Author Archives: Beat Presser

A ship in the making

Boatbuilding in Bira, Sulawesi

4 June 2014

We arrive in Makassar punctually on 4 June, after sailing from Tarasu via Bira and Tanaberu. Pinisis are being built at both those places. They’re such imposing structures, I feel as though I were standing in front of several Noah’s Arks! In Bira they’re building five giant 60m pinisis ordered by a Malaysian Chinese entrepreneur. Not all the other boatbuilders in Bira and Tanaberu are thrilled about this. All the wood is being used to build these five and another four planned ships, the Chinaman is monopolizing everything, paying exorbitant prices for the wood, leaving nothing for the other boatbuilders to use for months. Spiteful tongues amongst them even hope a pinisi or two might get out of hand on its maiden voyage and end up like the Titanic.

I can’t judge the situation, but I am amazed at the sheer dimensions of these five vessels. I descend into the bowels of one, which is an undertaking not wholly devoid of danger: down inside the ship the men are sawing and hammering away, drilling and fitting, as well as brewing coffee and smoking kretek cigarettes. The whole scene strikes me as a self-enclosed little world unto itself.

Spirits are low in Tanaberu, too. At present, unlike my first visit, only a few ships are now under construction. There just isn’t much to do around here anymore. We blame it on what’s going on in Bira, take our seats on the bus and ride to Makassar – just in time for the Makassar International Writers Festival. Four hours after pulling into town, I’m standing on stage there presenting our Surabaya Johnny book project. It all came about straight out of the blue! Just a few hours before, I’d met with Lily Yulianti Farid, the director of the festival, briefly explained the project to her and told her I’d come to the festival on a pinisi and was looking for Indonesian writers to provide articles for the planned book.

The "Sinar Harapan" sailing at full speed

With Captain Yukri en route from Larantuka to Tarasu

22 May 2014. Beat Presser reporting:

We’re to be at the Sinar Harapan at 9am sharp on Wednesday, said Captain Yukri, as he glanced up from the chessboard and beamed at me: he had just checkmated me. Yukri is the youngest captain I’ve met so far. Only 28 years old and already for four years captain of the Sinar Harapan, built in 1980 in Tanaberu, on which he regularly carries merchandise from Flores to Sulawesi on behalf of an owner in Makassar. The ship’s hold is empty today, we’re going to head north without any goods on board. Due to strong currents and unpredictable winds, however, our departure is put off to late afternoon.

A good opportunity to stroll down the pier, where I meet Captain Nidun, with whom I sailed a year and a half ago from Bonerate to Larantuka. It’s a merry reunion, which we celebrate with a bottle of Guinness. I show him the photos I took of him and his crew on his pinisi: he’s thrilled and wants to look at the pictures again and again on the iPad and is sad that we’re not sailing to Makassar with him, having made arrangements with Yukri instead.

But Yukri isn’t bound for Makassar after all. Hardly has he raised anchor – shortly before dawn – and set the sails when he apprises us we’re not heading to Makassar, but to Tarasu. Tarasu? We consult the detailed map. Tarasu, aka “Seven-Seven”, 140 km away from our original destination. Doesn’t matter, I tell him. The port lies inland, which means we’ll have to sail upriver. That’s bound to make for some beautiful and unusual pictures! Shortly before Tarasu, however, we run aground.…

Antonius Bataona on his "perahu"

Antonius Bataona

22 May 2014. Beat Presser reporting:

We’re to be at the Sinar Harapan at 9am sharp on Wednesday, said Captain Yukri, as he glanced up from the chessboard and beamed at me: he had just checkmated me. Yukri is the youngest captain I’ve met so far. Only 28 years old and already for four years captain of the Sinar Harapan, built in 1980 in Tanaberu, on which he regularly carries merchandise from Flores to Sulawesi on behalf of an owner in Makassar. The ship’s hold is empty today, we’re going to head north without any goods on board. Due to strong currents and unpredictable winds, however, our departure is put off to late afternoon.

A good opportunity to stroll down the pier, where I meet Captain Nidun, with whom I sailed a year and a half ago from Bonerate to Larantuka. It’s a merry reunion, which we celebrate with a bottle of Guinness. I show him the photos I took of him and his crew on his pinisi: he’s thrilled and wants to look at the pictures again and again on the iPad and is sad that we’re not sailing to Makassar with him, having made arrangements with Yukri instead.

But Yukri isn’t bound for Makassar after all. Hardly has he raised anchor – shortly before dawn – and set the sails when he apprises us we’re not heading to Makassar, but to Tarasu. Tarasu? We consult the detailed map. Tarasu, aka “Seven-Seven”, 140 km away from our original destination. Doesn’t matter, I tell him. The port lies inland, which means we’ll have to sail upriver. That’s bound to make for some beautiful and unusual pictures! Shortly before Tarasu, however, we run aground.…

I Wayan Gusti writing his blog post

Guest author I Wayan Gusti writes:

14. Mai 2014

Beat Presser has asked me to continue for a little while the blog he’s already started up: he’s too busy making preparatory arrangements for the voyage, testing underwater cameras and so on, and also wants to learn Indonesian – a pointless undertaking, if you ask me! I’ve been following Beat’s photographic work for some time and I think very highly of it, so I was delighted to take him up on the offer. The first thing I wanted to find out was how a fellow who grew up hemmed in by mountains in landlocked Switzerland ended up going to sea.

When he was a boy, his father built a motorboat in the garage, on which the family would cruise up and down the Rhine on weekends and spend their summer holidays on one of the many Swiss lakes. At 14 he got his skipper’s licence and at 19 took a ride on a Sudanese packet ship from Assuan to Khartoum. Two months later he crossed the Indian Ocean for the first time in his life, from Mombasa, Kenya, to Bombay (now Mumbai), on a refugee ship carrying 3,000 Pakistanis and Indians who had to flee Uganda under the tyranny of Idi Amin. Whilst still training in photography, he took a few months off in 1975 and signed on to the crew of various sailing vessels on the Atlantic. After that trip, if not before, it was clear to him: whenever possible, put to sea!

And in 2009/2010 Beat Presser got another chance to go to sea, covering a story about shipping on traditional Dhaus along the East African coast. In a few days he’ll be packing up his few possessions and shipping out once again. Then he can resume writing his own posts for the logbook.

As for myself, I’m from Indonesia, and believe it or not I can’t swim, nor do I venture out to sea at all. I leave that to the brave!

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….

(Deutsch) PEPITA und JIRI NOVOTNY im Gespräch mit BEAT PRESSER. Frühjahr 2010

Sorry, this entry is only available in German.