Patti Seery arrives at The Gallery in Cork Street towing a medium-sized backpack and looking like any other London visitor. But this remarkable lady isn't here simply to look at painter Andrew Hewkins latest collection of work (appropriately entitled Heaven on Earth); she was also responsible for building the inspiration for Hewkins nirvana - the twin-masted, traditional Indonesian sailing vessel Silolona - and the story of how she came to do it is one of the best I've ever heard over lunch.
Silolona is a gorgeous boat, and was captured in her element and in her natural environment by Hewkin, during two voyages through the Indonesian archipelago. After photos of Seery are taken with the displayed paintings and the painter she inspired, we walk to the Thai restaurant Patara in Mayfair. Thai food is very much in Seery's area of expertise, so I let her order - the result is excellent. Then she tells me her story.
Seery had six brothers in a family that moved around the US a lot. She later got a scholarship to Montana State University, for a degree slated to be engineering, although she actually wanted to be an architect. Eventually she got the major she wanted, with a minor in chemical engineering and on the way also gained a degree in education so she could teach in the Australian outback. Seery also spent time in the tiny village of Huecorio, Mexico as an exchange student, learning conversational Spanish.
"I lived with a wonderful traditional family," she says, "in a tiny, one-room adobe house with no bathroom or running water, and I slept in a bed with five women. The only other bed in the house was for the men. It was a simple life and I was really happy. This learning experience was one of the most important; it enabled me to feel at home just about anywhere. It developed my lifelong fascination with travel, and learning from local people about their traditions and way of life."
Unsurprisingly, she met her husband Doug abroad, in Sicily. "Within a month we decided to get married and moved to Sardinia. We moved all over the place, every two or three years." Doug worked in the oil industry so her opportunities for adventure multiplied. They spent two years living in Baroda (now Vadodara), a city in the Indian state of Gujarat, where Patti learned Hindi and began a lifelong fascination with Asian textiles through a masters program at the University of Baroda. In Brussels, she got into food, wine and cheese, and did lots of professional cooking courses. From each place she took something that would eventually be useful for Silolona - and later her sister ship Si Datu Bua. "All these components of my life are important if you want to run a good charter boat," she says.
Silolona's story really starts when the couple moved to Indonesia in the early 1980s, for Doug's work with the oil company Pertamina. Patti landed at Jakarta, Indonesia's capital on the island of Java, and at first light went to explore. "It was five o'clock in the morning, and I thought fish markets opened early, so why not head to the harbour of Sunda Kelapa? What a harbour - wow! - hundreds of huge wooden sailing ships with black sails jostling for position. It was love at first sight.
"I had stepped into a scene straight from my beloved history books: alive and bustling with commerce; massive trees unloaded by barefoot men balancing on single planks; sacks of nutmeg stacked on the docks, still fragrant from the original Spice Islands of Banda." She'd had very limited exposure to the sea and ships, and nothing more than a childhood ambition to be the captain of a whaling ship, after reading Moby Dick. "I always wanted to be connected to the sea," Seery says, and as she was already interested in trade and textiles the harbour was a magnet. "When I first moved to Jakarta these old areas weren't known to expats, so I started a group called the Explorers Club with tours to parts of Jakarta.
"The next step was obvious, I wanted to see how the textiles were made and used in rituals in the outer islands. Most people laughed and said, 'You can't go to those islands', and I thought; 'of course I can', the (traditional Indonesian two-master) phinisi boats are sailing there. There just weren't any planes, or easy ways. So I went to the harbour and said to the captains, 'Can I hire your boat? Whats the best you've ever made in two weeks? I'll pay you that, but I'm going to buy you paint, and insist you paint the whole deck.'"
She was going to take her daughter Carrie, 4, and toddler son Tresno, and as they were going to eat and sleep on the deck, she wanted to be sure it was clean. "The things I learned on those trips were amazing. Again, much of it would be useful on Silolona."
Seery spent a decade travelling throughout remote Indonesia, often leading the Explorers Club and the Heritage Society trips (connected to the National Museum of Indonesia), before the family returned to the US in 1990. "When I moved back to the US I was so homesick for Indonesia I knew I had to go back. So I started my own travel company called Indonesian Insights and that entailed a lot of projects: collecting for major museums, cultural exchange programs, taking doctors and medical aid trips to remote islands to provide free medical care, and also organising and leading three trips a year to remote islands, often by boat, for curious travellers from the US.
"Those converted cargo boats were so ill-equipped in those days, but I got to know them through and through - so for one boat I'd have to bring fan belts, or an Iridium radio, or uniforms for the crew. I did my best to ensure a safe voyage and keep the guests happy, but it was often quite frustrating."
Frustrations with the charter boats came to a head in 2001 after problems on an expedition to Asmat, homeland to an emerging Stone Age group in Irian Jaya (now West Papua). "I had a choice," she says. "I could fight a long and expensive legal battle, pay a lot of money to lawyers, deal with lots of negative energy and potentially waste a year or two years, but why do that? Why don't I just build my own boat? How hard can it be?" And so early in 2001, Patti Seery set out to build a phinisi - having never even owned so much as a rowing dinghy. "If I'd known more, I wouldn't have done it," she admits with a laugh.
She was always clear that it was going to be a traditional Indonesian vessel. "I wanted to do a phinisi because I knew they could be better and safer if purpose-built for chartering; plus I love the element of history and the sheer joy of sailing on a wooden ship. These were the vessels of the Spice Island trade routes, ideally suited to cruising in those waters. The first thing was to figure out what I wanted it to look like, so I went to the Dutch archives to study old photographs. I already knew how I wanted the interior spaces to be used and had sketched a rough deck plan. I had no idea about the hull shape, though, but knew I had to change from the normal cargo-orientated hull. So I looked for an architect."
It turned out to be a long search. "I went through four naval architects trying to find someone who understood my vision, but everyone wanted to do a racing hull or didn't understand the build conditions. When I spoke to Michael Kasten, I sent him a very basic sketch for the layout of the interior, and he drafted a hull shape primarily designed for stability but maintaining the traditional profile of the older phinisis I had shown him." After six months of research and planning, all Seery needed were boat builders.
Fortunately, she had important contacts. "I'd worked at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (an exposition of living cultural heritage in Washington, DC) and befriended a group of traditional Konjo boat builders from the tiny village of Ara on the island of Sulawesi. It's a community of about four square kilometres and these talented men build the majority of large wooden cargo boats in Indonesia. There was one small problem. They had never built a boat to plans before Silolona. They conceptualise and build a boat inside their [head], but can't visualise it in two dimensions on a drawing."
Even if they could, there were still going to be problems to solve. Michael didn't understand the parameters and restrictions of building in a remote mangrove swamp, with the limitations of the wood and the simple tools, so the team had to constantly improvise and find solutions.
"I knew the only way I'd be successful was if I put the full-on Western approach aside. So I went out to the boat graveyard and saw the problems." Eventually, her research told her there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the phinisi design or construction methods. After a couple more months of work, she established that the traditional way of building the boats would be compatible with the German Lloyds specifications. She also found her own project managers, Brom and Goris Atawuwuur (now dive instructor on board), to oversee the build when she couldn't be there.
There were many problems still to overcome. Seery wanted a small number of passengers to enjoy superyacht levels of comfort, but the Konjo people built cargo boats. And apart from never having seen plans, they hadn't seen or used a plumb line, or mould frames - but they knew how to build ironwood boats with their basic tools, in a mangrove swamp, by a river with a six knot tide running down it. And they figured out the rest.
Seery spent a great deal of time on site, and has nothing but praise for her boat building team. "Very talented - it's amazing knowledge thats going to be lost if it's not supported. Not only their building skills with almost no equipment, but also their work ethic is outstanding."
The details of Silolona's build make for an incredible tale, complete with sacrificial slaughter and ritual, an engine room plan sketched out in chalk on the bulkheads, and plenty of just-in-time narrow scrapes. It took months just to get the wood together. Seery was particularly careful about the keel, eventually finding an extraordinary tree that gave up a piece of ironwood 25 metres long, with a rare twisted grain, and without a single knot, blemish or crack.
"That was the moment the project changed in some way," she says. All the boat builders came to see this magical piece of wood. The boat had its own charisma among the builders, and the nine men finished the hull in just short of 11 months. They then had to dig the boat out of the swamp, align the propeller shaft and put the prop on, so while the keel was laid on the 11 September 2001, they didn't leave Borneo for Bali until Valentine's Day 2004.
It took another five months to finish the boat in Bali. "Basically camping," Seery says. "We built a woven palm-leaf encampment for 250 workers, and I was the project manager and never slept. We had two kitchens, and had to bring in five tonnes of water a day so they could cook and bathe." They even ran out of wood at one point, 30 cubic metres short of what they needed to complete the fit-out but somehow, by July 2004, they were ready for their first guests.
"I loved this phase, as my learning curve was so great, and I became even more in awe of the Konjo boat builders. They had never done fit-out and finish work, but if I could explain what I wanted, they could build it solidly and beautifully."
The 49.7 metre (including the bowsprit) Silolona has been operating as a charter vessel ever since (with an admirable record of over 130 charter days a year, and a large percentage of repeat guests.) And she now has a sistership, _Si Datu Bua, _launched in July 2012. The second build benefited a lot from the first, and was a family affair. Patti's son Tresno graduated in mechanical engineering and engineering management, and did a postgraduate degree in yacht design. He now has his own company in Bali, and designed and project managed the construction of Si Datu Bua. Patti is an understandably proud mother, "Born in Indonesia he has an amazingly adept way of working with local contractors, sourcing materials locally and working with the traditional boat builders."
These wonderful boats remain truly important to her, and Seery has a vision of what they could mean to the country. "How does one help the government understand the value of the asset they have in the Konjo boat builders, and the potential development of a uniquely Indonesian style of marine tourism, as the beauty and variety of the archipelago is slowly unveiled as the best cruising ground in the world?:
Seery answers her own question tangentially. Honestly, no one would be building these boats if Silolona wasn't a financial success. She hopes to bring the point home by ensuring Si Datu Bua is the first of many. Meanwhile, others are striving to match her achievements so far, but Seery's dream is to build another eight boats the same way, and position them across south-east Asia along the historic spice routes. Let's hope someone in Jakarta is watching.
Originally published in Boat International April 2013