JAKARTA, Indonesia — With wooden hulls and barefoot crews, the world's last large fleet of working sailing ships plies the waters of Indonesia, through the Java and Banda seas, down the straits of Malacca and Macassar.
More than 13,000 islands make up the archipelago, 3,000 of them inhabited. Over the years, the tropical seas have been the highway for log rafts, canoes, outriggers, fishing sloops and cargo schooners. The Indonesians call all but the smallest of them prahu .
Here in populous Java, big sailing ships still arrive groaning with cargoes of timber from the outer islands. Many tie up along the quay at Jakarta's old port of Sunda Kelapa, gunwale to gunwale, 50 or 60 at any one time. On a recent weekend, the Hasil Mangenre rode among them, high in the water, its cargo of boards unloaded on the pier.
"Four days and three nights out of Pontianak in Kalimantan (Borneo)," a young deck hand named Bambang yelled down. "Good sailing, no problem." He waved a visitor up for a look.
Two gangplanks, 4-by-8-inch timbers, angled sharply from pier to bow and bounced slightly with each step. Earlier in the day, a stream of men had come up one of these, hoisted three or four boards on shoulders padded with rags, then bounced down to the pier on the other gangplank. Most were barefoot and wore T-shirts or scarfs for protection from the tropical sun.
The Hasil Mangenre, Bambang's ship, is a single-masted lambo with a large jib and a gaff-rigged mainsail. It is broad in the beam, and the weather deck is swept up fore and aft.
Bambang headed for the wheelhouse.
"This is the captain," he said.
Inside, on deck, lay a man dressed only in shorts, dead to the world. There was nothing in the wheelhouse but the man and the wheel. No charts, no radio, no radar.
Captain Sahid, the harbor master at Sunda Kelapa, said the captains of the big prahus use "traditional methods," for navigating from island to island, leaving the coast at a known landmark and watching the sun and the direction of the sea's swell. These ships have no radar, he said, but normally carry a compass and a radio. There appeared to be neither on board the Hasil Mangenre.
Bambang led the way aft to a covered area. Here he and the other crewmen sleep while off watch. Often the crew is made up of relatives of the ship owner, keeping the business in the family. Others are hired at 3,000 rupiah a day, about $2. The gaff-rigged lambo and the schooner-rigged pinisi carry for most of the timber trade in Indonesia. The latter measures about 150 feet in length and 45 feet in the beam, displacing 300 tons of water, harbor master Sahid said.
The ones that call here now have been built in the past 10 years, and modified to take an engine. But outside the harbor they rely on sail except in the face of a strong head wind, he said.
Adrian Horridge, an Australian authority on Indonesian sailing ships, has described the predecessors of the present boats:
"Low sterns, graceful schooner bows, and the standard set of seven sails. Carrying mainly timber from Kalimantan to Java, with a full hold, they were so heavily loaded on deck that they crossed the Java Sea with the lee side under water all the way."
Timber on Board
Timber also comes in from the big islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi (the Celebes), and cargoes on the return journey include rice from the abundant paddies of Java, tools, clothing, glass, furniture and other manufactured goods.
In past centuries, the rigs and hulls of Indonesian sailing vessels encompassed an enormous variety. Many were developed on Madura, an island of poor fishermen off the north coast of Java. Larger ships were built by the Bugis, fabled seafarers and mercenaries who lived along the Bay of Bone on Sulawesi.
When ships of European design entered Indonesian waters, the locals adopted their rigging and hull design. Both are seen in the sailing ships at Sunda Kelapa today.
Elegance, Crude Strength
But even these retain an island elegance mixed with crude strength. The broad wooden planks of the hull stand out under a coat of paint, and the bows pitch high above the quay. And among the builders on the outer islands, still making small sailing and cargo boats, mystical and physical symbolism are paid great attention. Horridge writes of the extension of a keel in the Sulawesi tradition:
"A mortise is cut in the end of the keel and a protruding tenon is carved on the extension piece. With great ceremony before all the assembled company of those having an interest in the boat, often using incense and covering his head and the work with a piece of white cloth, the master boat builder places a tiny piece of gold, a leaf, a little rice and a magic spell in the mortise.