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How to Build a Phinisi


The graceful Indonesian sailing vessels known as phinisis are not defined solely by their twin masts and many sails. They're hand-hewn labors of love infused with 500 years of romance, tradition and trickery. Story and Photos By IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER.

Published on Jul 24, 2017

 

Sometime in the early 1930s, British explorer G.E.P. Collins sailed to the legend-rich Indonesian island of Sulawesi on a phinisi, a traditional twin-mast seven-sail schooner used for transport, cargo, fishing and raiding around the archipelago since the 16th century. It was slow, cumbersome and riddled with rats, but Collins become so enamored with the grace and beauty of the high-sterned local vessel—itself a design cribbed from Portuguese or Dutch ships that had been colonizing these islands—that he decided to build a phinisi of his own.

Amandira
Aboard the forward deck of the Amandira.

So, Collins sailed on to Bira, in isolated village on the tip of South Sulawesi where the seafearing Bugis people have built phinisis on the beach using primitive construction techniques unchanged for hundreds of years.

Collins's layover in Bira was anything but smooth sailing: he caught a volley of tropical diseases, was swindled at every turn and faced extraordinary delays taking possession of his boat. The Bugis originally told him the build would take two months, but it took nearly a year-and-a-half.

The exasperated Englishman wrote about his exploits along with detailed descriptions of the proto-Islamic magic rites, piratic tendencies and quixotic boatbuilding techniques of the Bugis in Makassar Sailing, a book published upon his return to London in 1937. "I had been in Bira about nine months, which seemed an absurdly long time to build a boat," reads a typical entry. And again: "To record all the tricks my boatbuilders and their gang of rascals tried would fill half this book."

 

THE TALE OF G.E.P. COLLINS bears striking resemblance to that of another Englishman: Erik Barreto, a Singapore-based fund manager for alternative assets I met last year at a dinner party in Bali.

At one stage during the evening, I found myself in the villa's kitchen admiring the rich dark woodwork and smooth curved edges of the cupboard doors. "That's ironwood," said my host, Ciarán Caulfied, a mariner-turned-property developer from Ireland. "It's like steel." One of the strongest woods on the planet, he explained, ironwood is more bountiful in Indonesia than anywhere else in the world, but has been over-harvested, leading to strict restrictions on its use now. "We got this ironwood from an old phinisi that was getting broken up for scrap at a shipyard in Surabaya, where all old phinisis go to die."

"Phinisi?" interjected Barreto, overhearing our conversation. "I'm building a phinisi right now in Sulawesi. It's called Rascal."

Erik Barreto
Erik Barreto mulls the course ahead on Rascal.

But Rascal, Barreto said, was no ordinary phinisi. Not only did it lack a mast and sails, but the cabins and saloon, usually found in the hull, were set in a superstructure above deck. The ergonomically spacious and rule-breaking vessel would be outfitted with the highest possible grade of marine engines, navigation equipment and bespoke furnishings and fittings designed by Charles Orchard, the interior designer whose resume includes work for the Four Seasons hotel chain and The Venice-Simpleton Orient Express. On completion, Rascal would work as a luxury private charter ploughing the island-studded waters of Komodo National Park and Raja Amput in eastern Indonesia.

Barreto appeared to be trying to tap into the same vein that's made the most recent incarnation of The Orient Express, with its vintage cabins and opulent attention to detail, a runaway success. But unlike The Orient with its plush fabrics and polished woods, Rascal would marry the façade of a traditional Indonesian schooner with the interior of a modern boutique hotel. Would the two things go together, like bacon and eggs, or would they slowly grind against each other like metal and rock? It was a question I knew I'd like to answer myself, which led to two new questions: when was Rascal scheduled to start sailing, and would Baretto be so kind as to grant me passage on the maiden voyage?

"Three months from now," he said. "And yes, you're more than welcome to join us."

We shook hands and agreed to meet back in Bali later in the year. Barreto also put me in touch with his boatbuilder, an Italian by the name of Raul Boscarino, and suggested I accompany Boscarino on his next trip to Bira to see how phinisis are built.

Komodo National Park
The cruise director of Amandira points out the proposed course through Komodo National Park.

 

FAST-FORWARD three months. I'm in Sulawesi, in the back of a taxi driving from the provincial capital Makassar to Bira, a grueling seven-hour odyssey along 200 kilometers of typically dilapidated and screamingly busy Indonesian country roads. It seems ironic that I can't make this journey by boat.

Boscarino is seated next to me. Limber and leather-skinned in his early 50s, the boatbuilder from Rome combines the easygoing demeanor of a Sicilian with the industrial savvy of a Milanese. "When I first saw phinisis I was skeptical because of the way they are made," he tells me. "In Europe, we build yachts in climate-controlled factories, but in Bira they build them right on the beach. It's one of the few places left in the world apart from Madagascar and Turkey where they still build boats this way."

The difference in the finished product is huge, Boscarino explains, because dry wood is stronger, lighter, easier to work, easier to paint and shrinks less than wet wood—and the only way to dry wood is to store it, and work on it, indoors. "The boatbuilders for British Royal Family only use wood that's been drying for at least a generation," he says.

Amatoa Resort
A phinisi-shaped bed in the honeymoon suite of Amatoa Resort, in Bira, Sulawesi.

But back to phinisis. The design, Boscarino continues, remained virtually unchanged until the mid-1970s when owners began adding engines and removing sails. At around the same time, Westerners began showing up in Bira commissioning phinisis for diving charters. Demand for wooden charter boats has increased exponentially, driving up prices, naturally. "Back then you could build a phinisi for US$10,000," he says. "Now it can cost up to a million."

"It's really hard for people who aren't in this business to understand exactly why it costs so much to build a wooden boat," Boscarino says. "The woodwork is only a third of the cost because today charters are outfitted with things like air conditioners, desalination tanks and chef's kitchens. They're basically floating five-star hotels.

"When I met the owners of Rascal, the first thing they asked was if I could put a hot tub on the roof. I told them they were crazy. They also asked for the windows to have curved edges like an iPhone. I said I could do it—it's a beautiful detail—but it added three months to the build because every window had to be cut from a solid piece of wood."

It took two-and-a-half years just to construct the hull.

I ask Boscarino if Rascal, which was being outfitted in Bali, would be ready to sail the next week as per my schedule.

He burst out laughing: "Next week? No chance. Next year? Maybe."

 

IT'S LATE in the afternoon when we pull into Jalan Phinisi in Bira, where Boscarino is building another vessel similar to Rascal.

Only the keel, a 30-meter-long slab of ironwood lies on the sand where a dozen-odd Bugis boatbuilders with hangdog features betraying years of wear and tear are engaged in various kinds of labor. One trio of workmen is making fasteners or "tree nails" by inserting thick wooden splinters into a cylindrical metal hole built into a vice and pounding each splinter through the hole with big wooden mallets plucked straight out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. For a boat the size of Rascal, 15,000 fasteners need to be made.

Bira boatyard
Taking a whack at making fasteners, or wooden nails, in a Bira boatyard.

After checking on his men's progress, Boscarino takes me for a walk along the beach. Scattered along the sand between herds of wandering goats and piles of plastic rubbish are 50-odd phinisis: old boats being repaired, new boats being built and others that appear half-built and tilted to one side.

"That one," says Boscarino, pointing to a half-submerged phinisi askew on a reef, "was built by a Dutchman. He sold everything he owned and came here with big dreams of building a phinisi and sailing around Indonesia. But he ran out of money and went home with nothing. And he wasn't the first one. The sign may say JALAN PHINISI, but we call it the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."

"If not for tourism," he continues, "the phinisi design and art would have died a long time ago. But it's not easy working here. You have to have a good connection with the local people and you have to respect their timing. If it's Ramadan, they won't work for a month and that is that. You can't just apply Western boat-building techniques here."

Jalan Phinisi
Jalan Phinisi, named for Bira's famous native boats.

I ask Boscarino if he's read Collins's memoir, Makassar Sailing.

"Many times," he replies. "It makes me laugh because the same tricks the Bugis used back then, they still use now. When his phinisi was finished, Collins said, 'please put it in the water for me.' The Bugis told him that would take 100 men a month using ropes and pulleys and blocks the same way the Egyptians moved stones for the pyramids, and it would cost you so-many dollars. That's what happened to the Dutchman who built that phinisi," he says pointing to the abandoned ship. "He got it built but had no money to launch it. I think his dream drove him crazy at the end."

 

I'M HOPING THE SAME FATE won't await Baretto, because I learn when I return to Bali that Rascal is still at least a month or two away from completion.

Unable to board his new take on an old boat, I start sniffing around for another phinisi owner who may indulge me with a cruise. My investigations lead to Aman Resorts, which operates five top-shelf resorts and two luxury phinisis in Indonesia. As luck would have it, one of Aman's ships, the Amandira, a stately 52-meter vessel with a Western rig that allows for faster sailing and therefore is known as the Ferrari of phinisis, will soon put ashore a group of guests at Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores, gateway to Komodo National Park. If I can get myself to Labuan Bajo within 24 hours, I can hitch a ride on Amandira as she sails back to her home base at Amanwana, a luxury tent camp on Moyo Island roughly halfway between Bali and Flores.

Amandira
Even with only five of her seven sails raised, Amandira is the Ferrari of phinisis.

When I first visited Labuan Bajo five years ago, there were maybe half a dozen phinisi charters bobbing up and down in the harbor. Now there are 10 times as many, from small motor-driven runabouts for snorkeling trips, to beautifully restored schooners with towering masts. But they are all dwarfed in size and statue by Amandira and her team of 15 polo shirt-wearing staff who stand on the starboard side waving as a tender ferries me in from the dock. With a jet black hull, eccentrically curved deck and elongated bowsprit that reaches far over her prow, Amandira has a Captain Jack Sparrow, pirate-ship feel that screams romance and adventure on the high seas. Above deck is a king-size cabin with a twin vanity bathroom twice as large as the bathroom of my apartment in Sydney, and a lavish saloon with sofas, a dining table and A/V equipment. Below deck are two more king-bed cabins, two bunk-bed cabins and staff quarters.

Yet Amandira's prize real estate lies on her expansive foredeck, where I spend the next few days lounging on daybeds, taking in the turquoise waters, volcanic islands and dreamy sunsets of Komodo National Park. On occasion my serenity is disturbed by Amandira's butler and his incessant desire to pour me glasses of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé, and a spa therapist who pummels knots out of my back on a massage table in a semi-private nook on the aft deck.

Flores Sea
Dusk on the Flores Sea.

There are also distractions of the more active kind: snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and seafood barbecues on deserted beaches. "On some days when I wake up sailing around these islands," says cruise director Glenn Wappett, a Londoner who spent the past decade serving with the Royal Marines in places like Afghanistan and Libya before being poached by Aman, "I have to pinch myself to know this is real."

Late one afternoon, I climb onto the prow at the front of the boat. There I lie for hours as Amandira ebbs and flows through an open sea that seems to absorb all my cares and worries. As I rub my fingers along the smooth stained wood, massaging the grain and its omnipresent imperfections, I think of the thousands of hours of work that went into building this ship, the sweat, the sawdust, the cuts and bruises on fingers. I think of Collins, Baretto and all the characters I've gotten to know on this trip, and how building a boat using using obsolete materials and techniques in a far-flung corner of the world would have been a cathartic experience for them. If a meal can taste better simply by cooking it yourself, what would it feel like sailing a boat you took years to create?

Clowning
Clowning around in the Flores Sea.

 

MY RETURN TO BALI a week later coincides with Barreto's, who's flown in from Singapore to sign off on Rascal's interior woodwork before Charles Orchard and his crack team of couturiers are let loose to bring the project to fruition.

Moored in the placid waters of Serangan Harbour and surrounded by a dozen other phinisis, Rascal is still a construction site where dozens of workmen buzz around the deck chipping, sanding and varnishing surfaces covered in sawdust. Yet as I follow Baretto around his ship, Rascal's soon-to-be resplendent rule-breaking interior becomes manifest.

The captain's chair in the bridge will be covered in blue leather and accented with brass studs. The saloon will feature a parquetry bar. The ship has five double bedrooms, each with its own personality and a host of creature comforts: minibars, media hubs, flatscreens, writing desks, gooseneck lamps, rattan wallpaper and mirrors made of petrified wood inlaid with mother of pearl. Yet the pièce de résistance lies on superstructure's roof: an under-the-stars cinema with a retractable projection screen fashioned from an antique sail.

"The cabins on traditional phinisis are quite small, confined and mostly wood-toned, whereas Rascal's are spacious with windows on either side for cross ventilation," Baretto says. "And they will be painted white to create a nautical Ralph Lauren or Hamptons beach house feel." He adds: "Basically what we're building is a luxury villa on the sea—a boat for people aren't into boating."

Lataliana Villa,
A sink in Lataliana Villa, made from reclaimed phinisi wood.

"Why go to all this trouble?" I can't help but ask. "From an investor's viewpoint, wouldn't it have made more sense just to buy a superyacht?"

"Probably, but it wouldn't have been as much fun," he replies, wiping sweat and sawdust off his brow. "I'm really sorry we couldn't take you for a sail this time," he continues. "Originally we thought this project would take two years; it's now been three-and-a-half years. It's been a long journey, it hasn't been easy, but fingers crossed, three weeks from now we're going to be out at sea toasting to our success."

I can only compare Barreto's dogged determination to that of Collins when he finally launched his phinisi from the port at Bira. "Sixteen months before, I had made a voyage in a Bugis phinisi," he wrote on the final page of his book. "After the voyage I had wanted a high-pooped ship of my own. Now I had her. She was not the ship I had hoped for but she was clean and there was a dry cabin, all painted white, where I could stand up and turn round with my arms outstretched."

Two men with two boats made in the same place 80 years apart. Both spent more far time and money than they had originally planned. Both had to make compromises on the road of romance. Yet both were unbending in their vision for a modern and spacious interior—painted in clean, fresh, space-maximizing white.

Standing inside the salon in its half-built state, I now see Rascal as less of a rule-breaker and more of a rule-bender. Like the steam used to curve the ribs in her hull, the villa-like interior and absence of sails seem a logical progression of a design stolen by pirates 500 years ago and reimagined every time a scraggly group of boatbuilders begins shaping ironwood on the beach in Bira into a phinisi.

 

   THE DETAILS

 

 

GETTING THERE
Garuda (garuda-indonesia.com) and Lion Air (lionair.co.id) offer direct connections from Jakarta and Bali to Labuan Bajo and Makassar. From Makassar airport, a taxi to Bira costs US$50 to US$75.

HOTELS
Lataliana Villa A short stroll from Bali's Seminyak Beach, this palatial complex with furnishings made from recycled phinisis is available in one- to eight-bedroom configurations. one-bedroom villa from US$370; latalianavillas.com.
Amatoa Resort Boutique resort on a stellar clifftop location in Bira where guests can dive directly into crystal-blue seas. bungalows from US$112; amatoaresort.com.

CRUISES
Amandira Private charter five-night Komodo sailing including full board, alcohol, national park entry fees and up to four dives daily. above-deck double-occupancy cabin US$7,730 per night; book all five double-occupancy cabins for US$10,840 per night; aman.com.
Rascal Available as private charter for multi-day expeditions in the Indonesian archipelago from this month. US$8,500 per night; info@rascal-charters.com; rascal-charters.com.

 

 

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Even with only five of her seven sails raised, Amandira is the Ferrari of phinisis.
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