An Ancient Boatbuilding Tradition in Makassar Gets a New Lease of Life

In the relative cool of the late afternoon, Makassar’s Paotere Harbour is a hive of activity. At first glance, this historical wharf in South Sulawesi, next to the city’s bustling fish market, doesn’t give the impression of a modern working dockyard. There’s a distinct absence of the ubiquitous shipping containers, vast metallic tankers and giant cranes. Instead, lines of colourful boats gently bob on the water. They are connected to land by a network of long wooden planks. Deckhands bend under the weight of their cargo – timber, cement or rice. They are still the main means of loading the boats.

While modern container ships do now ply the major international shipping routes that pass through Indonesia on their way between the Middle East and China, there remains a bustling trade with vessels that have changed little in their appearance over the last few hundred years. Built entirely from wood, these locally constructed boats range from smaller fishing craft to 40m-long cargo ships with a capacity of up to 300 tonnes. Most at Paotere are in fact direct descendants of the region’s most celebrated craft, the phinisi. 

A unique blend of the traditional perahu (boat) and the Western-inspired sailing rig, featuring two large masts, the phinisi was developed by the Makassarese and Bugis peoples of South Sulawesi to rival the speed of the Portuguese, Dutch and British ships that sailed into Indonesian waters in the early 20th century. In a 1996 study undertaken with the boatbuilding community in Bulukumba, three hours southeast of Makassar, anthropologist Horst Liebner noted “these ships … would have had a loading capacity of something between 70 to 150 tonnes, and – if the monsoon was good enough – sail from Ujung Pandang [the old name for Makassar] to Surabaya on Java in about three days.”

All the boats are built by hand, using time-honoured techniques

The phinisi formed the backbone of inter-island trade for most of the 20th century, and comes from a boatbuilding tradition that dates back over 3,000 years. It’s a symbol of national pride in Indonesia and in December 2017, Unesco recognised South Sulawesi’s boatbuilding practices as Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Ombak Putih, a 42-metre passenger pinish operayed by SeaTrek Sailing Adventures.

While the advent of engines and modern, faster boats has led to a waning demand for new wooden cargo vessels, the boatyards in Bulukumba have not fallen silent. Instead, a new market has emerged in recent years. The elegance of the phinisi design has caught the imagination of a growing number of diving and high-end tour companies operating around the nearby islands of Bali, Flores and Raja Ampat. The rapid growth in maritime tourism in the region has led to a resurgence in orders for new ships.

Renovation work being carried out on a wooden cargo boat

Phinisi becomes pleasure boat

There is now a small armada of these vessels plying the waters off Indonesia, from Bali to West Papua and beyond. Most were built either on the shores of Bulukumba, or by its craftsmen on nearby islands. Many are decked out in the kind of luxury you’d expect from a five-star hotel, with air-conditioned cabins, onboard chefs and ritzy itineraries, offering the well-heeled traveller a unique experience.

One of this new breed of patron is Austrian-born entrepreneur Johannes Weissenbaeck, who with two fellow investors recently took delivery of the aptly named new yacht, Splendour, now available for charter hire from Bali. The 63m-long craft features four cabins and contemporary additions such as a high-quality sound system throughout, an open-plan kitchen and even an AstroTurf-covered sun deck. 

“Whilst we live all over the world, all of the owners strongly believe in local connection in terms of culture, people, materials and construction techniques,” Weissenbaeck explains of their decision to get their yacht built at a boatyard on Bulukumba’s Ara Beach.

Splendour features four well-appointed cabins as well as other modern features like a high-quality sound system and an open-plan kitchen

Constructing the Splendour took over three years – two years of work with a break midway through – revealing what a labour of love the process can be. “Splendour is much more than a yacht to us. It was a life experiment and a journey in itself,” Weissenbaeck says of the experience.

Returning to their roots

Ten minutes west, in the hamlet of Tanah Beru, boat-builder Pak Haji Ully is also enjoying brisk business. His yard is currently busy with the construction of an impressively large phinisi, bound for use in the dive industry in Raja Ampat. “We are very grateful for the increase of new projects,” he says with a wide smile. “Our business goes back three generations and we hope the next generation will continue this culture. It’s important to encourage our kids and make them proud to take over.”

The increase in business has transformed the dynamics of village life in Tanah Beru. Boat-builder Muchsin is one of those craftsmen benefiting. He’s working on a boat renovation at the ocean’s edge on the nearby Panranglulu beach.

Like many of the boat-builders here, Muchsin has also worked in boatyards on nearby islands, spending time in Bali where a lot of the finishing and furnishing work is carried out. “We follow the work and right now the work is here in Bulukumba,” the cheery father of three explains while overseeing the finishing touches on the four-month restoration of a cargo vessel.   

Muchsin is one boat-builder to benefit from the revived interest in the traditional techniques

“Many of the villagers who left for projects in Kalimantan and other islands are now coming home, which is not just good for the local economy but also for training the next generation.”

The scale of the boatbuilding industry is immediately apparent in Tanah Beru. Set off a brilliant white sandy beach, bordering a blue-green ocean, row upon row of boatyards reveal the sheer range of vessel styles that are under construction.

Here, families continue a craft handed down from generation to generation, skills passed from father to son. Under rudimentary bamboo roofing, small teams of workers hammer, saw and chisel their way through the large piles of timber stacked on their forecourts.

Liebner, who has been studying the different ethnic groups of South Sulawesi and their maritime traditions for nearly three decades, explains that one reason Bulukumba is well-known for boatbuilding is a paucity of other vocations. “The soil is not suitable for farming. With no living to be made off the land, the villagers turned to the ocean for their livelihood – they had no choice.” 

Learning an ancient art

A good boat starts with good wood. Traditionally, sappanwood, ironwood and teak are the materials of choice, with a consistent supply imperative. After the correct amount of timber has been secured, each block of wood is earmarked for a specific part of the boat, following a method that  favours building the boat from the base of the hull up, plank by plank.

“Once we know the size of the ship, the first step is to start the keel,” shares Pak Haji Ully. “To waterproof the boat, we use a traditional glue made from tree bark.”

It’s not just the construction methods that draw from the past. Ceremonies accompany each stage of the process, and it’s believed these protect the finished boat and its crew. In the beginning, the laying of the keel is given the metaphor of a marriage. The different keel pieces are named after male and female reproductive organs and their union culminates in the birth of the finished boat months later, when it is launched. The final rituals take place at a lavish feast, held the night before the launch.

The beaches of Bulukumba district in Southern Sulawesi are home to numerous boatyards

Although boatbuilding in Tanah Beru has received a welcome spike in recent years, Muchsin is still a little apprehensive about the future. “Sadly, these days, many of the young prefer to go to school rather than learn to be a tukang (head boat-builder), so it’s possible these skills might one day be lost.” 

Acquiring the knowledge to become a tukang is not straightforward, with new recruits starting at the very bottom of the pecking order.

“They actually start the process as cooks for the team,” explains Muchsin. “Observing the workers in action before they are taught the first basic skill – making the wooden pegs. When they have mastered this, they move to the next level and continue until they have learnt all the skills.”

Traditionally, only wooden pegs were used to join the timber, but this has evolved, with metal pegs now used in strategic places. Modern tools have sped up the process but with all work done by hand in simple workshops, it’s a lengthy affair that can take at least a year.

The process here definitely moves to a different beat, dependent on simple factors like wood supply and the weather. However, in many ways, that’s part of the appeal and one reason why demand for these ships has spiralled in the past decade. As clients like Weissenbaeck have discovered, it’s more than just a simple transaction between craftsman and client. “It is less about the technicalities of building boats,” he says. “You learn about patience, appreciation and the fact that adventure is worthwhile.”

That spirit of adventure and the quality of the finished product is something that should keep the boatbuilding community in Bulukumba busy for years to come.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.

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