A "pinisi" before the days of motorization. Painting by Mike Turusy, Makassar 2002


A pinisi before the days of motorization. Painting by Mike Turusy, Makassar 2002

Was it a smart decision made by the government at the time to motorize by decree all those stately and unique sailing vessels that had been plying the Malaysian archipelago for half a millennium? Had they weighed the pros and cons of such a move and really considered the consequences? Pollution, oil-dependency, hearing damage, intoxication, public health hazards, the loss of one of Indonesia’s most precious cultural assets, to name just a few of the serious drawbacks. Everything goes a little faster now than back in the days when ships were driven by the wind alone, but the goods have become more expensive and the leisurely ways of the past have gone by the board as a result. All things considered, if everything had remained a little slower, it wouldn’t have made any difference?

The decision made in the 1970s to retrofit all the sailing ships – and this made it all the more regrettable – gave the coup de grâce to one of Indonesia’s oldest cultural possessions, the venerable art of sailing. But as Professor Abdul Sheriff, my consultant and co-author of my book Dhau – Beatus Piratus auf Sindbads Spuren (“Dhow – Beatus Piratus on Sindbad’s Tracks”), once said to me: “History is a one-way street!” Only a few of the old salts I’ve met wistfully recall the proud old days when Indonesia boasted the biggest sailing fleet in the world. As recently as 40 years ago, some 4,000 to 5,000 of those ships were still sailing from island to island in the archipelago. But today’s young seamen no longer revere the age-old art of using the wind to reach one’s destination.

During my several months’ journey across the archipelago, I didn’t see any other sailing ships at all. Though word has it there are still a few out there – built and fitted out by foreigners to carry tourists…for $1,000 per person per day.