The Konjo people of South Sulawesi were once among the most celebrated sailors and shipwrights in Asia. Today, ships are still built in the traditional manner on the shores of Tanjung Bira and Ara, but with time have come some changes.
Captain Pak Haji Tandri is the last of a breed. He is the last generation of Bugis sailors who voyaged along monsoon-defined trading routes across the length of Indonesia purely under the power of sail.
“Phinisi were very different back then,” he recalls as we sit in the front room of his stilted timber house near Tanjung Bira on Sulawesi’s southern tip. “Built as the best possible vessel to ride with the wind and the seas, they were much simpler than the complex phinisi built today.”
Sinar Surya, the last pure sailing vessel that Pak Haji Tandri skippered, achieved unexpected fame in the early ‘70s when two English brothers convinced the captain to give them a passage to the Aroe Islands in eastern Indonesia.
They filmed the voyage for a TV travel series called Ring of Fire, which told the story of the waning years of what was then the biggest fleet of sailing traders in the world. The narration dwells heavily on the Bugis tradition as the terrifying pirates who once raided for six months to windward, before turning tack and raiding back again in the opposite direction.
It was the Bugis warrior, with his swinging short sword and brutal war-cry who brought the word Boogie Man to the English language.
In fact the sailors and boat builders of this part of Sulawesi don’t consider themselves Bugis at all. The Konjo people (with their own language that is far closer to Makassarese than it is to Bugis) are known as the toughest sailors but also the most talented boat-builders in South East Asia.
Pak Haji Tandri has aged well. There’s something in the clear look of the septuagenarian (he’s not too sure which year he was born in) that instantly brings to mind the fresh-faced 20 year-old who was already an experienced seaman when the Ring of Fire film was shot.
Sinar Surya didn’t fare so well. She was already an aged victim of too many stormy Indonesian seas and her mast was barely shipshape when she left Tanjung Bira on that last long lonely voyage to Papua (the rest of the fleet was running south to Java). Sinar Surya made it home but was finally dismantled at nearby Tanjung Bira port – some of her timbers may well live on in the great motley fleet of traditional fishing and cargo vessels that are found along this coast.
The 110-tonne Sinar Surya was very different to the 500-tonne Phinisi that are being built just a mile from Pak Haji Tandri’s house these days. The sailing ship’s pointed stern became the first and most obvious casualty of the move to motor-assisted sailing. She had no bridge and no cabin – just a shallow hatch under the decks for the captain (the rest of the crew slept onboard or wherever they could arrange a bunk among the cargo).
“We men of Tanjung Bira were the sailors,” says Haji Tandri, “while in Ara they always concentrated on building the boats.”
Down on Ara beach the smell of fresh-cut wood carries on the salty sea-breeze as it has since time immemorial. Under the shade of the coconut palms I can see the rearing bow of two phinisi – the largest about 25 metres.
Off-shore, anchored out in the dark band of blue beyond the reef, I can see the elegant shape of a much larger vessel. I’ve come down to Ara to meet the man who built this vessel – along with several of the most spectacular Phinisi ever built in countless generations of the most exacting shipbuilding.
Pak Haji Wahab springs from a line of 5 generations of Ara shipwrights.
“I started working on my first boat when I was 15 years old,” he smiles as we sit on the deck of the timber ship that is clearly his pride and joy. “I figure that I must have built almost sixty boats in the last four decades. Dunia Baru was unique though. It turned out to be the perfect marriage of the finest Konjo boat-building tradition and the most advanced western marine technology.”
Dunia Baru turned out to be a 7-year boat-building odyssey that took Pak Haji Wahab and his team from their home in Ara to the forests of Kalimantan and on to Surabaya and Bali (where the interior joinery was completed, and state of the art systems and machinery were installed).
“These days we’re building bigger boats than ever before,” says the master shipwright who claims that, while he makes many boats for dive charters and island cruises, most of his clients still call for vessels to be used in the local fishing industry.
“In the old days the sailing ships we built for cargo were relatively small and they didn’t need to be built to support living quarters and engine rooms.” He believes however that durability hasn’t been sacrificed: “As long as you can access big enough timbers you can build bigger boats without sacrificing strength. We’re carpenters – we must go where the wood can be found.”
With growing demands for increasingly large vessels the people of Ara are looking farther afield for industrial size timbers. On Borneo the raw materials for this ancient craft are still available and the people of Ara have even pioneered a new village for themselves at a place called Batu Licin (Slippery Rock) in South Kalimantan.
Great trunks of prized ulin (eusideroxylon zwageri) and bangkirai (shorea laevifolia) can be floated down the big rivers to Batu Licin and to other Konjo communities at Sangkulirang and Berau.
Several western yacht designers have embraced the Konjo traditions while at the same time raising the bar to new levels to meet modern expectations in terms of performance, durability and safety.
None more so than Michael Kasten, President of Kasten Marine Design, Inc. of Washington State, who worked alongside Pak Haji Wahab on Dunia Baru and several other major charter phinisi projects. Even after many years in the marine design business Kasten claims to have benefited massively from his periodic immersions (in Sulawesi and Kalimantan) in Konjo ship-building traditions:
“I greatly admire Pak Haji Wahab,” says Kasten. “I have a tremendous respect for his knowledge and abilities. Konjo boats are built by the experienced ‘eye’ of the master boat builder, not from actual plans.
We introduced them to the use of drawings, and to lofting the mould frames which would allow us to achieve a predictable result with the hull shape, the structure, and the design as a whole.”
Times are changing. While this may be an ancient and noble craft it is clear, however, that boat-building in south Sulawesi has always been evolving.
The arrival of the early European traders influenced a trend towards combining the traditional square tanjaq mainsail to the schooner style rigging we associate with Phinisi today.
As engines became the norm even more drastic changes had to be made. KLM – Kapal Layar Mesin (literally Motor Sailing Ships) – were given a wide overhanging stern and were fitted only with one forward mast (which functioned more often than not as a crane for loading).
They carried just enough canvas to pass as a ‘sailing craft’ and to qualify for the appropriate tax benefits offered by Indonesian law.
“During the last hundred years or so, the local sailing craft adopted the western fore and aft gaff ketch rig,” Kasten explains. “This rig ordinarily carries three jibs, two gaff sails, and a topsail above each gaff.
Though it may have the look of a Western type of gaff rig, a few unusual features make the Phinisi sail rig unique. First, the gaffs are left ‘standing.’ The sails are laced to the mast and to the gaff. In order to reef the sails, they are ‘brailed’ to the spars.”
But in order to become a true phinisi, timber and sails alone are not enough. Each vessel must pass through a number of ritual ceremonies – a part of Sulawesi boatbuilding that predates even the arrival of Islam.
“You must observe the ceremonies to bring the phinisi to life,” Pak Haji Wahab explains. “When you first lay the keel you have the an’natta ceremony where you drill a ‘belly-button’ right through the centre of the keel.
Afterwards this navel used to be sealed by hammering in a mangrove stem but now we use hardwood. When the boat is completed there’s another ceremony with the killing of a goat or a pair of chickens depending on the size of the boat.”
“A phinisi is like a living being,” the Konjo master-shipwright says, “there are many types of phinisi these days but if the builder doesn’t go through the necessary ceremonies to bring it to life it can’t really be considered a true phinisi at all.”