Traditional Boats

By Horst Liebner*



Since the earliest times of human settlement of Indonesia, her seas have been the natural lanes of migration, communication and commerce. Not surprisingly, today’s inhabitants of the Archipelago inherit the perhaps most sophisticated maritime tradition of our World; and, it was this bequest of seafaring and trade that unified the immense diversity of people and customs of more than 17.000 islands into a cultural zone once known as the Malay World, which mellowed into the modern nation of Indonesia. The vehicles of these developments were the perahu, the countless types of indigenous sailing vessels of the Archipelago.
Traditionally, an Indonesian ship or boat is classified in two ways, i.e. by a term for her rigging and sails and a different name for shape and type of the hull. Thus, differences in naming traditional craft, which are obvious for an Indonesian sailor or boat-builder, can be a bit of tricky for the layman.

Indonesia’s indigenous type of rigging is the layar (‘sail’) tanjaq. It’s perhaps oldest representations are seen in several carvings on the walls of the famous 9th century temple of Borobudur, and Chinese, Arab and European sources since the earliest times of foreign contact speak of the peculiar rectangular tanjaq as the typical sails of the ‘Islands Below the Wind’. During the last decades several expeditions with tanjaq-rigged boats have proved their abilities - the most recent one a voyage of a replica of a ‘Borobudur’-ship along historic routes of Indian Ocean trade from Indonesia to Madagascar and Ghana in 2003/4. Today, this type of sail is in use on some smaller fishing craft only.
The best-known type of vessel rigged with tanjaq was the South-Sulawesian padewakang, widely employed for far-distance trading and fishing until the early days of the 20th century. Padewakang were the biggest craft of the trading and war fleets of the famed South-Sulawesian kingdoms, used by Mandar, Makassar and Bugis traders and warriors for hundreds of years in their plying the seas between western Newguinea, the southern parts of the Philippines, and the Malayan peninsula. Between the end of the 16th to the early 20th centuries they routinely sailed for the coasts of northern Australian in search of tripang, beche-de-mer, and in a Dutch publication of the last century there even is found a drawing of a padewakang under full sail which is undertitled ‘a Sulawesi pirate vessel in the Persian Gulf’.



During the last century Sulawesian sailors began to combine the big rectangular sails of the tanjaq-rig with fore-and-aft type of sails which they saw on the European and American gaff-rigged ships then venturing into the Archipelago. It took about 50 years, until these trials bore the pinisiq-rigging which for the better part of the next century became the typical sail of South-Sulawesi’s perahu.

As the story goes, the first pinisiq (pronounced ‘peeneeseek’) was built in the 1840ies by a certain French or German beachcomber in Trengganu, Malaysia, who had settled and married a local girl there. When one day the raja, Sultan Baginda Omar, asked the long-nose to help in building a boat that would resemble the most modern western vessels, a royal schooner was built; boat and builder -by the name of Martin Perrot- were seen and met by an English captain in 1846. Following Malay traditions, this vessel became the prototype for a new class of vessels called pinas, probably after the word pinasse, which in the French and German of the time referred to a medium-sized sailing boat.

However, it certainly was not only this one vessel, which became the prototype of the pinisiq. Already since the early 18th century, the Dutch East-India trading company VOC had started constructing European style vessels for her inter Asian trade in Javanese shipyards, thus continuously introducing new constructional methods and rigs, including the Dutch version of the then new fore-and-aft sails. Throughout the 19th century the colonial navies and European as well as Arab, Indian and Chinese trading firms operated an ever increasing number of Western schooners in their ventures all over the islands; but, though reports from as early as the 1830ies mention perahu, i.e. locally build vessels, “schooner rigged with cloth sails”, being employed by ‘pirates’ operating in the Straits of Malacca, it still took several decades until the Archipelago’s typical schooner fully developed - even after the royal pinas of Trenggangu, Apparently, the competition by fore-and-aft rigged traders from English Singapore and Dutch Java who were able to outsail the monsoon-bound traditional Indonesian craft was felt more

and more severely during the second half of the 19th century; hence, the adoption of their rig proved a necessity for indigenous inter-island trade. During these decades of evolution, the Indonesian sailors and boat-builders changed some of the features of the originally western schooner: I.e., the gaffs of a pinisiq are fixed onto the mast, so that the gaff isn’t pulled up to the crosstrees as on the Western version, but the sail is pulled out running along the gaff like a curtain. By the way, the first genuine South-Sulawesian pinisiq was built for a Biran captain by people of Ara around 1900.




A Biran perahu pinisiq around 1930


The word pinisiq does refer to the rigging only -i.e. seven to eight sails, consisting of three foresails on a long bowsprit, a mainsail and a mizzen on standing gaffs, two topsails and a staysail on the mizzen-mast’s forestay- while the different types of hulls bear their own names. In the early years the schooner-ketch rigging was set on padewakang hulls, but after some experience the Sulawesian traders decided to use the sharp-bowed and faster palari (derived from lari, ‘to run’) as being much more fit for the driving power of the fore-and-aft sails. Being genuine sailing ships, pinisiq were fitted out with masts much taller than those you find installed on the motorised vessels of today; the whole hull was cargo space, and only a small cabin for the captain was placed on the aft deck, while the crew slept on deck or in the cargo-hold. The two long rudder blades fixed to strong traverse thwarts projecting out on both sides of the aft part, like those used on a padewakang, were retained as a steering device.


During their heyday in the 1970ies, several thousand of pinisiq, the then biggest fleet of sailing traders in the world, connected virtually all the islands of the archipelago, and formed a major backbone of Indonesia’s economy. However, just at the same time the government’s efforts in motorisation did bring about some major changes.


Since the 1930ies more and more indigenous sailing craft adopted a new kind of rigging, the layar nade, which had been derived from cutters and sloops used by western pearlers and small-scale tradesmen in Eastern Indonesia. Besides, European hull-shapes more and more influenced constructional features of Indonesian boats, and the nade-rigged sailor per se, the Butonese lambo, uses a centre rudder and stem and stern posts which are set in an angle onto the keel - in contrast to the traditional shape, where keel and stems form a continous curve. Today there still are several hundred of lambo/nade vessels trading between the small islands of the Moluccas and the bigger ports in Java and Sulawesi.


When during the 1970ies more and more palari-pinisiq were fitted out with engines, hull and rigging of the traditional Indonesian trader quickly changed: As the indigenous hull designs didn’t proof fitting for installing a motor, the lambo became the alternative. In the years to follow loading capacities were continuously increased, until today’s average perahu layar motor (PLM - ‘motorised sailing vessel’) can load up to 300ton. Nearly all the hulls of the vessels you find in the busy traditional harbours of Sunda Kelapa in Jakarta, Kali Mas in Surabaya or Paotere in Makassar today are modified lambo, though still retaining some of the features of the original palari-hull like the additional side-rudders.


A Buton lambo racing during the celebrations of Indonesia’s Independence Day, 1989


PLM lined up in Sunda Kelapa Harbour, Jakarta


As their sails are just used for supporting the engine, the mizzen of nearly all PLM was cut down: Using many sails does mean needing many hands, and in modern times labour and wages became a more and more important factor in even seemingly traditional economics. Today, on bigger ships a one-masted pinisiq-rig is used, while medium sized vessels are fit out with nade-sails. However, as their masts are much too short and the sail area is too small, these boats cannot be moved with sails alone, but use them in favourable winds only.
Still, pinisiq, more often (wrongly) spelt ‘phinisi’, became the icon per se of Indonesia’s sailing traditions, and today often enough is used for any kind of local-build wooden vessel. And, since about 1995 the pinisiq saw some revival as a charmingly Indonesian charter boat employed in the growing marine tourism between the Islands Below the Wind: At present a fleet of some 50 traditionally build vessels -some rigged as Indonesian schooners, others as cutters, sloops or ketches- serve a wide variety of routes and targets. Though better part of these vessels are actually modern motor-sailors turned into small floating hotels, in today's ever changing world they at least help a tad in preserving some fragments of one of our Planet’s salient maritime traditions.

*   © 2004 Horst H. Liebner, Malayologist, Expert Staff of the Agency for Marine and Fisheries Research, Department of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of the Republic of Indonesia, since 1987 working on ethnography and history of South Sulawesi’s maritime cultures.



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