Indonesia's pinisis sail into the future, by Tristan Rutherford

AramcoWorld Magazine, March 2021

From the shipyards that line Tanah Beru’s beachfront, the masts of great wooden sailboats rise to palm-tree heights. Closer to the sands, shipwrights wield saws and adzes to sculp 40-meter hulls made of massive timbers bent into shape over open fires and assembled with dovetails, pegs and other joinery—no nails. As much as the art of pinisi boatbuilding here in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, may look timeless, it is a craft very much of the present, one that is finding new and promising markets for floating masterpieces. 

No blueprints exist for pinisi sailboats, and the name pinisi was first used more than a century ago to refer to the type of rigging they used, though more recently it has come to refer generically to the boat itself. All the designs, says Tanah Beru master boatbuilder Haji Abdul Wahab, are in the heads of pinisi shipwrights. “The people around Tanah Beru in South Sulawesi are boatbuilders,” he explains, where pinisi still transport goods around Indonesia.

 

They remain workhorse vessels in a country whose 6,000 inhabited islands are often accessible solely by boat. Agile and economical to operate, pinisi slip easily in and out of small harbors. The country stretches more than 5,200 kilometers from Banda Aceh, in the Bay of Bengal, east to the province of West Papua, off the island of New Guinea, a distance comparable to Dublin to Makkah, or Los Angeles to New York. By the 1970s Indonesia’s 1,000 pinisi comprised the world’s largest sailing fleet. The goods they transported included timber, sugar, rice, bags of cement and much more. 

This means that in its coastal towns, sailing is in South Sulawesi’s geographical and cultural DNA. The shipyards of Tanah Beru lure children to play inside pinisi hulls after school. Teens seek out builders to learn crafts such as wooden “tree nails” and skills such as working a two-person saw. Aspiring shipwrights apprentice here. 

The majority of pinisi have been built in South Sulawesi by craftsmen like Haji Abdul Wahab, who is also founder of his own pinisi-building company, Pinisi Ara. Making the trade possible is the nearby availability of what is reputed to be the best boatbuilding wood in the world: Bornean ironwood, Eusideroxylon zwageri. Heavier than water by volume yet easy to work, it doesn’t rot, and Teredo worms, the burrowing clam that has driven sailors to despair for millennia, don’t eat it. 

Yet Bornean ironwood only grows in lowland forests where rainfall is extreme (it needs six times as much rain as falls in London). Some climax forest trees rise to 50 meters and reach 1,000 years old; however, overharvesting has earned the species a “vulnerable” status from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and its export is restricted by the Indonesian government.

South Sulawesi’s position in the center of the Indonesian archipelago also sets pinisi ship design in motion. The island sits among Borneo, Bali, Java (where most Indonesians live), Papua and the Spice Islands of the Moluccas. Since the 16th century, residents of Sulawesi witnessed two-mast Portuguese and Dutch trading ships transporting nutmeg, black pepper, cloves and other spices from the Moluccas. This design is generally believed to have inspired the twin pinisi masts today, according to South Sulawesi shipwrights, whose expertise flows from the archipelago’s practical, oral tradition, not written histories or how-to guides. 

The sailing rig that hangs from the two masts, to which the term pinisi technically refers, gradually evolved to become the ship’s majestic, seven-sail spectacle. That’s three stacked jib sails billowing out front from a long, spear-like bowsprit, two expansive, main gaff sails and, above each gaff, a topsail. As the Dutch colonial empire fell into decline, locally run pinisi absorbed some of the trading business. By following westerly winds for six months, long-distance pinisis carried dried fish, cloth and Borneo timber as far as Vietnam, Java and Sumatra. Easterlies then pushed the boats back through the archipelago, laden with other goods for home. Other pinisi did regional work, including fishing and collecting sea cucumbers, as well as trading with Australia to the south.

 

So important to Indonesian identity is the pinisi that in 2017 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed “Indonesia Pinisi, or the Art of Boatbuilding in South Sulawesi” on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO notes the “construction and deployment of such vessels stand in the millennia-long tradition of Austronesian boatbuilding and navigation,” which is notable for the first technologies for fast ocean travel, such as outriggers and multihull vessels. The pinisi is also featured on Indonesia’s benchmark 100 Rupiah currency note.

The UNESCO recognition was good for business too, says Haji Abdul Wahab. “After pinisi entered the protection of UNESCO, many local people were interested in making ships,” he explains, noting about 70 percent of the people in the Tanah Beru area make their livings from boatbuilding and navigation. “The Sulawesi people are very happy with the making of pinisi because it really helps the community’s economy and also absorbs more local workers,” although he notes that last year “trade ebbed very much,” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It was during the 1980s that the tradition of pinisi design experienced its most dramatic change. “Advanced technology was used in the building of our ships for the first time,” remembers Haji Abdul Wahab. That meant adding a motor. 

Stimulus loans from the International Monetary Fund at the time allowed Indonesia’s pinisi transport fleet to develop Kapal Layar Mesin (KLM), literally “engine sailing boats,” that could turn on power when faced with strong headwinds. The boats grew larger and wider, the better to accommodate more cargo: tins of beef, house tiles, ready-made garments, motorcycles. Some KLM pinisi designs dispensed with sails altogether. As goods moved more rapidly and life became quicker, Indonesia’s boat-related economies prospered. The only G20 member state in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is forecasted to be a top-10 global economy by 2030.

The KLM pinisi, however, also wore out quickly. Instead of working in tandem with the wind like the sail-only vessels, KLM hulls became strained from motoring into heavy weather. Some boatbuilders blamed the ill fortunes on the KLM-builders’ shortcutting and even ignoring traditional local rituals that marked the stages of building each sailing pinisi, milestone ceremonies like those observed for a child growing up. For example, the laying of the keel would signify conception, and a vessel’s launch would represent birth, celebrated sometimes with a feast of rice cakes, boiled eggs, and bananas steamed with condensed milk. The building of a ship often included prayers, incense and a traditional pouring of tea over the wooden hull. Finally, a maiden voyage would signify a parent preparing a child for the wider world. 

The actual reasons for the shorter lifespans for KLM pinisi shorter lifespans may have yet another practical cause in addition to headwinds. As the island’s boatbuilding industry used up premium timber, shorter planks of lesser woods were used on the ever-larger boats. Still KLM pinisi design thrives.

Two decades ago, as global tourism increased, the superyacht industry discovered that a 50-meter, hand-built yacht could be commissioned in South Sulawesi for one-fifth the cost of what would typically cost around $25 million elsewhere.

 

The pinisi market blossomed further when some of the most elite global yachters realized that Indonesia’s maritime registry was a closed one. This meant that if they wanted to cruise in the world’s most biodiverse waters—such as Raja Ampat, which hosts 1,000 species of fish and 500 species of coral, 10 times more than the Caribbean—they would need to build their own yachts in shipyards like those in Tanah Beru. 

This drew attention also from international naval architects like Michael Kasten, who in 2001 received a call “out of the blue” from Bali. The voice on the other end asked, “Do you know anything about pinisi boats?” The caller wanted to know if Kasten could design a vessel similar to those in South Sulawesi that would include technology like GPS navigation and a scuba diving room. Kasten printed off some blueprints from a Computer Assisted Design (CAD) program and flew to South Sulawesi, where he met Haji Abdul Wahab.

“At first I laid out lots of blueprints,” he recalls. “This made [Haji Abdul Wahab], who was to build the pinisi, a little bit reluctant. So, through an interpreter”—a necessity in a nation with 700 languages—“I said, ‘Please tell the Haji I’m not here to tell him how to build a boat, I’m here to learn at the Haji school of boatbuilding.’ Then he jumped up and said, ‘Let’s go!’” 

“Let’s go!” meant an overnight ferry to Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, due northwest of Sulawesi. There, said Haji Abdul Wahab, Kasten’s pinisi would be constructed by South Sulawesi craftspeople working close to the stocks of ironwood. The boatyard was sited at the Borneo port of Sangkulirang, along the Makassar Strait, almost bang on the equator, beside a river that flowed from the forests.

In Sangkulirang Kasten saw how Indonesian tradition differed from his own practice in the US, which involved 3D computer designs with exact measurements for each and every wood cut. “I wanted to make our boat compliant to German Lloyd’s specifications,” explains Kasten. These standardized sets of structural dimensions, created in 1867 by the Lloyd’s group of insurance brokers, have evolved to help ensure that large wooden boats are as seaworthy as possible.  

The Sulawesian builders, however, used no such plans. Yet after tabulating the measurements, Kasten realized “they were exactly the same [as German Lloyd’s specifications], within a centimeter. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.”

 It was, he says, as if “the ocean has taught two boatbuilding traditions, on opposite sides of the world, [with] the same lessons in how to construct a seaworthy boat.” In his case the result was the 36-meter Silolona, built also using the traditional poetic-whimsical naming conventions for her parts: Central beams are naga-naga, or dragons; the curvaceous keels are pisang-pisang, or bananas. And so on.

With no mechanical launch tools, it took 10 days to haul Silolona into the water where, after fitting out with engine, plumbing, paint and electronics, “we did a homecoming voyage back to the beach” near Tanah Beru, says Kasten, who has since designed several more pinisi, all marrying old and new technologies from the wooden joinery and the billow of the sails to the Wi-Fi, GPS and optional engine. His boats include Amandira, named for the luxury hotel group Aman, which hosts an onboard diving center and a spa. 

Like Haji Abdul Wahab, Kasten has come to view pinisi design as “not a fixed thing” but rather a globally influenced structure for an increasingly globalized boat. The Portuguese sailed to Indonesia and both gave and borrowed from the pinisi tradition, as did Arabs who sailed dhows into the region starting in the 15th century. All, he says, have more similarities than differences. 

After more than 30 years building pinisi, Haji Abdul Wahab says he is pleased to think about the boats’ growth and renown, and that today they still are sailed as far as Thailand, Borneo and Papua, as in times past. 

The symbol of Indonesian marine heritage has picked up a good wind forward. “Pinisi shipbuilding will always exist and develop,” he says. “It will be maintained to remain traditional by applying modern technology in it.” 

Tristan Rutherford regularly writes about yachts for AramcoWorld and other cultural digests.