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On a wind and a prayer

Sandeq bannang pute meloq dicinggaq meloq dilango langoOn my white body is Kanduruang MameaThe woodsy tree that breathes me blessingsWhen the morning sun beamsWhen the wind blowsUssul, fortune’s abundance and a boat’s fleetnessOn my sharp body, the men of Bala, they touch meThey breathe all prayers and spellsPrayers before they cut down treesPrayers to soften the treesPrayers to ask acquiesce from the treesPrayer to bring woodThen I can become skilfulAs I chase fish – Maraqdia and TunaIn the season of flying fish, I am graceful and gracious across the seaPasandeq shows his humble expertiseFrom one outrigger to the next, seeking balanceIn the past, I sailed in search of spicesto Ternateto TidoreIbannang pute meloq dicinggaq meloq dilango lango (Poem: Erni Aladjai Photo: Beat Presser)

Laden with cargos of fresh fruit, water, furniture, footballs and television sets, the masted pinisi boats of Indonesia travel from island to island, many plying waters of the archipelago that no other boats can reach.

“It is rough, dangerous, beautiful and full of mysteries,” says photographer Beat Presser, who has traversed the seas with the vessels’ crews.

Labour of love: to this day, pinisi boats are built in Tanaberu, to the south of Sulawesi island, using traditional methods. Photo: Beat Presser

The resulting images come together to form the third part of Presser’s long-term project to create a modern version of the legend of Sindbad the Sailor from Arabian Nights by undertaking seven epic travels of his own.

The concept was born from his experiences in Madagascar, where he lived and worked for five years and began to wonder how the people of today journeyed to the African island.

A fascination with modern life on board traditional boats led him to first photograph the dhows of the east African coast. He then launched a second project that told the stories of early ocean travel from places such as Indonesia to as far afield as Madagascar.

Manpower: pinisi boats are pushed and pulled from the shore and into the sea by manpower due to the shallow waters at Tanaberu. It takes up to a month to bring a boat into open waters. Photo: Beat Presser
Slow and steady: during a typical working day the boats, which can weigh up to 300 tonnes, move approximately five metres towards the sea. Photo: Beat Presser

Anchors away: heavy winds and high seas make for an exciting voyage from Makassar to Kalimantan. Photo: Beat Presser

Water world: fishermen living and working on rafts in the open sea a helmsman in a storm on the way to Balikpapan. Photo: Beat Presser

In the new book Surabaya Beat, published by Afterhours Books, the Swiss photographer uses monochrome imagery to show the reality, and beauty, of life on Indonesian waters, through high winds and heavy storms.

“I am a black-and-white photographer at heart – always was,” says Presser, who emphasises both the medium’s ability to abstract reality and also create a sense of timelessness.

“Some of the photographs could have been taken hundreds of years ago,” he adds.

The crew brings in an anchor after experiencing engine failure. Photo: Beat Presser
Dawn breaks at a floating market north of Banjarmasin. Photo: Beat Presser
Loading and unloading merchandise at Surabaya Harbour, Java. Photo: Beat Presser
A helmsman in a storm on the way to Balikpapan. Photo: Beat Presser
Lambo: Those who live, see the seas as passionA place of honor for a boatHere, the wind inhales dreams and scents of coralPanrelepi with all the knowledge of carpenters and windmastersThey raise a great columnDestiny has touched their handsPraised be the art carved on the body of a lamboThe pure boat. The Bugis seaman. The Mandar seafarer. Three hundred and nine fish swim beside itLambo, lambo, mystical lambo in the eyes of the fishLambo Palari, gently hasten to your aimTwo pilots to navigate the gentle flow At sea, neither a master nor a slaveA tuna’s heart is a cure for anyoneIt staves away our languor, before we sail home without fishSail home without fishLambo!Lambo!Lambo Palari!(Poem: Erni Aladjai Photo: Beat Presser)

Goods ready to be unloaded at Manado, to the north of Sulawesi. Photo: Beat Presser

A pinisi in early morning light at Bonerate. Photo: Beat Presser
Book release: Surabaya Beat, published by Afterhours Books in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, becomes available in March. The publication is a form of collaboration between Presser and some young, promising writers and poets from Indonesia. The book retails for about $70, with a pre-order special of $61. To find out more, visit
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