The Phinisi Schooner: Icon of Indonesia's Seafaring Tradition

30 Aug 2016

Since earliest times of human settlement in the Indonesian archipelago, her seas have been natural lanes of migration, communication and commerce. Not surprisingly, therefore, that up to this day the islands have  inherited perhaps some of the most sophisticated maritime traditions in the world. Here, one can still watch traditional ships sailing across the open seas to catch fish or transport goods. One of these ships stands out as a legendary icon of the seafaring culture in Indonesia: The majestic Pinisi Schooner.

Sometimes spelled as Pinisi, the schooner is the masterpiece of the seafaring tradition of the Bugis ethnic group of South Sulawesi. For centuries, the phinisi have plied the waters of the archipelago journeying as far away as Malacca, Burma, Vietnam and Australia. Today one can still admire these large traditional boats in full sail at sea or at anchor along the Sunda Kelapa harbor in Jakarta and at the Ujung wharf of Surabaya unloading timber from Kalimantan, or at the Paotere harbor in Makassar, South Sulawesi, or even at the small port of Labuan Bajo on Flores.

Phinisi is a two-masted sailing ship. The hull of the ship looks similar to that of a dhow while the fore-and-aft rigging recalls western schooners. The large mainsails differ from western style gaff rigs though, as they often do not have a boom and the sail is not lowered with the gaff. Instead it is reefed towards the mast, much like a curtain, thus allowing the gaff to be used as deck crane in the harbour. The lower part of the mast itself may resemble a tripod or is made of two poles. Phinisi may be 20 to 35 meters long and 350 tons in size. The masts may reach to 30 meters above the deck.

According to I La Galigo, the ancient manuscript of the Bugis, phinisi schooners have been around since the 14th century. These  schooners are mostly crafted  in the area called Tanah Beru, located about 23 kilometers from the capital of Bulukumba Regency, near the town of Bira, some176 kilometers from Makassar, capital city of South Sulawesi Province. Until today, the regency is locally known as Butta Panrita Lopi or ‘the land of the phinisi schooners” for its long tradition in building these majestic crafts.

Along the shores of Tanah Beru, you will see tens of dry-docks where phinisi schooners are in various stages of construction. Here the skillful hands of the Bugis with amazing precision, carefully craft the Phinisi that has become the icon of Indonesian seafaring heritage. The Phinisi is built using traditional equipment following exact prescribed traditional techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. Its construction does not only involve strength and technique but also – as the locals believe – supernatural powers, for which every stage requires strictly adhered rituals and ceremonies.

Nowadays, much of the phinisi schooners are also refitted to serve as unique traditional live-aboards for divers to pristine locations especially in the eastern Indonesian islands. These sturdy vessels now come complete with cabins, kitchen and toilet facilities to accommodate members of diving expeditions to the Komodo National Park in Flores, Takabonerate and Wakatobi in South East Sulawesi as well as to the resplendent Raja Ampat national park near Sorong, in West Papua.

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