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Visit to Indonesia

By James Wharram

Looking out, as I write this, at the swans floating in our quiet Restronguet Creek, it seems odd to think that two weeks ago, in a three week visit, I was climbing the mountain temple of Borobudur in Java to be shown the stone carvings of the great outrigger ships that sailed in Indonesian and Indian waters at the same time as my Viking ancestors (some of them) were beginning their great voyaging era. But Indonesia does not seem far away, for it has become an intimate part of my life’s pattern.

I, with Hanneke’s help, was invited to be one of the six overseas speakers at the Small Craft and Design Conference organised by ITS, the Technical University of Surabaya, on the 5th and 6th of July. The six speakers included two naval architects from Newcastle University, one from the Wolfson institute of Southampton; Roger Johnson from France, master shipwright, prolific writer in Le Chasse-Marée and Colin Jack-Hinton, amongst other things founder of the Darwin Maritime museum and founder of the Darwin-Ambon yacht race. Plus splendid Indonesian speakers. The subject of the two-day conference was possible future developments of Indonesia’s vast fleets of wooden workboats and the superb woodworkers that build them.

Indonesia, which is an ‘Island Continent’, has gone through some hard times in recent years. She still has problems, but in Indonesia is an exciting movement of people who want to move their country forward.

One way forward is the appreciation and development of their sea-resources. That’s what the conference was about, that is how JWD is ending up building boats in Indonesia. We were first provisionally ‘head-hunted’ for development of sea-ideas and sailing tourism when we sailed to Indonesia aboard Spirit of Gaia in 1997. We also had contacts at the time with the commercial section of the Indonesian Embassy in London.

James and locals in a ship yard
PT PAL, Indonesia - James on deck of one of the patrol boats in for repair in discussion with the management. Another patrol boat is in the background.
Roger, Daniel and James in hard hats
PT PAL, Indonesia - Roger Johnson, Dr Daniel Rosyid (Vice Rector ITS) and James.

In 2000, when developing the 65-ft (19.8 m) Islander design, a Catamaran Workboat for the Pacific, the question was: where best to build? The network of past and present contacts drew us and Indonesia together for potential building of boats of the Islander class by PT PAL, the naval/commercial dockyard in Surabaya, Java.

The key man in this Indonesian connection is Dr Daniel Rosyid, who is Vice-Rector of ITS, head of the Naval Architect Post Graduate Department, who has the laudable aim of developing naval architects who are not just computer geniuses working on huge projects, but who can work alongside and with traditional boat builders and be prepared to learn from them. He believes that naval architects with extra ground based practical knowledge are better naval architects.

When Dr Rosyid drove us from the University Campus through the bustling streets of Surabaya to PT PAL, we were not quite prepared for what awaited us. Driving through the gates, one enters another world of clean naval, well-ordered efficiency. PT PAL is a major commercial/naval dockyard. We, Hanneke and I, were introduced to the management group, and guided around their Wooden Boat Building Section for our inspection (see photos following). We saw there fast wooden patrol boats that they built with superb wooden boat building skills (by chance, in my youth, I had worked on similar MTB type of boats at Thornycroft’s Hampton Launch Works in Britain, so I was able to judge and compare.

The important men in yacht construction are the men that handle the tools. So we were introduced to the foreman boatbuilder (no white hat but a blue overall, see photo). He had spent six years working in a German boatyard, spoke German so I could converse with him; even better: he and Hanneke could converse quickly through sketch drawings.

The yard was good, the machinery was good, the wood stacks neat, the timber -Teak and Meranti - excellent, the resin and paint was kept in a special refrigerated room, the head worker good.

James signing a document
Signing the Memorandum of Understanding.
Outrigger canoe with blue crabclaw sail
Madura - double outrigger canoe with crabclaw sail.

The yard is ready to build Islander Designs. After touring Madura, the big island close to Java for possible yacht charter sites and speaking at the symposium, Hanneke and I were eventually taken back to the dockyard to officially sign a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’. At this visit to PT PAL we were taken on a Friday morning (the Muslim Holy Day) to a large conference room full of Notables to be greeted, amongst others, by the Minister of Research and Technology, Dr. A.S. Hikam, by the Rector of ITS, Prof Ir Soegiono and the President-Director of PT PAL, Adwin H Suryohadiprojo.

After private discussion, speeches made, and a blessing of the project by the Imam (blessed by the Imam on Friday shows how serious the Indonesians take this Memorandum), we publicly signed a document with PT PAL and ITS to cooperate on building three Islander classes, the Islander 65, the Islander 55 and Islander 39 for the general public, and that I would be working on other development projects with ITS.

I believe the importance of this ceremony to the Marine-minded Indonesians is that they are moving on from past attitudes to re-evaluate and develop their own abilities and resources in wooden craft construction. For us, this Memorandum of Understanding means that we can continue to professionally built boats to the ideals of beauty and practical ability that we established with our own Wharram Built firm from 1987 to 1992.

Effectively, PT PAL will be the prime wood/epoxy yard of JWD, setting the standards of beautiful wooden structures that we began in 1987-1992 with ‘Wharram Built’. I look forward to the design opportunities available. Contact JWD for orders!

- James Wharram