bhuda Fofindi, then 12, decide on his unique profession—making models of ships.

His payment for being a crew member was in kind—food and clothes. On the way to Africa, the seafarers would halt at the island of Socotra, where they prayed for safe passage at the temple of Sukotar Mata, the reigning deity of the place.

As part of the ritual, the voyagers would offer a token cargo of rice and grain in a small model ship to the deity.

Shivji Bhuda Fofindi with one of his models

Having crafted more than 1,000 models of various sizes—from palm-sized fishing trawlers to dinghy-sized 10ft-long ones—Fofindi, who has never been to school, says much of his learning is from the sea.

Fofindi’s boats are displayed and bought in places such as the US, Japan and West Asia and from the Indian naval establishment to Hotel Marine Plaza in Mumbai.

His models are also displayed at the Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (museum) in Mumbai and in museums in Bhuj and Vadodara in Gujarat.

Fofindi claims he made the model of the ship Titanic for James Cameron’s 1997 movie—the model fetched him 40,000.

He also designed a model of Vijli, a steamer carrying 746 to Mumbai from Mandvi, which sank some 20km off the Mangrol coast in 1888. This was 24 years before the Titanic tragedy; there is a famous Kutch folk song written around it, and over the years many myths and legends have come to be associated with it.

Fofindi, who has also captained many voyages, takes anywhere from a fortnight to two months to complete a model, depending on its size. On an average, he sells 10-15 models a year, most of which are miniature-sized models 1-2ft in length. He charges 6,000-10,000 per piece. For a large-sized model of 9-10ft, he charges at least 2 lakh. Fofindi says he is currently giving the final touches to a 9ft-long model for a Muscat, Oman-based trader. He runs the business with his grandsons and hires workers on a temporary basis, depending on the scale of the project. He refuses to divulge details of his yearly earnings, saying they were quite modest.

Ten years ago, he set up a training institute opposite his shop near the Mandvi port office, using a simulator to train seafarers over three months. The module includes ship and engine breakdown repair work, navigation, handling cargo and even swimming in the high seas in case of emergency. The institute, which trains 40 people on an average and can accommodate up to 100, helps the students get jobs in various shipping firms.

In Mandvi, Fofindi stands at his workshop with a hammer, ready to craft the teak hull of a huge wooden sailing vessel model. His grandson, Nishant, is by his side to assist him. Scores of miniature boats surround him, many incomplete. While none of them can make it to sea, many are replicated in large-sized seaworthy vessels.

Recently, he designed a 15ft model for the Adani Group that was made into a larger seaworthy vessel. He has designed another one for Ashapura Minechem Ltd. In 2005, Sagar Ship Model designed a model for Great Eastern Shipping Co. that was later made into a large-sized vessel, he says, claiming that his designs have even inspired Indian Navy warships.

Many of the country crafts in Mandvi are based on his models too, but with the entire boat-making industry going through a lull, Fofindi’s business has also been affected.