It really was a bold idea… One that was conceived and then nurtured during extensive travels across the vast archipelago that is Indonesia. And much like other great ideas it was quite simple in concept, but required several things to come together in concert for it to become a reality.
The year was 1999 and Enrique Rubio, the founder of our parent company, was over 10 years into his enduring relationship with the enigma that is Indonesia, and his journeys across the country had convinced him that it had tremendous potential for scuba diving tourism.
But the very thing that had helped to create what many consider to be the very best diving in the world was not something to be taken lightly. For, while the Indonesian Throughflow is the very life-blood of the archipelago, it is also an extremely powerful force of nature that has to be understood and worked with.
The Bold Idea…
Enrique’s idea was to take the tried and tested basic design of the traditional Indonesian Pinisi sailing ship and build a customized version that would enable journeys of discovery through the incredible waters of the archipelago in both safety and comfort. Journeys that would allow seasoned travellers to experience the very best that underwater Indonesia has to offer.
And, by doing it on a Pinisi style boat they would be safe on board a modern version of a truly classic design that has proven itself capable of sailing the Indonesian archipelago for centuries. So classic is the design that in December 2017 UNESCO recognised Pinisi boat-building as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity!
The Times Were Changing…
1999 was an extremely important year for Indonesia, for in June of that year the first free elections since 1955 had been held successfully and a whole new era seemed to be upon the country. The previous year had seen the resignation of President Suharto after 31 years as the leader of Indonesia. Only the second person to lead the country since independence in 1945, Suharto’s New Order had overseen a lot of positive change, but was also renowned for its widespread corruption.
Investing in a local business in Indonesia under the Suharto regime was not something for the feint hearted… but the times really did appear to be changing and it seemed the right time to get started. So, Enrique decided to make a huge leap of faith and pay the deposit to the boat-builders of South Sulawesi.
South Sulawesi is the home of the Bugis – accomplished seafarers who roamed the seas long before the first Europeans arrived in what was then known as the Malay Archipelago. Equally feared and revered, the Bugis are said to have navigated by the stars as far as Madagascar to the west, China to the north and the top-end of Australia to the south. They carry reputations as adventurers, warriors, slave runners, pirates and are even said to be source of the famous English saying, “watch out, the bogeyman will get you”. In reality they were also astute merchants who used their boats and seafaring skills to trade exotica far and wide.
When the Dutch colonized what we now call Indonesia in the late 1700’s they did so in their European style sailing ships. Over time many of the key features of those European schooners were incorporated into the sailing ships built by the Bugis and eventually the amalgamated design became known as the Pinisi.
The first thing Enrique learned when he engaged with the Bugis boat builders was that there is no actual standard for a Pinisi boat and each build is a function of wants, needs, customs and traditions, all of which is discussed with the team that will build the boat. Usually that team revolves around a family clan of shipwrights and carpenters, typically led by a construction manager who is a “haji” – a Muslim who has already completed his pilgrimage to Mecca and therefore commands great respect. Every family builds its own design without plans drawn up, and the knowledge is passed from one generation to the next.
Enter Ricard Buxo…
If ever there was a case of the right person appearing at the right time it was when the paths of Enrique Rubio and Ricard Buxo crossed – courtesy of mutual friends…
Clearly Enrique needed somebody in Tanah Beru, the village in South Sulawesi famed for the skill and craftsmanship of its boat-builders, and where the basic concept had been agreed and deposits paid!
Ricard had just completed five years in the Egyptian Red Sea and was considering what his next adventure might be. He was also intrigued by what he had heard about the waters and the scuba diving in Indonesia, namely that there was more biodiversity than anywhere else on earth. But also, Ricard had trained in architectural design and had a strong interest in boats and building – the stars were aligning…
There were however a few logistic challenges to overcome, as Ricard could not speak a word of Bahasa Indonesia, while nobody in Tanah Beru could speak English, let alone Spanish. But necessity is the mother of invention and Ricard left for South Sulawesi and what would become one of the great adventures of his life, arriving in June 2000, a few months after the keel of the yet unnamed boat was being laid. Some 15 months later the boat was launched and christened Sailing Motor Yacht (SMY) Ondina – the Nymph of the Deep Seas!
Living with the Bugis
Ricard describes those 15 months as both the most challenging and yet satisfying period of his life, as the Ondina took shape on the beach at Tanah Beru. His five years in Egypt had given him the strong foundation he needed for the total “cultural immersion” he went through living with the Bugis, learning how to communicate with them and ensuring the pivotal details that make Ondina such a great diving platform were implemented.
Ondina was not the first Pinisi boat built for foreigners to carry passengers across the Indonesian archipelago, but it was the first to be crafted as a dedicated liveaboard built specifically for diving, with a dedicated dive deck, camera preparation area and rinse tanks. Thus, diving on Ondina flows in a very natural way, enabling the guests and the crew to prepare and then get into the dive tenders with maximum efficiency. It was Ricard’s Red Sea liveaboard experience and his total synergy with the Bugis that produced such good results.
A Mystical Process…
While Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, it is known for its secular brand of Islam and general religious tolerance, coexisting in relative harmony with other religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and Christianity. Many of the racial groups that make up the fabric of its almost 270 m people combine their version of Islam with many historical myths and beliefs, which in many ways helps make the country so interesting.
The Bugis are amongst the most fascinating of those racial groupings, combining Islam with a deeply superstitious nature and animistic traditions, rituals and legends, which have become intertwined with how they build their Pinisi boats. These were among the many things that Ricard had to learn and adjust to as Ondina was built. Perhaps the best way of understanding the validity of all the rituals and ceremonies that went into the building of the Ondina is to consider that the boat actually went into service on the 11th of October, 2001 – 30 days after the devastating terrorist attacks in New York, universally known as 9/11, probably the worst date to start a business in a Muslim country that requires tourists to fly long distances to simply get on board.
And yet here we are, over 18 years later, and the SMY Ondina has established its reputation as probably the best diving platform (we think it is the best…) in Indonesia, and continues to go from strength to strength. Clearly it was a good thing to have the blessings of the Bugis spiritual leaders as Ondina started its journey of adventure and exploration.