English-born marine anthropologist and architect Michael Johnson spends a lot of time at Probolinggo harbor on the north coast of East Java, just messing about in boats – or to be more technical, studying their construction.
When the fleet is in, the wharves are stern-to-bow with multicolored fishing craft offloading their catch or taking on ice and stores for another sea venture.
"This is a sight I used to see as a teenager when I was apprenticed to a boat-builder in Yarmouth, Cornwall," he said.
"No longer. The fish stocks have been depleted and boats now are all made of fiberglass and steel. The old skills used in making wooden boats have just about been lost."
Though not in Indonesia, where keen-eyed craftsmen who can wield an adze and cut a seaworthy craft out of forest timber with all curves in the right places are still gainfully employed.
This is the workforce that Dr Daniel Rosyid, head of the Center of Marine Studies at Surabaya's Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS) hopes can be used to create a new industry making practical and luxury boats for the overseas market.
Rosyid, who is also chairman of the East Java Educational Council, has formed a company called PT Teknologi Kapal Kayu Indonesia (Indonesian wooden boat technology) with Johnson as technical advisor. They've established a yard at Probolinggo, just 500 metres from the harbor.
Here they are already sawing, chipping and boring the keels and planks. On the order books are boats for French naval architect Francois Vivier - a 9.7-meter traditional gaff cutter, two 4-meter lug-rigged rowing and sailing boats, and a 7.8-meter classic yacht. Vivier is based in Pornichet, South Brittany.
Other projects under development include a 12-meter twin-screw sport fishing or service vessel, and a pilot cutter. This is a replica of a 1901 Norwegian lifeboat. A boat reconstruction project in Kalimantan is also being supervised.
Two wooden fisheries training vessels built for the Bupati (regent) of Jembrana in Bali have already been delivered. These were constructed in a yard in Surabaya, but the high cost of renting land near deep water has forced the company to move to Probolinggo where costs are a fraction of those in the East Java capital.
Although Surabaya is the Republic's second largest port and a major ship construction center, the government shipyard PT PAL dominates the industry. This specializes in large steel-hulled vessels, mainly for the navy.
Probolinggo is a commercial fishing boat harbor used by smaller timber craft, many built according to remembered designs passed down through the generations.
Tied up in the Probolinggo harbor is the Robert Guillemard. This is a 16.5-meter
West Sulawesi-style boat known as a bago lambo - a general purpose vessel using wind and diesel power. (Guillemard was the French sniper who shot and killed the English admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.)
Johnson designed and built it for Paris-based TV journalist Gregoire Deniau who allegedly failed to continue payments after spending about 85,000 Euros (Rp 1,000 million) on construction and fittings.
Rosyid has now put the 15-ton ocean-going eight-berth boat on the market for 60,000 Euros (Rp 720 million) hoping it will attract buyers in the leisure and diving market, and further promote Indonesian know-how.
"I want to set up a world-class boat building facility in Probolinggo," said Rosyid. "There's a niche market here where buyers of custom-made yachts and other pleasure craft are particular about quality and originality. It's similar to the market for hand-built sports cars.
"We're also well located close to Malaysia, Thailand and India where new money is looking for recreation opportunities.
"We can build yachts to international Bureau Veritas certification standards at a fraction of the price they would cost elsewhere – always assuming yards overseas could find the workers and the timber."
Europeans are sensitive to buying wooden products from Indonesia unless they can be certified as sourced from timber that hasn't been illegally logged.
Johnson has bought teak from Madura and found a good supply of ten-year old agathis, a timber similar to kauri pine.
"Yards in Europe charge out labor for 40 euros (Rp 500,000) an hour," Johnson said. "We cost at the equivalent of four euros – and are paying the men well above local rates.
"Students from ITS have been involved in projects, including designing and building canoes for use in Aceh by in-shore fishermen. Now they can get experience on bigger and more complex projects.
"A lot of skills were lost in Europe during World War II but they are still here. The men only need to be trained how to work from computer-generated drawings and to use modern power tools. They understand the rest."
(First published in The Jakarta Post 2 August 2007)