MAN & SEA
Superstition and Schooners in Sulawesi
Text by Jo Marlow
Images by Ricard Buxo
Discover the strange and supernatural traditions responsible for ferrying you to Indonesia's underwater paradises
FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE,
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.
HISTORY AND COMMUNITY
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.
PLANNING THE BUILD
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.”
WOMEN ON BOARD
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