Since times immemorial, Indonesia’s seas have been natural crossroads of migration, communication and commerce. Human conquest of the Pacific began here millennia ago and unified seafaring and trade among diverse people and customs into a cultural zone once known as the Malay world. The vehicles powering these developments were the perahu, the countless types of indigenous sailing vessels, the legacy of the perhaps most sophisticated maritime traditions of our world.
Indonesian sailing vessels are classified by two terms, one for the rig and sails and another for shape and type of the hull. The pinisi (/peeneeseek/), which today epitomizes Indonesian perahu shipping, refers only to the vessel’s rigging, a sail-plan of seven to eight sails recalling the western schooner-ketch that came into use by the end of the nineteenth century. Yet, a pinisi’s hull would be constructed following traditions that contravene modern western naval architecture: It is not assembled around a framework sheathed with planks, but built as a shell of planks connected to one another with wooden dowels, into which frames are only later inserted. One could call the pinisi a hybrid vessel, were it not the truly indigenous arrangement and handling of the sails, the two long rudder blades that substitute the single central rudder used on western ships, and the harmony of hull and sail plan that mark the pinisi as a type of its own.
Still today, pinisi are constructed in the villages of Tana Beru and Ara, for centuries a main hub of shipbuilding on the southern coast of Sulawesi, an island in the center of the archipelago. Here, the age-old art of indigenous shell-first assembly developed into sophisticated blueprints that pre-determine arrangements, lengths, and forms of the many planks needed, establish the positions of the hundreds of dowels used to fit the planks together, and précise the places were frames will be inserted. When the first local vessels were to be rigged as pinisi, the modified schooner sails were set on hulls constructed by a plan called tatta tallu (three-times-cut) enlarged by additional plank-strakes. However, the stepped bow and overhanging aft deck of the resulting lopi (ship) salompong are in more or less the same style already found on portrayals of Indonesian ships recorded by the first western intruders: the shipwrights continued a centuries-old tradition, now modified to produce the sharper form of a salompong palari (running salompong) that could better handle the driving power of the new sails. Sometime in the late 1930s, the people of Ara developed a new pattern for the pinisi, the ‘four-times-cut, allowing for larger hulls with a more flexible plank pattern that avoided the salompong “step” on the bows and better integrated the aft-deck, the genuine palari.
Today, true pinisi are all but gone. In the 1970s the once biggest fleet of sailing merchantmen left in this world was motorized, and soon the pinisi’s sails became a mere support for the engine. With increasingly bigger engines, the canvas was reduced in size, and by the end of the 1980s the mizzen masts of the few remaining ships were removed, thus rescinding the very definition of the ships’ name. Using many big sails requires many hands, and in modern times labor and wages have become more important factors, even in seemingly traditional economies. Today, the picturesque vessels available for holiday charters, which are marketed as ‘phinisi’ due to some obscure pronunciation issues, carry masts much too short to move the ship with sails alone. Almost none of these ships use the genuine palari because an engine requires proper fastenings for its propeller-shaft and midship rudder, features the traditional sailing hull cannot provide. An alternative became the lambo, a square-sterned hull that copies European designs developed in the 1930s for small, sloop-rigged (nade) traders that would carry a central rudder. However, patterns used to construct a lambo are not overly different to those used to build a palari or salompong: To achieve a technically sound structure, positions of dowels, planks, and frames have to be defined before the building process commences, and while form and sizes may vary, the applied routines use the same concepts, terminologies, and solutions.
Unquestionably, the complexity of these approaches mark the art of Indonesian shipbuilding, and their very adaptability helped such traditions survive into our computerized age. The biggest vessels recently built in southern Sulawesi reached lengths of over fifty meters with cargo capacities of a thousand metric tons, yet alongside these leviathans were small pajala (net-fishing boats) constructed according to the tatta tallu pattern. As demonstrated by comparable patterns for positioning dowels and arranging a hull’s planks on two recently found shipwrecks of the seventh and the ninth centuries CE, such procedures must have also governed the construction of the sailing craft depicted on the Borobudur: The construction of a seagoing vessel has always involved highly specialized knowledge and sophisticated cognitive efforts, the very substance of intangible heritage.