The boats of Indonesia

The boats of Indonesia

I have been observing the functional beauty and local diversity of fishing boats all across the Pacific and now Indian Ocean. The Mexican Panga, the bow riders of Tahiti and the Tongan boats all made use of basic marine design and engineering without knowing it replacing CAD software with time honored skill.

None have struck my interest like the spectacular boats of Indonesia. Here form follows beauty. The sleek, low hulls glide through the water with ultimate efficiency. Watching an Indonesian fishing boat slice through the water I see a hull only a highly skilled marine architect with the latest tools could produce. Yet they are built with hand tools, no drawn plans and by uneducated craftsmen.

The basic design is a low profile, sweeping sheer boat with a fine entry falling back to a full keel. Water line length is long and resistance is minimal. The topsides are low and styled like a vintage 50’s American car, sloping wrap around windows distinguish the cabin.

Many are painted in eye catching colors usually found in a Latino parking lot; purples, pinks and vivid pastels. Often decorated with flags and banners it is obvious these boats hold a dear place in the Indonesian heart.

The power varies just as designs do from island to island. We found many with hand crank, single cylinder diesel engines circa WWII. You can hear them start with the put put put that soon turns into a loud rhythm with a puff of smoke as they fire up. Once started the direct drive sends the boat scooting along the water.

The power of other boats comes from a bizarre contraption that looks like a giant weed whacker. It attaches a small motor, usually gasoline, to one long propeller shaft. No transmission, no gears, no reverse, no neutral. The motor is started by a pull string and when propulsion is needed the shaft is lowered into the water, when “neutral” is needed it is simply lifted out of the water and spins in the air until. We later saw a large diesel version used on the Jawa fishing boats.

Along with the traditional fishing boats which usually measure 30 to 40 feet we saw spectacular massive vessels now used in the lucrative livaboard dive industry. These boats ran over a hundred feet and rose from the water like pirate galleons of days gone by.

The designs incorporated a long flaring bow witch joined a massive bow sprit. The forward deck area is low and large then the superstructure rises just past midship to several floors of cabins giving the boat a silhouette reminiscent of Aro Flynn movies, truly fantastic.

The boat use and hull shapes changed from island to island reminding us of Indonesian history. This long chain of diverse islands has only been a unified country since WWII. The cultures, religions and even boat designs distinguish which island you are on. Jawa boats, Java boats, Bali boats and Sumatra boats all have a unique look.

I was particularly drawn to the Jawa fishing boats. The were painted in bright, I mean Mardi Gras, San Francisco Gay Pride Parade bright colors. Their functional long net poles were decorated with flags and banners. Each night when they put putted by I took notice.

Troy had the rare opportunity to join a Jawa boat for an all night fishing trip, I was jealous yet not sure I wanted to spend 18 hours at sea in this level of primitive- Furthur does spoil you. I encouraged him to go and report back. The next day he returned a bit stiff and tired but richer for the experience. He told how they lay out a long net, sleep on the open decks till pre dawn and then hand pull in the catch, laughing and talking all the way.

While Troy was at sea I took the girls to the early morning, 0600, open market. While wondering around I ran into a bunch of guys on a rather weary example of the long swept back style boat I mentioned. They were all watching two guys pounding on a boat part. They saw my interest and without reservation invited me aboard. I was offered smokes, food and tea, I took the tea, which was very very sweet. The one guy was working on the head of the single cylinder diesel. They were all laughing and having a good time, which seems hard as I learned their engine had a cracked block. Usually this would be a death sentence for such a craft but I am sure they fixed it somehow and went on. Later that day when my Honda outboard failed and I could not fix it I thought of my new friends. Rather than throw a hissy fit just laughed and went on.

I have learned so many lessons from the Indonesian people and their boats. Beauty follows form, simple is better; take pride in your boat but not too much. Every time I went aboard an Indonesian boat I showed genuine admiration and this bonded me to them. We were not separate people from separate lands, we were not Muslim and Christian, brown and white, rich or poor, we were lovers of boats.


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