Pinisi, The Toughest Ship from Indonesia
The pinisi is a traditional Indonesian two masted sailing ship. It was mainly built by the Konjo of South Sulawesi but was and is largely used by the Bugis and Makassar.
The hull of the ships looks similar to that of a dhow while the fore-and-aft rigging reminds of western schooners, although it might be more correctly termed to resemble a ketch, as the front mast is the larger.
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.
Pinisis may be 20 to 35 meters long and 350 tons in size. The masts may reach to 30 meters above the deck.
The Evolution of an Indigenous Wooden Sailing Vessel
The “modern” wooden ‘Pinisi’ type has been derived from similar craft that have been in use in and around Indonesia for several centuries. According to some sources, similar types have existed prior to the 1500’s, such as the Arabian Dhow.
The sailing ‘Pinisi’ hull form in many ways resembles a cross between two traditional American sailing vessel types, the Pinky Schooner and the Tancook Whaler, even though the ‘Pinisi’ hull type pre-dates those Western hull forms by centuries… In other words, in its original form the ‘Pinisi’ was a double ended hull type, having sharply raked stem and stern post. There was not a centerline rudder however, as with the American craft. Instead the local Indonesian craft in the past most often made use of twin rudders, one on each aft quarter.
Used both as transport and as cargo vessels, the craft we are calling ‘Pinisi’ (variously spelled Pinissi, Pinisiq, or Phinisi) have traditionally been built on the beach, where the logs have come from the forests of Sulawesi (Celebes) and Kalimantan (Borneo), then transported to the boat building sites.
Historically, several interesting rituals and ceremonies have been part of building such a vessel, beginning with choosing the right trees for critical parts of the structure. Just as with traditional wooden boat building in the West, various rituals continue throughout the building process to initiate and celebrate each stage, such as the all important laying of the keel.
The ‘Pinisi’ Tradition
A few clarifications of terminology are in order…
The Builders: Although the builders of these craft are commonly lumped under the category of Bugis peoples, there are four cultural sub-sets of boat builders to be separately distinguished in South Sulawesi (per the writings of Horst Liebner). The primary groups are the Konjo of the southern tip of South Sulawesi (from near the towns of Ara, Bira, and Tanah Biru), the Mandar of West Sulawesi to the north of Makassar, the Bugis from the region near Wajo on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Bone (the central gulf between the two halves of Sulawesi), and the Makassarese from the region around the city of Makassar. Among these groups, the Konjo of South Sulawesi appear to have had the primary and most influential role as boat builders.
The Vessels: Technically, the term ‘Pinisi’ refers to the rig itself. In particular ‘Pinisi’ refers to the usual gaff-ketch type of rig. Locally this rig is referred to as a “seven sail schooner” even though the aft gaff sail is slightly smaller than the forward gaff sail, in fact making it a ketch rig.
Per Horst Liebner, the correct term for the sharp-stern sailing craft is ‘palari’ or ‘lamba’ among the Konjo boat builders of South Sulawesi. When the stem and stern post are straight, and are set at a sharply raked angle to the keel, the hull form is the ‘lamba’ as opposed to the ‘palari’ which make use of curved timbers for both stem and stern.
Since the term ‘Pinisi’ has come to be commonly applied to the hull form as well, we will use the word ‘Pinisi’ here to refer to the sailing hull type for the purposes of our discussion…
These ‘Pinisi’ have traditionally been built in a variety of sizes. Although in the past the craft tended to be smaller, it is not uncommon to find 30 to 40 meter vessels under construction, with an occasional Pinisi ranging up to around 50 meters (close to 165 feet on deck) or larger.
The widespread use of a sharply raked stem and stern post is simply the practical result of making efficient use of the timber lengths that can be conveniently brought down from the forest. In this way the vessel can be quite large and still have a relatively modest length of keel timber. Conveniently, it also makes them very good sea boats!
In many Indonesian boat building locations, good timber has become difficult to obtain, therefore costly. Many builders have begun using shorter and shorter timbers, resulting in a compromised hull structure, particularly in larger craft. With many of the ritual ceremonies becoming less and less common, some may suggest that this too has conspired against the longevity of the ships.
One very significant improvement in the quality of available timber has been made possible by the Konjo builders themselves. . . The builders of larger vessels have actually re-located! Quite a number of the Konjo builders from Southwest Sulawesi have simply moved, in order to be close to larger supplies of good quality timber.
In so doing, the builders of Southwest Sulawesi have literally carved a new building site and a new village out of the jungle in Kalimantan (Borneo). Several new building sites are located in Kalimantan Selatan (South Kalimantan) and Kalimantan Timur (East Kalimantan), on the banks of rivers close to the supply of timbers. It is here that they have been able to obtain the size and quality of timbers necessary for building wooden vessels of up to 50 or so meters in length.
Presently (2008) the boatbuilding sites in Kalimantan Selatan have fallen out of favor. The most advanced of these builders have sought new sites located farther in Kalimantan Timur. These newly favored sites are in the regions of Sangkulirang and Berau. When asked about this our friend and master builder Pak Tandra simply says,
“We are boat builders. We will always follow the wood!”
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