There’s a scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where the heroine, Elizabeth Swan, realises she isn’t afraid of pirates and actually wants to be one… I can relate. There are tales of wicked pirates, mutinies, and terrible acts of mayhem, but I prefer the more romantic version of swarthy, swashbuckling, adventurers, free to explore the world one ocean at a time.
This is why I love the phinisi boats, reminiscent of the pirate ships of old, with stories and adventures if only their timber floors, two masts and seven sails could talk. Phinisi boats are designed for skimming through the Indonesian waters, with sails and masts made from Ulin or Iron wood, and with flat bottoms rather than keels which allows them to get very close to islands, and during the right tides, to sail over the coral and jagged rocks below.
They are thought to be a combination of Chinese junks and Dutch galleons with influences from the Portugese and the Bugis who sailed the seas around Indonesia, following the spice roads and early explorers and settlers to the archipelago. Traditionally they had sails but as demands for quicker service and more cargo grew they transitioned to engines, which were subsidised by the government. While it changed the integrity of the traditional design, it was a commercial success allowing for faster and better business.
Just recently, I got to meet Dick Bergsma the founder of Sea Trek, a company that runs sailing tours on two stunning phinisi boats. Ever since the beauty of the traditional phinisi boats captivated Dick, he has been fulfilling his passion for travel by sailing the Indonesian waters. He first set sail in 1976 with his wife and hoped to get aboard a phinisi to sail the seas in search of adventure. He soon learnt about the deeply held superstitions of boat crews, who wouldn’t take a husband and wife as passengers as it was considered bad luck. He managed to convince one boat captain that his wife was actually his sister, and they were finally allowed on board. The suspicious crew were all very interested to see what would happen between the ‘brother and sister’ in the close confines of the cabin, however Dick was aware of watchful eyes and kept right away from his wife!
After spending time on the boat and the island, Dick and his wife returned to Holland where a plan was slowly being hatched. He placed an ad in the local newspaper for people to join a cruise in Indonesia and he went to Surabaya to find a boat. It is was a huge gamble that paid off, as he was able to acquire a boat to take passengers on his first tour, at cost, just so he could entice people to the concept. They slept outside on mattresses under the stays and had a very simple room for cooking and dining indoors should the weather stop them being outside.
Dick tells a funny story about a trade expo held in Vancouver in 1986. Phinisi Nusantara was built and sailed to Vancouver to show off Indonesia’s incredibly talented boat builders. They had traditional dancers on board as they sailed into port with much fanfare, and the Indonesian boat was enthusiastically introduced to everyone watching and waiting. The boat was very well received, the builders celebrated, but with no plans for the boat after the expo, it was put on the market with the hope that it would be the start of the phinisi boat business outside Indonesia. Unfortunately however the boat did not meet the stricter maritime regulations in Canada, and was not allowed to sail back to Indonesia. Instead, much to everyone’s dismay, the exquisitely constructed boat had to be pulled apart and shipped back in pieces instead.
Upon return in Indonesia Dick chartered the ameliorated Phinisi Nusantara until 1989 when it got its well-deserved place of honour in the Maritime Museum in Jakarta.
Dick was undeterred, and continued to build Sea Trek by taking on other boats and creating a different, more authentic sailing experience for those seeking a more adventurous holiday cruise. The business attracted more and more attention as a holiday with a difference, a way to see Indonesia from the ocean and learn more about the people in that area. Today Sea Trek is a successful tour and cruise operator, and while Dick is not actively involved anymore, as founder, he enjoys visiting and seeing the business that grew out of his passion for sailing the seas.
The phinisi boats have an incredible history so we will be continuing this story in the coming week with more information from Dick plus interviews with other phinisi boat lovers. If you have a story about these beautiful boats, or images of the beautiful phinisi boats based in Flores, please send them through so we can feature them in the next part of the phinisi boat series.