Sailing in Style – Origins of the Classic Phinisi

A few days into our trip we’ve fallen into the gentle rhythm of life on board Mantra. The sunshine wakes us up just after first light, and the ocean rocks us to sleep a few hours after dark.  We emerge eagerly onto the deck every morning to see what new scene awaits.  During the day, a heady combination of sunshine, salt water, and whipping breeze exhilarates and unwinds us in equal measure.  At night the sky unfolds a new dimension of twinkling galaxies.  Out here, away from towns and cities, we need only look up to see thousands of light years into the past.  Last week’s must-have items are superfluous.  The reflex to check phones is forgotten.  Previously pressing concerns have no relevance for now.

A modern take on the classic phinisi

We could be in another time aboard this traditional phinisi style boat. The iconic design originated in the archipelago and is typical of Indonesia, having even appeared on bank notes, but it bears little resemblance to early indigenous vessels.  Its shape is a product of diverse influences – owed to an epic nautical history of roving pirates, daring migrations, and exotic trade routes.

Since the first settlers arrived in the archipelago, the ocean was their way of life.  It provided sustenance and lines of communication, trade, and unity with other islands.  The early indigenous boats, collectively known as Perahu, were developed from rudimentary rafts or dugout canoes, and would typically have used rectangular sails.   These people were daring seafarers and they covered serious distances.  Evidence suggests that even before the first Viking raids were happening in Europe, Indonesian rafts were sailing as far as East Africa to trade.  And around the 8th or 9th century it was the Austronesians, in part, that populated Madagascar.

The progression of these rafts can be seen on the the walls of Borobudur temple in Central Java (8th Century).  Here there are relief images of a ship around 25m long with rectangular sails and double outriggers.  It’s thought that it was the kind of vessel that later would have been used to run the cinnamon trade route to Africa.  Rectangular rigged boats continued to be used all over the archipelago – for war, trade, and long distance fishing; routinely sailing to the northern coast of Australia in search of sea cucumbers.

Going so far afield, the islanders would have got good look at an array of different boats, but it’s thought that the first really significant influencers came from Arabia or India.  Gurjurati traders were bringing textiles from India to exchange for silks from China and spices from the Moluccas, which they would sell to Arabs and Egyptians.  Their Dhows had hulls that were pointed at either end, and they used lateen (triangular shaped) sails. Spices also attracted the Europeans: Venetians, Portuguese, Dutch, and British; and these western merchant fleets also came in boats with triangular sails.

Noticing a different capability from triangular sails, and inspired by a need for speed, the Indonesian boat builders began experimenting with their rigging; adding fore and aft triangular sails at first, and eventually dropping the rectangular sails altogether. There are reports of western schooner rigged perahu being used by “pirates” in the Malacca straits as early as the 1830s.  Today the indigenous rectangular sails are only seen on smaller fishing boats.

There is a story telling that the first phinisi, as we would recognise today, was built in Trengganu, Malaysia in the 1840s. A local Raja asked a long-nose (European) who had settled in the area to help him build a boat that would resemble the modern western vessels, and the royal schooner was built.   Locals from Bira in South Sulawesi, however, would have it that the first phinisi was built there. They tell how ships wrecked on islands off the coast of South Sulawesi would wash up on their shore, and local boat builders would copy and incorporate these strange looking pieces into their own traditional designs – creating an amalgamation that became the phinisi.

Boat building in South Sulawesi

Our boat was built on the beach of Tanah Biru in South Sulawesi.   This is home to the Konjo; a subset of the Bugis tribe, and traditional builders of the two-masted Phinisi (or Pinisi).  Here the atmosphere hums with shipyard industry, with boats in various stages of construction lining the shore.  Historically there are several rituals and ceremonies involved with each stage of boat building.  The boats are built using suitable hardwood, such as ironwood or ulin, from Indonesian rainforests – although this is sadly becoming scarce now.  Wooden pegs are used to attach pieces together.  Techniques are still conveyed by word of mouth, and passed down the generations.  Boats take shape on the beaches, plank by plank laid by eye, and entirely relying on the unerring skill of the boat builders.  This is the way it’s been done for as long as anyone knows.  Even the introduction of motors in the 1970s did little to significantly change the shape or building techniques.

Everything about our boat – from the iconic shape to the traditionally skilled craftsmanship and the quality of the wood – is in keeping with our timeless surroundings. It’s a truly Indonesian experience; a world away from the crowded channels of Thailand or the Med with their hulking metallic cruise ships.

So, in between activities; we sit back, relish our escape from the humdrum of the everyday, and allow our imaginations to soar.  We forget the century.  Here at the edge of the earth we could be stowaways, adventurers, and explorers chartering new frontiers. We’ve run away to sea and for now this is our reality.

Komodo sunset

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