Chapter 4 - ship-building in Bira - for your inner boat geek
Our Wicked Diving expedition from Bira to Sorong will be on a beautiful wooden boat called the "Jaya".
The Jaya was built in Bira and, after many trips round Indonesia, Komodo and Thailand, they've brought it back home to the experts for repairs and renovations.
As Wicked say on their website, she combines the beauty of tradition with modern safety additions:
"She is an expedition boat. From her rather shallow keel to her fully functional sails and rigging. She has already travelled far and wide having done surfing safaris along the wild coasts of Sumatra to dive site exploration in the Spice Islands. She is a rugged boat built to take nearly any condition. Having been built to the same exacting standards that the Bugis traders of Sulawesi have been doing for hundreds of year she is not only functional but beautiful. Solid Teak and Ironwood make her strong and reliable, but it does not mean we overlook safety! Radar, depth finder, GPS, Satellite phone, Emergency beacons and more."
A few days later, when I'm trying to sleep on the deck in a massive storm, checking I know where the nearest lifejackets are and how to get to the lifeboats from my mattress, I try to remind myself of the above. And am much ridiculed the next day by everyone else who slept through it. "Rough? No, rough is when the waves are lashing over where you were sleeping and you are told to go back to your room and close the door!" giggles Prue.
So, I am lucky enough to visit the Bira ship-building area twice - once with Alain, when we see the smaller boats, and once with the Wicked Diving group, where we see a couple of massive boats.
Having grown up on the Wirral, my image of ship-building is associated with the big industrial Camel Lairds shipyard in Birkenhead, on the river Mersey which was the most polluted river in Europe when I was a lass. As you can see above, things are slightly different here.
During my visit with Alain to James' boat, he explains that they use a very hard wood which they now have to import from Borneo because they have used up the local wood supplies. The wood is so dense that it actually sinks in water. (Doesn't sound like an ideal material for making a boat, thinks I.)
He says most of their boats only last between 10 and 15 years, partly because the wood does really need to be cared for properly, and often isn't. I suggest this might be by design so that they need to keep building more, and keep people in work, and he agrees this may well be the case. After seeing the razed rainforests in Northern Borneo a couple of years ago, and the vast expanses of palm oil plantations catering for our increasing need for processed foods, it worries me to think that even this seemingly eco-friendly industry is also causing unsustainable deforestation.
Alain's been doing a lot of research and working with a local boat architect to plan his boat so that it will be more robust and built to last.
Although the wood is very high density and sinks in water, it is perfect for making a very robust structure which can withstand the hammering the tropical storms can dole out. It's so hard that you can't even drive a nail into it, so they have to drill holes and use wooden plugs to join pieces together. To bend it, they heat it and bend it slowly. In Alain's view, and who am I to question, it is not a good idea to use hardwood for the whole structure - it's best to combine it with another lighter wood, so that's what he's planning for his boat.
He explains that the technique here is completely different to Europe. This is where my ship-building vocab is going to fail me, but basically it was something about the Bira ship builders building the skin of the hull first and then putting in the rib-like structure afterwards, whereas in Europe you would build the ribs first and then add on the hull. A skill which has clearly been passed down through the generations.
All really fascinating, and such fun to have a personal guided tour and visit a boat in construction, still covered in wood shavings and with gaping holes where they plan to put the engine etc.
The next day, with the Wicked Diving group, we visit a site which has two much larger boats (picture above), and see how they slowly, inch by inch, using a big wooden structure and moving sandbags around, lower the boats into the water.
In case you want more info, here are a couple of links:
www.wickeddiving.com - click on expeditions and read about the Jaya