The building of traditional wooden phinisi sailboats are seeing a revival—and being transformed from a humble cargo vessels into luxury yachts
In 2004, a 50 meter luxury yacht, the Silolona, was launched, causing a sensation when it showed off to the media and others. The cause of the commotion? The Silolona was no ordinary yacht. It was actually a wooden phinisi sailboat, which have piled the waters of Southeast Asia and beyond for hundreds of years. While most of these boats are simple cargo vessels, the Silolona charges up to $1,200 per person per day for charter trips, for a maximum of 12 guests on board. “Each trip is individually tailored and price varies by area and the client’s requests,” says American and longtime Indonesian resident Patti Seery, the owner of the charter company Silolona Sojourns, which now includes the Silolona and a second phinisi, the Si Datu Bua, a Torajan name given to it by its builders.
As Indonesians and others switched to conventional engine-powered cargo ships, the phinisi tradition faced an uncertain future until a market pioneered by Patti and other entrepreneurs materialized. Today the phinisi industry is undergoing something of a renaissance, with the ships now built to become high-end luxury yachts—and the shipbuilders able to charge billions of rupiah for their efforts.
Phinisi have a long and proud history, and played an important role in the country’s long maritime history. They may have originated as early as the 1500s. Today they are one of the last—if not the last—all wooden traditional sailboats that are still seaworthy vessels with little change to the basic design from hundreds of years ago. Before the advent of engine-powered ships, the phinisi were the vessels that connected the many islands of the country, operating mostly as cargo ships, especially in facilitating the spice trade with the West. In their heyday, the phinisi could more than hold their own against any sailing ship from the West, and possibly one of their many uses was as pirate ships by the Bugis people. It is believed that the Western expression “boogeyman” is derived from “Bugis-man” as a name for local pirates that once terrorized Western sailing ships.
The most standard phinisi can take up to 100 tonnes of goods with the maximum length 30 meter, and was built with two masts and seven sails. Today, many phinisi can still be seen in Sunda Kelapa port in Jakarta. To be sure, many owners have added motors to supplement the windpower of the sails and the masts are now sometimes made from fiberglass, to add strength and save weight. More contemporary boats have expanded to 50 meters and can carry up to 1,000 tonnes of goods. Indonesia today probably boasts the largest fleet of ocean-going sailing cargo ships in the world.
If ones wants to make a great phinisi, Patti says, the secret to use only the best materials, such as wood that is free from crack or holes. Ulin or Borneo ironwood is one of best materials for the hull, since this type of wood grows stronger the more it is exposed to water. Other important elements of building a great boat are, of course, the design and the hiring of the right craftsmen to make it. In that last category there is one obvious choice: the Konjo boatbuilders.
Different from the Buginese who excel in sailing, the ethnic group known as the Bugis Sekonjo or Konjo are renowned as craftsmen who have honed their skills over generations of boat-building. They originally came from Ara village, in a hilly area of the Bontobahari subdistrict, part of the Bulukumba regency in southeast Sulawesi, about 209 kilometers from Makassar. If you look at the map, it can be seen at the bottom end of the island’s left leg. Most men from Ara starts their careers at an early age cooking or doing other odd jobs for the boatbuilders before starting long apprenticeships to learn the craft. While some Konjo travel around the country to make boats, many have settled in the nearby villages of Tana Beru and Tanjung Bira. “A traditional wooden sailing vessels can be build anywhere in Indonesia as long as there is a Konjo boatbuilder of Sulawesi,” says American Robin Engel, 65, owner of SongLine Yachts and SongLine Cruises, a yacht developer who operates a number of phinisi charter luxury yachits and who has been doing business in Indonesia’s sailing industry for more than 20 years.
The country boasts a number of master craftsmen. For instance Seery likes working with Muhammad Nurka and Muhammad Nasir to create boats. Nurka, 58, is the senior of the two, with decades of experience, while Nasir, 41, is his more junior partner. Nasir’s father is the one who built the phinisi Antar Bangsa, which sailed across the Pacific to represent Indonesia in the 1986 Expo in Vancouver, Canada. Robin, on the other hand, prefers to work with Hajj Muslim Baso, probably the most successful and wealthiest of the Konjo craftsmen.
Based in Tanjung Bira, Baso is now making phinisi for a growing portfolio of wealthy international customers who want to use them as luxury yachts. He has built or is building boats for customers from ten countries, including Poland and France. As such, his phinisi business may be one of the largest in the country. Over the last 20 years, he has made more than 200 vessels, mostly for fishing and cargo boats, before branching out into the luxury yacht sector.
Although a master at traditional boats, Baso charges very modern prices. He can charge up to Rp 6 billion for making only the ship’s hull. He says he got paid Rp 4 billion to build the Zen, a 50 meter phinisi yacht for a Polish client, which is now being fitted with wooden furniture from Jepara.
Baso, 65, has such deep knowledge that he says he doesn’t even use a blueprint to build a boat—he relies solely on instinct and experience. He says he learnt everything from his father and great grandfather, who was also a panrita lopi or boat expert. “I’m aware nowadays people are using computers to design a boat. I’m not familiar with computer, but which came first, the computer or the brain? I have it all in here,” he says, pointing a finger to his head covered with white hair.
He even boasts that he can calculate much faster than the computer in projecting the cost to build the ship: “For one boat, I can calculate the cost within five minutes.” All he needs to know is the basic measurements of the ship such as the length, wide, depth and the type of wood that the customer desires. Once he has those details, he gives an estimated cost and construction time—along with other details such as the thickness of the wood. Once a contract is signed with the client, he’ll start construction.
Despite his success, Baso remains a traditionalist in other ways. He doesn’t have business cards—and instead uses his driver’s license as a form of identification. He often wears sarongs and lives in a big wooden traditional house near his workplace on the beach of Tanjung Bira. Speaking in a mixture of Indonesian and the local dialect, he says: “I didn’t do anything to promote my business. It is done by people who write about me and the boats I made, which were uploaded onto the Internet.”
Just has he branched from cargo ships to yachts, Baso wants to expand further into tourism, and aims to build a resort near his home on one hectare of land. The area does have potential—the beaches here are soft and white, and dotted with phinisi under construction. There are few power tools to be seen, most of the work is done with hand tools. Near Baso’s home, one can see a 50 meter phinisi that will be finished next month for a French client while next to it is a cargo boat of the same size that was just started in June.
One boat can require the work of five to 15 boatbuilders—the larger the boat, the more are needed. The Konjo boatbuilders don’t have fixed hours, they start work when the sun comes up and finish when the light starts to fade. They rarely take holidays, and take pride in keeping to their promised deadlines for completion. A typical craftsman can earn Rp 60,000 per day. Baso makes more than that but he’s the project manager—finding the clients, securing the contracts, sourcing the materials and managing the building process. The process is steeped in tradition, including special ceremonies to celebrate the launch of a new boat onto the water. It can up to a year just to complete the hull, and up to three years to fully complete it, including all the interior design and finishings.
There are only a few men at Baso’s level of expertise, who can making a giant phinisi to the quality level demanded of wealthy clients for use in charters or as luxury yachts. His son, Rusdi Mulyadi, 41, who is also in the boat making business for the last decade, admits he doesn’t yet feel ready to tackle the larger boats. So far, he has made two phinisis and other smaller boats. One of the most difficult parts of the building process is the last step—launching the ship into the water without damaging it. Just as in the building process, the launch process is done manually, with dozens of men to pull the boat from the beach until it floating on the water. For 50 meter phinisi, it could take a crew of 80 to get it safely into the water. For this reason, Baso moved from his previous location in Tana Beru to the beach on Tanjung Bira, as it has a shorter beach, thus making it easier to launch the boats.
******GOOD SAMARITAN ********
The Silolona proved its worth as a sailing vessel when it was parked in the waters off Phuket island in Thailand, on the fateful day of December 26, 2004, having just made an appearance at the 2004 King’s Cup Regatta. The boat was far enough out to sea that the tsunami wave was still nothing more than a large surge that the Silolona passed over before it broke with devastating effect on the beach. Hearing that the worst damage was in Aceh, Patti immediately set sail for Aceh with supplies and a medical team, and was among the first to arrive on the scene, bringing much needed aide and help to tsunami victims.
* This story appears as cover story in the October 2012 issue of Forbes Indonesia. The grey text in the content, including the box at the bottom, is additional for the blog.