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The ultimate Indonesian explorer
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The ultimate Indonesian explorer

Camper & Nicholsons
17th March 2020

The hand-built Indonesian schooner Sequoia has given its American owner memories to last a lifetime. “Swimming with whale sharks off Kaimana was pretty spectacular.” It was 6am when his yacht came across these 20-ton mammals on Papua’s western tip, where emerald rainforest meets a peppermint sea. “Although on most mornings we’ll see mantas with 3m-wingspans cruising below our hull, with a feeding station of minor fish along for the ride.”

“I’ve read that Indonesia hosts several of the world’s top ten dive spots,” says the owner. “Raja Ampat is number one, Komodo Island is number two, while the island of Sulawesi, where Sequoia was built, is in fourth place.” Fortunately the 26m-long yacht hosts its own PADI dive centre. Although there’s one serious problem. “Indonesia has 18,000 islands,” explains the owner. “So if you dived one per day, you’d need 50 years to see them all.”

The rationale for constructing a vessel capable of island-hopping the Indonesian archipelago may seem obvious. “However, as people have said before me, there's just nothing like the feeling of a wooden boat anywhere in the world.”

A more compelling reason pushes foreigners to build boats upon Sulawesi’s golden sands. Indonesia is a closed maritime registry. If you require the luxury of a wine cellar and outdoor cinema, sited on tropical seas that stretch the distance from Dublin to Dubai, you need to build your own private yacht. “Don’t forget that this is where people first learned to sail before they colonised the Pacific. So in one place, you have the best boatbuilders and the most incredible ironwood (an ultra-strong tropical species used to construct hammers, pilings, blowpipes, railway sleepers and indestructible hulls).”

Such positive factors don’t make boatbuilding a cinch. Far from it. “As many foreigners and Indonesians will tell you, the shipyards of Sulawesi are pretty much the Wild West.” On local beaches traditional phinisi schooners rise like whale ribs.
When complete, each vessel is hauled by hand into the Banda Sea by teams of 50 men. Littered alongside are abandoned carcasses of wooden hulls, after owners bailed on their million-dollar investments. “When building Sequoia we were very cautious,” says her owner. “To keep track on progress we invested many months living nearby. Yet it still took four years from laying her keel until launch.”

Furthermore, Sequoia’s layout is necessarily unique. The traditional phinisi built on Sulawesi, which have accrued positive headlines in yachting journals, were deemed too big for more boutique charter groups. “Also, navigating those 250 ton boats through fragile reefs is not a trivial accomplishment,” says the owner. Instead Sequoia fills a “sweet spot” in the Indonesian charter market with three luxuriously appointed suites, each one finished using local hardwood and cool organic fabrics.
“After all,” says her owner, “most charter groups comprise an intimate family or party of good friends.”

Sequoia’s design is more akin to a traditional orembai schooner built on the ‘spice islands’ of the Moluccas, the island chain due east of Sulawesi. These nimble sailboats once shipped nutmeg and cloves, and more recently lobster and pearls, to markets in Jakarta, a three-day sail away. “At 100 tons we’re not the biggest boat,” concedes her owner. “But we are the most sophisticated. And as our draft is a mere 2m, we can cross reefs to reach the most intimate beaches.” Here guests may revel in hikes to volcanic peaks guarded by macaque monkeys and flying foxes.
Or indulge in blowout picnics of prawn sambal and otak-otak fish bites packed into a banana leaf.

Building safety into the blueprint was another key factor. As the owner admits, “I can’t attract clients to go on a boat unless it’s up to American or European standards.” This meant importing every technical component, including the main engine, fascinating hardware, generators, navigation, anchoring, sails and propulsion systems, then installing them aboard a traditional sailing craft whose lines have changed little in 500 years. Sequoia was built to conform to United States Coast Guard safety standards. “We know of no other boat in Indonesia built this way.”

Guest expectations added further costs. “When you’re sailing on a hand-built wooden yacht there’s an expectation that engine smoke, generator noise or sanitation plumbing should be entirely absent. So that’s how we built it.” Fulfilling such sentiment meant investing in Tier 2 and Tier 3 Environmental Protection Agency standards in terms of engine emissions. For her owner the cost was “well worth it from an environmental and emissions standpoint”. Other conscious ecological decisions have been the elimination of all single use plastics.

After four years, was Sequoia worth the investment? “Now that many people realise they can be as comfortable at the edge of the earth as at home, the possibilities are endless. And far as the tropical seas are concerned, we enjoy sailing through some of the most sensitive, beautiful, pristine marine sanctuaries in the world.”

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