Ships of Yore Ply Ancient Trade Routes

Through the shimmering heat, another century comes into focus.

Towering masts, the sweep of a sail, the regal curve of a schooner's prow, and, high above, lines that crisscross like lace against a milky blue sky.

The boats that line Jakarta's Sunda Kelapa port are Indonesian pinisi, modern craft modeled on Western schooners of the 1800s.

Following routes set by their ancestors, pinisi crews navigate Indonesia's clustered islands, loading and unloading cargo on their short trips ashore. On a steamy morning, a long line of docked pinisi stretch into the distance as men working in pairs slowly haul planks of wood from their cargo holds.

Few sounds disturb the still, hot air: the laughter of a woman selling rice at harbor side; a rhythmic creaking as the 200-ton schooners sway gently with the waves; the sudden clap of wood on wood echoing across the water.

Pinisi design has evolved over time, incorporating advances like 10-cylinder Mercedes engines, which give the vessels an average speed of 8 to 12 knots. But the basics haven't changed. They are still made without plans and by hand, using traditional tools and handsaws. Instead of nails, 15-inch ironwood pegs are used to bind the hull below the waterline.

There are about 150 pinisi, all made in the eastern island of Sulawesi. Only a few dozen line the pier at Sunda Kelapa today. The Jarah Agung Samudra is one of the many that lie heavily in the water, pregnant with cargo.

Its hold, which occupies every inch of space below deck, is crammed with 13,000 pounds of maranti, a reddish-colored wood. When fully loaded, pinisi decks are so low they are swamped with water, and cargoes often have to be water-resistant.

A crew of 13 men work slowly and steadily, hoisting planks on their shoulders and moving carefully down the 10-inch-wide gangplank that links the Samudra to the pier.

Most wear rubber flip-flops; some are barefoot. Almost all have made themselves shoulder pads from pieces of cardboard and empty plastic water bottles to soften their load a little. The men work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and earn about $1 a day. The work at port is the difficult part. Moving cargo is dangerous work. If a crew member is injured, he doesn't get paid. But this is the only life many of these men know, and the only life they would have their sons lead.

Baco, wrinkled and tobacco brown from years of salt and sun, is head of labor at Sunda Kelapa port, but he still misses the sea. He began cooking on ships at age 10, and went on to crew pinisi that brought mahogany and teak from the island of Sumatra and returned with rice. Now his sons and their sons ply the waters, and he envies them.

"I know those boats better than I know my wife," he says, smiling. "Maybe that's why she won't let me go back to sea."

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