A "perahu" on the beach

The Boatbuilders

9 May 2014 Finally, after 18 months of preparation, the photographic part of my trip can now finally get under way. This is the second part of a months-long excursion that actually began in 2012. The goal is to cover shipping in the Indonesian archipelago in words and images and to put them together in a book entitled Surabaya Beat in time for the Frankfurt book fair in 2015. To this day, oddly enough, there is very little extant material on this subject.

On a small island east of Java, perahus are still built out of wood in the traditional manner. A perahu, aka prahu or prau, is made of a single tree trunk. It is slender and deep-hulled, with an extra hull on one side to keep it steady on the water, which is why it’s also described as an outrigger. The boats are small, for the most part, and used for fishing and carrying goods. Outrigger boats can be found from the South Pacific and the Indonesian archipelago to Sri Lanka and along the east coast of Africa all the way to Madagascar. They’re always constructed a little differently depending on the kind of wood used, their functional requirements and the craft of the builders.

Perahus are built without any preconceived plan. We meet three older shipbuilders, who work to order, building their perahus from memory and based on their own know-how. Within a month they build small maritime masterpieces, fishing vessels, in this case, sporting a flag and the face of a fish on the prow. But they don’t sail anymore, all perahus are now fitted out with motors. And there aren’t very many boatbuilders at work on the island anymore either. Wood is scarce and ships made of synthetic materials are supplanting a shipbuilding tradition that goes back thousands of years. The shipbuilders know their days are numbered….