Su­per­sti­tion and Schooners in Su­lawesi

Asian Diver (English) - - Contents - Text by Jo Mar­low Im­ages by Ri­card Buxo

Text by Jo Mar­low

Im­ages by Ri­card Buxo

Dis­cover the strange and su­per­nat­u­ral tra­di­tions re­spon­si­ble for fer­ry­ing you to In­done­sia's un­der­wa­ter par­adises


stand­ing at the bow of a wooden schooner, scan­ning the 360-de­gree hori­zon, and see­ing noth­ing but ocean, gives you that feel­ing of be­long­ing to another time – a time when all the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the un­known were too great and won­drous to imag­ine. But few may re­alise that, in In­done­sia at least, the very boat they are sail­ing in has likely been con­structed us­ing tech­niques handed down from another time…

In­done­sia not only has one of the world’s rich­est cul­tures, un­der­pinned by an­i­mist be­liefs and thus im­bued with daily rev­er­ence and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with worlds be­yond our nor­mal per­cep­tion, but it also has one of the most boom­ing sail in­dus­tries in the world:

The coun­try’s iconic phin­isi schooner is un­doubt­edly the poster child for the live­aboard in­dus­try across the na­tion. When we dig a lit­tle deeper into this in­dus­try we un­earth a fas­ci­nat­ing cul­ture and set of rit­u­als that are en­twined in the ro­mance of th­ese el­e­gant ves­sels.


Often mis­tak­enly re­ferred to as Bugis tra­di­tion, the boat-build­ing tech­niques orig­i­nated with a group of peo­ples called the Konjo. Pri­mar­ily orig­i­nat­ing from a town called Ara in South Su­lawesi, the Konjo peo­ple took their tech­niques to Kal­i­man­tan, as the pur­suit of dif­fer­ent

The boat-build­ing tra­di­tions of In­done­sia en­com­pass strange worlds of spir­its and rit­ual; you will never look at your live­aboard in the same way again…

qual­ity wood be­came more es­sen­tial. Nowa­days, a strong boat-build­ing cul­ture ex­ists in both lo­ca­tions.

The phin­isi style it­self is a copy of Dutch ship con­struc­tion, us­ing some Asian build­ing tech­niques – an amal­ga­ma­tion of the two styles. They were orig­i­nally used as In­done­sian cargo boats. In this style they laid the keel first be­fore adding the ribs, which is the op­po­site of the Euro­pean style. The early pi­o­neers who saw the po­ten­tial of build­ing the boats for pas­sen­gers adapted the plans and build style to pre­serve the charm and char­ac­ter of the phin­isi’s ap­pear­ance, whilst ap­ply­ing their knowl­edge of com­fort and safety to meet the re­quire­ments of a div­ing boat.

Nor­mally the build process con­sists of two groups – the builders and the sailors. You first will or­der the boat with the builder, who will bring wood and staff and build the hull. They will then pass over to the sailors who are re­spon­si­ble for cauk­ing, mast, rig­ging and sail mak­ing.

The art, cul­ture and rit­u­als are passed down from fa­ther to son. Often the boat builders have not even been on a boat at sea. They may not even un­der­stand why they are build­ing things in such a way; they only un­der­stand the tech­nique needed to ar­rive at the fin­ished ves­sel. In fact, up un­til re­cent years, the Konjo peo­ple were for­bid­den by the elders to make any trips even within In­done­sia on the boats that they had built, for fear that they would not re­turn and their boat build­ing her­itage would be lost. And what a her­itage it is, in­volv­ing cer­e­mony, a spe­cific lan­guage, and a re­spect for su­per­sti­tion…



The first part of any build would be to head into the for­est and find the tree that could make the keel. In the Konjo lan­guage the name of the keel lit­er­ally trans­lates as “soul of the boat”. When se­lected, the boat builders will spend one day with the tree to ask its per­mis­sion to be cut down. They will place all their tools against the tree. If the tools stayed in place for 24 hours, the tree has granted per­mis­sion. If one falls, they have to go and find a new tree and re­peat the process.



The plans that are fol­lowed take a rare for­mat. Ev­ery sin­gle shape within the boat has a name. The Konjo peo­ple are able to cre­ate 3D plans us­ing only words, with no draw­ings at all. Patti Seery, who built one of the most iconic live­aboards in Kal­i­man­tan in the late ‘90s, ex­plained the mo­ment she first pre­sented the 2D plans she had cre­ated for the build of her ship. “When I first gave the plans to the boat-build­ing team, they asked me the most im­por­tant ques­tion of the build: ‘What is it?’” The Konjo peo­ple hadn’t

seen a 2D plan be­fore, so Patti re­alised that she had to com­mu­ni­cate on their level. “I learned the name of each shape. I com­pared each mea­sure­ment and plan with the in­ter­na­tional stan­dard for safety and build and found that by us­ing their tra­di­tional method, there was an ex­act match with recog­nised stan­dards.”



Cer­tain mea­sure­ments are bad luck in In­done­sia. An even num­ber sug­gests that there is still un­fin­ished busi­ness and there­fore a pro­ject that is not com­plete. Jon Wilken­son ex­pe­ri­enced this first­hand when he com­mis­sioned his boat build in Tanah Biru. “I com­mis­sioned the build of a 22-me­tre boat, but as 22 is a bad num­ber she ended up be­ing 23 me­tres.”



Al­though things are dif­fer­ent in the mod­ern age, pre­vi­ously women were treated very dif­fer­ently in the boat­build­ing yards, in fact in the late ‘90s they were still for­bid­den to en­ter. Patti man­aged to over­come this by the boat builders agree­ing that she had the soul of man and there­fore grant­ing her spe­cial ac­cess. To combat the be­lief that it was un­lucky for there to be only one wo­man sail­ing on a boat, on their maiden voy­age, Patti was ac­com­pa­nied by a fe­male chicken for the first six week jour­ney on her new ship.

So, the next time you take to the high seas in one of th­ese beau­ti­ful wooden schooners, per­haps you will take a mo­ment to con­sider the legacy of skill and magic that has brought you there.

ABOVE The sun has not set on the eso­teric tra­di­tions sur­round­ing boat build­ing in Su­lawesi, In­done­sia RIGHT PAGE Boat­build­ing tra­di­tions are still handed down through the gen­er­a­tions

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