“The idea of building a massive wooden boat in Indonesia to world-class superyacht standards seemed like a worthwhile challenge at the time.”
Mark Robba smiles as we stand on the rearing bow of the 51m Dunia Baru. Looking back towards the wide top-deck I can see half of the 17-strong Indonesian crew (from 5 islands) hauling on lanyards as the mainsail stretches to full height in the buffeting Sumbawa cross-wind. The boat’s owner clearly only has half his sailor’s mind on the rigging. He’s thinking back to a 7-year project that took him from Sulawesi, to Borneo, to Bali.
“To be honest, it was a challenge that I totally underestimated. I guessed that the entire project would take between two and three years...but the hull alone took three years to hand craft.”
Dunia Baru (which means ‘New World’) was built by 5th generation Indonesian shipwrights from the Konjo tribe of Sulawesi but the actual building had to be carried out on the Makassar Strait coast of Borneo, where big ironwood trees were available.
“The boat is a tribute to local shipwrights, but also marine industry professionals from many parts of the world,” Robba continues, as the sails fill and we feel the hull surge underneath us. “When people saw pictures of this giant ark being built deep in the jungle they wanted to help. Maybe they also felt sorry for this poor sap who was seriously underestimating what he was getting into.”
One company that was happy to add the weight of its vast experience in building Indonesian luxury yachts to the project was Kasten Marine Design, Inc. of Washington State, US.
“It’s no exaggeration whatsoever to claim that Dunia Baru is the finest traditionally built superyacht ever produced in Indonesia,” Michael Kasten confirms. “Furthermore, it’s unlikely there will ever be a locally built timber phinisi to surpass her. This is largely due to the diminishing availability of top quality Ulin wood (Eusideroxylon zwageri) in sizes suited to big boats. And also to the extreme challenges of building boats like this in the outback of Borneo!”
There are clearly unusual complications involved in designing a superyacht that is built using traditional skills and hand-tools. In Indonesia boats are usually built using a ‘planks-first’ rather than a ‘frame first’ building method and they are usually designed using the experienced ‘eye’ of the master boat builder, rather than from actual plans. Also, since the boats built for local clients must be built to a very tight budget, they must be constructed out of whatever wood is available at a competitive cost.
By contrast, Kasten designed the Dunia Baru to meet the exacting structural requirements of the Germanischer Rule for Wooden Ships. In order to achieve a structure comprised of some 350 cubic meters of wood, selections were made from over 800 cubic meters of the best timber available.
“I was extremely impressed with the skill of the local builders,” says Kasten. “The builders themselves were a bit skeptical about building from actual plans, but we soon established a great respect for each other’s traditions. These traditions are, in fact, largely in harmony; after all, the same lessons have been taught, by the sea itself, to mariners of both East and West.”
Originally hailing from New England, Mark Robba has lived in Java for the last two decades and Dunia Baru was conceived primarily as a floating home-away-from-home for his family. It was a way to explore farther among the 17,000 islands that he now calls home.
“Indonesia has to be my favourite place to cruise. The diversity and size is un-matched anywhere in the world and you’re always surrounded by the warmth and charm of the Indonesian people,” Robba explains. “Komodo and Raja Ampat are two places in particular where the scenery is stunning and the marine diversity is unparalleled. One day you can be snorkelling with 50 giant mantas and the next day scuba-diving among the underwater vents of an active volcano.”
I’d boarded Dunia Baru in Bali for the voyage to Komodo where the boat had to meet her first charter guests in Labuan Bajo (Flores). After leaving Bali we’d stopped for an afternoon at Gili Trawangan and sailed between the soaring peaks of Mount Agung (Bali) and Mount Rinjani (Lombok). A phalanx of dolphins had escorted us across the straits towards the wild coast of Sumbawa. By the time we’d left the lush hillsides and stepped paddies of Bali far behind and were approaching the dry savannah of eastern Sumbawa, my head was already spinning with the amount of sheer adventure we’d experienced. We’d snorkelled with reef sharks and turtles and climbed to the summit of jungle-clad Satonda Island where macaques and langur monkeys frolicked. We’d paddled stand-up paddleboards and kayaks into the brooding immensity of Satonda’s crater lake and, more haunting still, we’d explored a dive-spot at the base of Sanggeang Volcano where gases bubbled out of black rocks to rise through the water like diamonds.
As a child I recall my mother scolding me about my habit of fiddling with things until they finally fell to pieces in my hands. This lack of concentration is probably a major reason why I have never achieved the dizzy heights of a luxury yacht designer...or, say, a volcanologist. I swear, however, that as we were diving I never did more than put my hand into the hot vent to try to sense the power of the pulsing heart of the earth. Perhaps I inadvertently, shifted a small rock or two in my enthusiasm.
I really feel that it would be entirely unfair to blame me for the fact that two weeks later Sanggeang Volcano exploded, shooting a column of ash so high into the stratosphere that flights were cancelled as far away as Australia. Happily there were no casualties and, while Dunia Baru was still close enough to get amazing shots of the eruption, neither the boat nor those aboard her were at any immediate risk.
During long sailing afternoons we sat on Dunia Baru’s sundeck sipping cocktails and in the evenings we gathered around the commercial tepanyaki range in the massive stern galley and planned the following day’s adventures while the onboard chef prepared delicious three-course feasts. Later, after still more cocktails, we jumped overboard to swim among sparkling phosphorescence – ‘sea-lightning’ the old sailors called it – that seemed to reflect the millions of stars in the great dome of the sky.
We slept the sleep of babies – lulled by the waves, in cabins that are so spacious and well-equipped as to feel more like boutique-hotel suites than boat accommodation. Dunia Baru boasts six spacious en-suite double berths below decks and a sumptuous full-beam master-suite on the aft upper-deck which has its own private day-bed lounging area. With an 11m beam there are large lounges and deck areas for sunbathing and star-gazing and just in front of the bridge there’s a specially-designed communal siesta area which can be converted into a mood-lit cocktail lounge at night.
The ship was primarily fitted out with family holidays in mind (including child-proof safety aspects that were crucial for Mark’s 3 year old son Colby) but Robba also found the best possible professional assistance for the interior design. Once the hull and super-structure were completed in Kalimantan the boat was towed 1500km to Bali, traditional home of talented cabinet-makers and artisans.
“The boat had already benefitted from the skill and craftsmanship of the Konjo shipwrights from South Sulawesi,” Robba says. “Now I was able to commission artists in Bali to do the interiors along with traditional wood carvings, paintings and stunning glass works of art.”
On Bali Robba could also hope to attract and retain the foreign experts who would provide design, project management and quality marine systems engineering to ensure that Dunia Baru would live up to her full potential in terms of detail, service and reliability. First class mechanics, navigation equipment, communications and fully-integrated sound, light and entertainment systems helped to raise Dunia Baru far beyond the realm of traditional phinisi and promote her to a world-class superyacht.
“I found a highly qualified husband and wife team - Frank and Jeni Hyde of Dual Dimension Design, Inc to be my project managers and do the interior architecture,” Robba explains. “Frank and Jeni are both professional architects with years of experience on high-profile projects like Canary Wharf in San Francisco. They were just completing a 5 year voyage from California to New Zealand on their 36 foot sailboat with their 11 year old daughter. They brought a level of experience and talent that was unseen before in an Indonesian boat building project.”
“The first tip I would give someone who wanted to build a traditional superyacht would be to surround himself with a strong team, but also to get personally involved in the project - this should help to make it an enjoyable and rewarding experience. While you should always listen to others, in the end you should follow your instincts. After all it’s your boat. Your dream.”
On our last night of our voyage we dropped anchor off the island of Rinca which is famed for its spectacularly aggressive Komodo dragons. There had been five attacks on local inhabitants during the previous few months. In the morning we would take the tiller and head off to explore an area that has become famous as one of the edgiest and most intense predator territories in the world.
“Who knows what the future will hold,” says Robba, as if reading my mind. “Dunia Baru is a very sea kindly boat. She can go anywhere. And dreams are endless!”