Pinisi The Indigenous Sailing Craft Of Indonesia Evolving Generations Of Talented Boatbuilders

Pinisi: The Indigenous Sailing Craft of Indonesia Evolving Generations of Talented Boatbuilders

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Pinisi The Indigenous Sailing Craft Of Indonesia Evolving Generations Of Talented Boatbuilders

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Pinisi (also spelled Phinisi, Pinisiq, and Pinissi) is the traditional Indonesian craft of making two-masted sailing ships. In fact, the term “Pinisi” has a twofold meaning as it also refers to the traditional ships, and not solely to the ancient craft of constructing these indigenous vessels.

At the 12th Session of the Unique Cultural Heritage Committee on Dec 7, 2017, the boat building art of Pinisi was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. In particular, Pinisi was designated as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

To be more specific, Pinisi refers to the rig and sail of the “Sulawesi schooner” that has gradually earned global recognition.

The Sulawesi schooners were mainly built by the Konjo tribe. The Konjo tribe is a sub-ethnic group of Bugis-Makassar.

Traditional Konjo Headscarf And Beads “Borana”

Traditional Konjo headscarf and beads “Borana”Image Source

The Bugis-Makassar ethnic group predominantly consists of residents at the Bulukumba regency of South Sulawesi, and hence the name of the schooners – “Sulawesi schooners.”

Embraced by mysterious magic, the millennia-long tradition of the art of Pinisi boat building has greatly evolved in the new centuries. But the foundations of the amazing craft are the same as they used to be centuries ago, evolving generations of talented boatbuilders that carry the ancient wisdom of their ancestors.

Sulawesi: Past, Present, and Future of the Birthplace of the Art of Pinisi Boat Building

Sulawesi Was Formerly Known As Celebes

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Sulawesi was formerly known as Celebes. Sulawesi is an orchid-shaped island in Indonesia. What’s more, Sulawesi is the eleventh largest island in the world. Based on the 2014 census, the population of Sulawesi is 18,455,058 people.

Nevertheless, it is also one of the four Greater Sunda Islands. Within Indonesia, the four Greater Sunda Islands include Borneo, Sumatra, and Papua, along with Sulawesi.

The first settlement of South Sulawesi is dated back to 30 000 BC.

In Central Sulawesi alone, there are 400 granite megaliths, and although their original purpose is still unknown, the mysterious structures are estimated to have been built all the way back to 3000 BC to 1300 AD.

Sulawesi Is Home To More Than 70 Species Of Freshwater Fish

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Sulawesi is home to more than 70 species of freshwater fish, and a stunning 55 of the total of 70 freshwater fish species are endemic to the island.

Tranquil waters, jungles, rare plant and animal species, and exotic food make up just a tiny part of the captivating beauty of Sulawesi.

Knobbed Hornbill A Sulawesi Endemic

Knobbed Hornbill, a Sulawesi endemicImage Source

What forms the unique spirit of this incredible island is the ancient knowledge, traditions, and customs of the native people who have preserved the legacy of their ancestors despite the challenges posed by the modern-day lifestyle.

Video by Best Ever Food Review Show – Bizarre Indonesian Jungle Food! Welcome to EXTREME Indonesian Cooking in North Sulawesi!


Although Pinisi was traditionally built in South Sulawesi, it still continues to be widely used by both the Makassarese and the Buginese when it comes to transportation, fishing, and cargo purposes.

On 28 September 2018, an earthquake and tsunami hit Sulawesi causing tragic devastations by taking away the lives of hundreds of innocent residents.

While the local people are still fighting to recover from the losses and damage, their unbreakable spirit deserves nothing less but the sincere prayers and aid from all the people across the globe who are empathetic with the Sulawesi tragedy.

Video by Guardian News – Apocalyptic scenes in Indonesia after earthquake and tsunami hit Sulawesi


Digging Deeper into the Secrets of Pinisi Boats and Pinisi Boat Builders

Digging Deeper Into The Secrets Of Pinisi Boats And Pinisi Boat Builders

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In order to understand better the amazing craftsmanship involved in the process of constructing and sailing the indigenous Pinisi vessels, we must first look back to the very roots of this unique tradition.

Brief Introduction to the History of Pinisi: How the Art of Indonesian Boat Building was Born

How The Art Of Indonesian Boat Building Was Born

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Historically, the earliest traditional Indonesian ship is the Tanja sail. The tanja sail is a square sail that can still be occasionally found in the eastern parts of Indonesia on fishing boats.

Meanwhile, the lateen sail has been used by Persian, Arab, and Indian sailors since approximately 400 CE. Around 500 CE, the Indonesian sailors had already reached and settled in Madagascar, and by that time, they were regularly trading with China.

Throughout the course of history, the square sail disappeared after the introduction of the schooner by Europeans. It was in the following century afterward that the pinisi as we know it today was invented.

As early as the 14th century, the talented craftsmen of southern Sulawesi were known as highly revered boat builders and sailors. In fact, they were known as pirates and even slave traders, too.

Spending their days on the beach under the big blue skies, the Pinisi craftsmen constructed their indigenous vessels solely by hand, and without the use of any plans or blueprints.

Later on, in 1600 the Dutch sailors also brought the lateen sail on their trips to Indonesia, and the local craftsmen gradually started to incorporate the triangular-shaped lateen sail to their own boats.

There are different stories and theories about the earliest Pinisi boats. One interesting story on that note can be found in Gibson-Hill, C.A., 1953.

In The Origin of the Trengganu Perahu Pinas, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, the story of Sultan Baginda Omar who wanted to have a mighty boat that doesn’t fall behind the most modern western vessels, might point out to the way that the first pinisi (peeneeseek) was born.

As the story goes, the first pinisi (pronounced ‘peeneeseek’) was probably built in the 1840s by a certain French or German beachcomber in Trengganu, Malaysia, who had settled and married a local girl there.

When one day the raja, Sultan Baginda Omar, asked the long-nose to help in building a boat that would be the same as the most modern western vessel, a royal schooner was built; boat and builder -by the name of Martin Perrot- were seen and met by an English captain who anchored in Trengganu in 1846.

Following Malay traditions, this vessel became the prototype for a new class of vessels which were called pinas or penis, probably after the word pinnace, which since the 17th century had referred to a medium-sized, round-sterned sailing vessel.”

For the building of the magnificent Pinisi boats, ironwood and teak have been used for centuries, and that’s for some good reasons.

Ironwood timber is regarded as one of the strongest natural materials on the planet. Teak wood is, nonetheless, famed for its hardiness. Teak timber is capable of resisting all weathers, and therefore, it is one of the most valuable construction materials for vessels (and many other objects, of course).

According to the Buginese Iontara manuscripts, Pinisi were not only used for transport and as a sailing boat but they have also been used as warships.

The earliest Sulawesi Pinisi is believed to have been built by the Ara around 1900 for the Biran captain.

The Pinisi master boat builders changed many of the features of the western schooner, although they also applied many of these in the construction of the Pinisi vessels.

Design, Construction, and Types of Pinisi

Pinisi Boat Building

Pinisi boat buildingImage Source

The hull of the Pinisi vessels looks similar to that of a dhow

Mandvi’s Have A 400 Year Old Tradition Of Dhow Making

Mandvi’s have a 400-year-old tradition of dhow makingImage Source

The dhows are traditionally built vessels that have sailed the seas around the Arabic Peninsula for centuries. Nowadays, the ancient tradition of building dhow is endangered by oblivion, although few dhow shipyards can be still found in Sur, Oman.

Video by Al Jazeera English – Oman: Traditional dhow boats under threat in the Gulf 🇴🇲


Meanwhile, the fore-and-aft rigging of Pinisi vessels highly resembles western schooners. However, it might be more correct to compare this resemblance to a ketch, and that’s because the front mast is actually the larger.

The large mainsails of Pinisi boats do differ from western style gaff rigs. Opposed to the western style gaff rigs, they are often lacking a boom.

Also, the sail is not lowered with the gaff but it is reefed towards the mast. This way, it looks much like a curtain. The fact that it looks like a curtain makes it possible that the gaff can be used as deck crane in the harbor.

When it comes to the lower part of the mast itself, it can often resemble a tripod. If not crafted to resemble a tripod, it can be made of two poles.

Pinisi varies in size but is typically 20 to 35 meters (approximately 65 – 115 feet) long. The weight of Pinisi also varies but generally revolves around 350 tons. The masts can easily reach to 30 meters well above the deck.

It was the schooner rig that was applied to the padewakang hull at first. However, eventually, the faster palari hull was widely used by the sailors instead.

The captain’s room was usually a small cabin that was placed at the stern. Meanwhile, almost the entire hull is cargo room. The Pinisi crew would usually sleep either on the deck or in the cargo room.

It wasn’t before the 1930s, that Pinisi sailing ships upgraded to a new type of sail – the nade sail. The nade sail was created from sloops and cutters that were used by Western pearl seekers, as well as small traders in Eastern Indonesia.

Pearl hunting (also referred to as pearl diving) is intricately related to the Indonesian history. According to a study compiled by the archeologists, Nicole Smith-Guzman and Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the skulls of ancient pearl divers possess “abnormal ear canal growths” known as “surfer’s ear” because of the long time spent in cold waters.

Video by Nat Geo Wild – Formation of a Pearl | Secret Life of Pearls


There are several important parts in the art of crafting traditional Pinisi vessels. These parts are still referred to by their original Buginese names.

Art Of Crafting Traditional Pinisi Vessels

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  1. Anjungan (“front deck”)
  2. Anjong (“balancing triangle” that is located at the front deck)
  3. Tanpasere (“small sail” that is triangular in shape and located at each mast)
  4. Sombala (“main sail” which is the largest sail of the Pinisi vessels)
  5. Tarengke (“row additional sail”)
  6. Cocoro pantara (“front additional sail”)
  7. Cocoro tangnga (“middle additional sail”)

Astonishing & Little-Known Facts about the Pinisi

Tana Beru Sulawesi Island Pinisi Building

Tana Beru, Sulawesi Island, Pinisi buildingImage Source

Even though modern chainsaws have started to be largely used in the crafting of Pinisi boats nowadays, the process is still divinely laborious, meticulous, and done exclusively by hand.

It is based on the look and the feel of each type of wood that the Pinisi boat builders complete the meticulous process.

Traditionally, barely is there a single nail or metal bolt that enter the Pinisi. Instead, the accumulated knowledge of the boat builders allows them to seal and fasten the Pinisi through the use of only natural products.

A large Pinisi can take a whole year to be constructed but patience is an extremely valuable part of the process. Since the knowledge regarding Pinisi boat building is passed on from one generation to the next, the master boat builders skip the hurry in favor of quality.

According to the Sulawesi Pinisi building traditions, only a total of five people can get involved in the construction process simultaneously. The natives believe that crowds of laborers can reduce the art value of the Pinisi.

As mentioned earlier in this article, Pinisi craftsmen do not use any sketches or plans. Even in the absence of such, they manage to create vessels that can withstand strong storms and waves. The basic wood material used for building the Pinisi vessels is said to only become stronger when exposed to seawater.

A special ceremony celebrates the completion of a Pinisi. It is then that the craftsmen await for the highest of tides and rely on the largest number of hands to help launch the vessel into her voyage.

The Modern-Day Evolution of Pinisi Construction

The Modern Day Evolution Of Pinisi Construction

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It was in the 1970s that more and more Pinisi got equipped with engines. As a result, this favored the use of lambo hull.

Ever since the introduction of engines to the Pinisi vessels, the sails are often removed as they only complemented the engine. However, some vessels retained the masts. These particular type of ships are known as  Motorized Sailing Vessels (Perahu Layar Motor – PLM )

Due to the fact that the masts gradually became shorter because of the installed engine, the sails are only used in favorable winds.

During the following years, the cargo capacity of Pinisi also increased to approximately 300 tons. 

Larger ships used pinisi rig while medium-sized ships used nade sails.

In 2011 an incredibly large Pinisi has been successfully completed in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi. Its tonnage is estimated at the spectacular 500 tons, being 50 meters long and 9 meters wide.

Nowadays, Pinisi continues to be built for both international clients who desire to explore the genuine beauty of Indonesia’s islands and coral reefs from a live-aboard luxurious boat, as well as for fellow Indonesian merchants.

Video by UNESCO – Pinisi, art of boatbuilding in South Sulawesi


The Indigenous Indonesian Craft of Pinisi Boat Building and Sailing: Final Food for Thought

Final Food For Thought 5

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There is a traditional Indonesian saying that goes like this: Jadilah seperti padi, semakin berisi semakin merunduk. It is roughly translated into “In life, the more knowledge you have, the better it is to be more humble than arrogant” which can be associated with the saying “Be like a rice plant: the heavier it contains, the more it bows.”

The indigenous Indonesian craft of Pinisi boat building and sailing is intricately connected to the wisdom and the millennia-old traditions of the local people, who highly respect the virtue of modesty. This can be seen in the way they managed to upgrade the traditional design of the magnificent Pinisi boats by getting inspired by the European vessels but without sacrificing the uniqueness of their laborious craft.

If there’s anyone who can explain best what it means to be a Pinisi boat builder with depth and most sincere emotion, it is none other but a master Pinisi boat builder.

As a part of a short documentary video dedicated to the art of Pinisi boat building and directed by MUDFISH Portraits, Muhammad Haji Djafar, a master boat builder, explains what it means to be spiritually and culturally connected to the ancient craft all the way down to the bones.

Video by MUDFISH Portraits – Muhammad Haji Djafar, master boat builder, Indonesia. [2016] 10 03min


We can say that my knowledge of building boats start before I was born. Because like my ancestors, in my body and spirit, I am a boat. This is my heritage, blood, flesh, and bones – I’m a boat builder,”

“When we start to build a boat, first we place the keel. In this occasion we give a ceremony, we have a special man who does the first sculpting and conducts a ritual pray for goodwill,”

Gold is a precious and noble metal. Placing a piece of gold in the navel of the boat, it’s symbolic. It’s a talisman of good hope for the boat and its crew. In the navel under the gold, there is a piece of steel. The steel symbolizes the strength of the boat builders and the boat itself. In the past, our intention was to give good hope. Nowadays, some people seem to have forgotten about it, but not me,”

Nowadays, many foreigners come here, and we build boats for them, but they don’t follow our old rituals. If you have an old bloodline like me, you would still follow these rituals. Because in the past our ancestors did it this way. I’ve no education, but I’ve got skills to build boats. I know how to build a ship, and that’s why up to today, even though I am an old man, I’ve got something precious to share.”

Muhammad Haji Djafar

And what is the precious thing you want to share and leave behind? In a world driven by the fast pace of life, it has become more important than ever to turn our minds and hearts towards the ancient traditions that point out to Universal wisdom that never fades away – just like the beauty and joy of working wood.